by guest blogger John M. Cunningham Jr.
Over thirty years ago, when I began my writing career, my literary passion drove me to learn everything I could about writing as fast as possible. One of the many ways I learned was through beta readers. Though I now have numerous bylines, and several books I’ve either written or contributed to, I still use them. All serious writers do.
Beta readers are critical to our writing careers. Why? Because when we’re caught up in our work, objectivity takes a backseat. True, we can put our work aside for a few days then read it with fresh eyes, and we should. We’ll spot things we missed. Good beta readers, however, will help us produce an even more polished work.
What Is a Beta Reader?
Good beta readers are those who read our work seeking such things as holes in our story’s plot, weak story openings and endings, awkward phrasing, narrative
inconsistencies, storylines that aren’t believable, poor characterization and poorly written dialogue, and similar things.
My Rule for Beta Readers
Notice that little adjective I used—good. Not all beta readers are the same. From my earliest writing days, I’ve followed one rule: If all a reader does is give me a pat on the back and says my work is good, I never let that person see another manuscript.
Though I never tell beta readers this because I don’t want to hurt their feelings if things don’t work out, I’ve always been strict about it. Pats on the back without constructive critiques don’t help us improve. No matter how advanced we are, we always have room to get better.
Fortunately, as time has passed, I’ve developed friendships with good beta readers. Unlike my early years, I no longer have to “test drive” them. Nowadays, I rarely have to implement my rule.
Traits of a Good Beta Reader
1. Honest Feedback. Good beta readers aren’t afraid to give honest feedback. If
they don’t like what we’ve written, they’ll tell us and then they’ll say why.
However, they’ll word their opinion in such a way that it doesn’t kill a writer’s
dream. Not only will they point out a work’s weaknesses, though. They’ll also
point out its strengths. In other words, they’ll offer valid feedback and sound
2. Knowledgeable. Good beta readers are serious writers themselves who are
knowledgeable about the craft.
3. Readers. Good beta readers are serious readers. That is, they read
critically. They understand why they like certain books, why they don’t, and can
give solid reasons for it. This person may not necessarily be a writer, but he/she
knows what makes good literature.
4. Understands Our Genre. Good beta readers understand our genre. Because
different genres have different rules, they must first understand our genre so
they don’t offer bad advice. I could advise someone on historical fiction, for
example, because that’s my specialty. On the other hand, any advice I might
offer on a romance novel would be questionable. I’ve not read that many
romance novels, though I have read a few.
Beta Readers to Avoid
1. Family. Family members are usually reluctant to offer their honest input for fear
of hurting our feelings or ruining a relationship. But if a family member does
meet the above-mentioned criteria, I believe that person would be fine.
2. Friends Who Aren’t Writers. They don’t meet the criteria.
3. Token Readers. These people read a manuscript, or perhaps just scan it, then make a comment or two on a page and leave it at that. Writers need in-depth beta readers, not the token variety.
4. Attaboy Readers. These people just give us a pat on the back. “Attaboy. Good job,” they say. No one’s writing is perfect. We don’t need praise. We do need constructive criticism if we want to improve.
Some Final Advice
1. If we can find more than one good beta reader, our finished manuscript will be
all the better.
2. If two or more beta readers make the same comment about our work, we’d be
wise to heed their advice and revise accordingly.
3. Always thank your beta readers. Because they sacrificed some of their time to
help, a little gratitude goes a long way.
And thank you for taking the time to read my blog post today.
John M. (Jack) Cunningham Jr. is a graduate of the University of Alabama and a former history teacher. He specializes in historical fiction and has been writing professionally for over thirty years. He’s also been a contributing writer for two David C. Cook publications, The Quiet Hour and Devotions. His work has appeared in numerous denominational publications, and he taught a writing class while living in the New Orleans area. He’s written three novels and one men’s
devotional book. He’s also contributed to a men’s devotional series published by Broadman & Holman.
Visit his bookstore at his website, theauthorscove.com.