By Jana Begovic
Both the ancient Roman poet Horace and the Greek philosopher Longinus agreed that the purpose of literature is to instruct and delight the reader. However, once carried away on the wings of inspiration, authors may not always have a specific readership or a genre in mind, and can only hope the products of their imagination have the power to entertain, move, teach or change their readers in any meaningful way. Writers are also known to be susceptible to alternating feelings of self-doubt and over-confidence about their work quality, or their writing ability.
Along the long and winding road from a book’s inception to its publication there is a stage of beta reading that can help authors subject their manuscript to a test and get initial feedback on its quality. Therefore, once a novel, novella, short story or poem has been completed, it is time to trial it on beta-readers, and based on their feedback take decisions which modifications in the manuscript are necessary in order to improve it.
Who are beta readers and how can they contribute to the improvement of manuscripts?
Ideally, beta readers should be representative of the intended readership.
Once authors have an idea of their intended audience in terms of age group, reading interests, level of education, it is time to seek them out. Authors should keep in mind that those who mostly enjoy non-fiction may find it hard to act as Beta readers for a sci-fi novel. Readers of mystery books abundant in dialogue and fast-paced action may also have little patience for long literary passages describing emotional states. In other words, there should be a good match between the manuscript and its reader.
After finalizing my own edits of the manuscript, I found nine Beta readers among friends and family members. Because my intended readership was mature, well-educated women who were avid readers and who enjoyed literary style prose, I sought out readers with those characteristics. One male family member volunteered to read the book, and I was grateful for he was a psychiatrist who was able to detect a few infelicities linked to the psychiatric treatments described in the book. Even though my selection of Beta readers at the time was more intuitive than carefully thought out, the constructive criticism I received helped me give the book its final shape before sending it to a professional editor.
It is always an extra bonus to have as a Beta reader someone with academic background in literary studies or creative writing because from a trained point of view they can comment on the flow and structure, content inconsistencies, lack of character depth and delineation, plot twists, character credibility, the need for more sub-plots etc. One such reader gave me excellent suggestions for revisions.
Where do we look for Beta readers? In addition to friends and family members, volunteers can be found among colleagues and within writers’ and readers’ groups on social media. One of the best places to find Beta Readers is on Goodreads. Strangers can sometimes offer more objective criticism than family members or friends. If fellow writers offer to Beta-read our work, it is customary to offer to return the favor.
Feedback should be collected in writing because it is easier to analyze and consult again when needed. Also, a written questionnaire offers clear guidance to the readers as to what information authors are seeking. Typical questions focus on how interesting the story is, how plausible the characters are, if there is a compelling “hook” at the beginning, if the ending or the plot twist are suspenseful or unexpected, if the culmination and resolution are satisfactory, if the descriptions appeal to the senses and conjure up the atmosphere, stir up emotional responses in the reader etc.
Beta readers with excellent language skills can also serve as the first or an additional layer of editing and correct errors, typos and detect content inconsistencies (e.g. the heroine has blue eyes in Chapter One, but green in Chapter Three). However, Beta readers should not replace the services of a professional editor if authors want to ensure that their manuscripts are submitted to publishers or presented to readers in their most polished state.
It is important to ask for honest feedback as flattery for the sake of flattery does not improve writing, just like gratuitous and harsh criticism does not serve any purpose. Authors are intuitively aware of potential weak threads in the tapestry of their manuscripts and appreciate when their Beta readers confirm it.
Once authors collect the feedback forms, they should carefully study them in order to assess which comments they want to accept and which they disagree with. In my case, I accepted most suggestions, made relevant modifications, had the manuscript professionally edited and began the submission process that ended in a traditional publishing contract.
Jana Begovic is the author of the recently released Poisonous Whispers ( http://amzn.to/2jCCvf7). Her academic background is in languages and literary theory. She lives and works in Ottawa, Canada. Begovic’ writing has been described as artistic, literary, unique and exquisite. She is currently writing her second novel. You can connect with her via https://www.facebook.com/J.Damselfly/.