Each individual author probably needs a particular kind of beta reader, or more than one.
In broad terms, you probably need at least one beta who is familiar with your genre, and at least one who isn’t. The first will be able to point out genre-specific things (like your misuse of cannonballs in an Anglo-Saxon tale) while the second may be able to indicate your overuse of adverbs, for example.
Here are some other characteristics to look for in beta readers. Not every beta needs to tick all these boxes, but all should have at least some of these attributes:
1. They read a fair amount, preferably broadly.
Their reading preferences should extend beyond the weekly TV guide or local newspaper - they need to be literate and competent enough to give wise feedback on a piece of your writing. Ideally, you don’t want someone who only reads Jane Austen, nor do you want anyone who never reads anything but Westerns (even if your story is a Western). A good mix of popular and literary reading means a more valuable set of notes from them.
Having said that, if your book is aimed at the market of people who don’t generally read, find a beta who doesn’t read much; if your book is a science fiction story which depends on some hard knowledge of science, find a scientist who might be able to spot any inconsistencies in your descriptions of experiments. Someone totally familiar with your genre may give you a response to your plot structure, your handling of the generic rules, and be able to advise on whether you’ve ‘hit the targets’ for that genre. Acquiring the services of a beta who is a specialist is going to be invaluable in the long run.
2. They fit the model of your reader audience.
This means that they are roughly the same age, gender, basic demographic and share the same tastes as the kind of audience your story is aimed at. Not much point giving a teen fantasy to a grandmother who hasn’t left her house for a decade (though her response might be interesting in its own right); not much point giving a literary romantic comedy to a ten year old. Having a sample reader from your intended audience gives you an invaluable opportunity to see how the book will run if or when it reaches that audience at large.
3. They know how to express their views without being totally savage.
The kind of response you get back has much to do with the guidelines you set for beta readers, which will come up later in this blog. You want honesty - the kind of honesty which a close relative or spouse might not wish to give you for fear of hurting your feelings. But you also want it to be communicated in such a way that you don’t plunge into despair.
There is a way of doing this, which I explored in an earlier article: when giving feedback to a writer, start with the things that are working, the positive aspects of the story. There are always some. Perhaps the writer’s grammar and spelling is impeccable, even when the story itself has dire problems; perhaps the story has a clever plot, though the characters are a little weak. Build up some hope in the writer first, before pointing out any errors or wrongnesses. If you have to choose between too brutal and too kind, though, go for the brutal view: You can get over your emotional pain and your story will gain something from the reader’s honesty, whereas an opinion that is too soft will not serve you well in the end. But there's a point where it's possible to be too brutal. There's a balance to be struck.
4. They are perhaps writers themselves.
Doing beta reading on an exchange basis, where you read someone else’s story and they read yours, is a very effective method of getting feedback. A writer will spot things that an ordinary reader may miss, especially errors in formatting and technicalities. Fellow writers tend to understand what makes a good book, in terms of plot development, characterisation, structure and so on. The use of suspense, momentum, morality - all the things that make a story great - are more likely to be familiar to someone who is striving to use them in their own work. Writers can sense a good resolution, and a bad one; they recognise the difference between a writer’s ‘voice’ and something derivative; they can see how departures from technically correct forms can serve a purpose and are not necessarily ‘errors’. They can spot your eccentricities as a writer, versus the times when you just lost the plot, literally.
A fellow writer can also assess importances and knows that one or two typos are things that can easily be fixed and shouldn’t be highlighted in a beta report, necessarily. With beta readers, the writer is normally looking for whether or not his or her story ‘works’ in broad terms, and only secondarily looking for technical errors.
Writers are also probably more familiar with the publishing industry and know therefore more about what it will take for a book to be accepted by agents or publishers.
Where do you find such people?
Stay tuned for further articles on this subject.