Saturday, March 7, 2015

Beta Readers: Your Board of Advisors

Try to have at least a little diversity among your advisors.

This morning, my partner and I were talking about a few of the tiny insights we've offhandedly shared with each other that have changed the ways we see the world. We're very similar thinkers, which adds to the impact such a seemingly just-in-passing comment can have.

Undoubtedly, everyone holds at least one gem of new insight like this: familiar to themselves, but completely foreign to someone else. If you've ever sat through a team meeting, you've seen just how diverse every person's feedback can be, especially when you're all focused on the same thing. That sort of group discussion can go a long way toward getting a general view of a project's condition — and can reveal what areas need the most attention.

By cultivating a select group of trusted beta readers, you can take advantage of several people's perspectives and improve your writing accordingly.

Product Testing

Think of your story like a product. Before a company rolls out a new product line, they always test it on a small group of individuals. In the same way, you should cultivate a number of reliable test readers to give you an initial round of feedback before you make your writing available to the general public.

Be Selective

Relationships are hard. They take a lot of work and communication.  Picking your test readers deserves just as much effort. Don't just send your story to anyone who responds to your emails — or an ad on Craigslist. Build a relationship first.

A quick aside: Feel free to ask your test readers to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), but understand that NDAs are rarely relevant to real plagiarism and publication copyright infringements. This isn't the time or place for an in-depth discussion of copyright law, but there is a legitimate concern worth mentioning here: Some people steal writing. For one example, see David Farland's summary and call to action regarding the case of author Rachel Ann Nunes and her plagiarist usurper Tiffanie Rushton. Be skeptical of who you hand your manuscript over to, and make sure you can trust them first.

Hear Context

Once you have feedback from everyone who's going to give it to you (not everyone will; this will help you curate your beta reader list), you can consider their comments in context and weigh them accordingly. Make sure you have at least a basic understanding of their vantage points: What are their political leanings? religious views? business experiences? reading preferences? How familiar are they with literary theory? If this person is going to be sending you their opinions, know where their opinions are coming from and how that will relate to your audience in general.

Beta readers who are familiar with your genre and subject matter deserve the most attention from you, because they are your ideal audience. The response you receive from them will be most similar to the response you will receive from the public after you publish.

Readers with contrasting viewpoints and experiences can also be extremely valuable, especially for critique purposes, but their feedback may be the most frustrating to deal with.

That's What Friends Are For

Filmmakers do screen tests. Comedians try out jokes on their friends. Musicians play new songs for each other first. Athletes practice. A lot. There's no rule that writing has to be a one-and-done effort. Don't be afraid to test your draft on some lucky readers. They'll be proud of the opportunity to be trusted and listened to, and your revisions will benefit from the added perspectives.

Friends are great for free advice, but don't forget to supplement with professional feedback. Consider getting a manuscript evaluation, or take my quick quiz to find out what sort of editing is best for you.

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