How to be better for your ‘betas’

In my work as a journalist I have always enjoyed the anchor of having an editor – someone to keep you firm and grounded when a story starts to pull you in multiple directions.

Now cast adrift in the stormy sea of fiction writing, I am alone and rudderless.

That’s where ‘beta’ readers come in – non-professionals who read your work and help improve elements such as grammar and spelling as well as provide helpful suggestions on how improve the story, characters or setting.

Unlike editors they are not proof readers per se, but they do serve an equally important function.  They ground your work, by highlighting plot holes, continuity issues, characterisation and even fact-checking. 

My novel, ‘The Secret to Being Tiresome ‘ is in the final edit phase and is currently in the capable hands of a small (but perfect) team of beta readers. These are people who I like and respect, whose opinions of ‘good’ writing either match or indeed challenge my own and in many cases are themselves creative types – including poets, actors, writers, film-makers etc etc.

But I am terrified. Since sending my infant novel out into the world I cannot bear to think of it alone and unprotected, being interrogated and investigated – maybe even ripped apart – while I sit here doing nothing! Much as I like and trust my beta readers, letting go of something that has been so intensely ‘mine’ for such a long time is painful. Raw. Unsettling.

Finding good betas is one thing, there are many fantastic blogs that discuss this including Small Blue Dog or Helping Writers Become Authors, but what I found much less of is advice as to how to handle this period when your book has been let out of your sight for the first time. How do you, as writer, keep the bubbling emotions under check and ensure you don’t beat your betas with constant requests for updates, opinions and validation that your hard work was worth it?

For what it’s worth, here’s my top three tips:

  • Set a clear deadline for beta readers to give feedback and DO NOT harangue, harass, probe or question them in the meantime.
  • Have a clear set of questions ready for when they’ve finished reading – just asking if they like it will not yield helpful advice. Ask specific questions on the plot, characters and flow.
  • Relax – remember this is just another step in a fascinating and fulfilling journey. If you can’t handle five people reading it (and perhaps not liking it!) then how can you expect to send it out into the wider world?

This stage of the writing process, like many stages of the writing process, is fraught with emotions. Just take a deep breath, shoo away the black dog on your shoulder telling you you’re a terrible writer and get on with it. While you’re waiting for their feedback, you could always write a blog about waiting for feedback…that ought to keep you busy.

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