Writing a book is a solitary endeavor. One requiring you to sit there day after day, tapping at your keyboard, the only people to talk to the imaginary ones you’re bringing to life on the page.
By the time you finish this momentous journey, your characters are fully formed beings transformed by all you’ve put them through, and not in the same way you yourself have now become a hermit.
After everything you and your characters have achieved, you’ll need to bring others into the fold. People like the family you left to fend for themselves. Or the friends you canceled social occasions with. They are your beta readers if you apologize and promise to go places with them now you can leave your desk again.
There are other writers too, the lovely humans who followed every rant you made about failed word count goals on Instagram. And the ones who posted an emoji in solidarity of the realization, that at some point, you will hate what you’ve written.
With help from those willing, your book can be what you wanted when it was just a spark of an idea or a freaky dream you had (anyone else? Yes? No? Just me?).
Beta readers are crucial for a multitude of reasons, but here are four reasons why every writer needs one…
1. They Highlight Your Strengths
You might have liked the way you pulled together your plot in the first draft, or how your characters came together in the third. You even laughed out loud at the witty banter you and your imaginary friends came up with.
By the time you get to the draft where you’ve stopped counting the passes you’ve done, or it’s now you not talking to your imaginary friends, not the other way around, all of the good things about your MS has been forgotten.
You can’t see it for anything but the self-doubt it created and the expectations it didn’t reach. The good news is beta readers can. They don’t know you took five months to perfect the first chapter, just that it drew them in. With their beautiful fresh eyes, they can enjoy the story and let you know which parts you nailed. There comes a point when you can’t judge your work yourself, but others can. And they can let you know where you shone.
2. They Give You The Hard Truth
Shining is fun and all, but eventually, that shine fades. Unless you somehow wrote a perfect book, not all of that glitter will be gold. A good beta will tell you that. A great one will in a way that helps you.
No one likes to hear something they wrote needs work. It’s more fun to stay in the bubble of kind words, they probably have cookies in there. But that’s not going to make your book the best it can be.
It’s much better to hear if something isn’t working from your betas than an agent or publisher, who most likely won’t tell you anyway. Instead, they will gift you with a generic “thanks but no thanks” and give you another reason why you can’t sleep at night.
Learn the hard truth from your betas instead and become a better writer because of it. Although it might hurt your little hermit heart to hear it, consider all the criticism. You don’t have to follow it (or any suggestions from a beta) but give it some serious thought. It might be what improves your book.
3. They Help Your Skills
Just like reading can show you what to do, and sometimes, what not to do when plotting or developing characters, feedback from betas helps your writing skills too. After all, if you get enough comments about telling not showing or confusion over where characters are standing in action scenes, you’ll look at those areas and learn to improve them.
If you’re also beta reading for others, it’s a quick study in spotting errors in your own MS. You might be too close to your words to notice the flagging pace, but seeing it in an MS you didn’t write could demonstrate where you’re going wrong.
4. They Pick Up The Typos
When you’ve read through your draft so many times you can recite whole passages by heart, you’ve lost the ability to see the typos. Those little monsters live right there, in the sentences you’ve read so many times your eyes glaze over at the sight of them.
No matter how confident you think you are about typos being fixed in your MS, just one beta read will show you how wrong you are. It might not even be a misspelling, it could be the tense you changed last-minute when you meant to shift “listen” to “listening” but didn’t. Beta readers haven’t read your paragraphs so many times they can see them in their sleep. It’s brand new to them and that is how you catch the typo monsters and send them to hell where they belong.
I’ve been lucky to have some awesome betas read my MS. They’ve helped me make it better with a mix of positive feedback, constructive criticism, and notes making me question if I was good enough. All experiences prompted me to grow as a writer.
If you haven’t been brave enough to allow others to see your MS (and for years I wasn’t), you have more to gain than lose if you do.
Put your words out there, share your MS with willing family and friends and reach out to fellow writers who you trust. If you can’t do that and can afford it, there are professional manuscript assessment services you can try (also a thing I’ve done).
Sequestering yourself until you’ve written all the words is necessary, but so is sharing to make them better, and isn’t that what you and your imaginary friends deserve?
— K.M. Allan