You know that friend who always tells you how awful you look when you’re sick? Or how those new pants you bought make you look like a misshapen pear? Or that you sound like a donkey in labor when you laugh? Well, even though that friend might really cheese you off at times, the chances are, they’d make an awesome beta reader.
I mean, if I want to know how fantastic I am, I’ll phone my mom. But if I want to know whether or not it makes more sense for character A to kiss character B, or slap him in the face, I’ll phone the friend who just told me my new haircut looks like a guinea pig’s backside.
So to all the beta readers out there, have no fear: we want you to be mean. It’s even okay if you occasionally make us cry—we can take it. Your honest opinion is what counts, and the more detailed you can be with your criticisms, the better. Don’t worry about hurting our feelings. Ultimately, we’d rather hear it from you than a hundred angry readers who can’t understand why A ran off with C instead of forgiving B, or why Frank suddenly became Fred from chapters thirteen to eighteen, or especially why there was a random swordfight in the middle of the book.
Even though the swordfight was really epic, and we really enjoyed writing it, we’d really like to know if it has no place being slapped in the middle of the modern murder mystery novel we just wrote. (The writers/producers of the movie Wild Wild West could also have used this kind of help. Someone should really have told them that giant mechanical spiders had no place being in their movie).
Beta readers are the first line of defense against bad writing. Editors and proofers come later to clean the corpses up off the battlefield and sweep the dust under the rug—all the real carnage happens before they get there. Beta readers are the brutal slayers of poor character motivation, lazy dialogue, and flawed plot elements. Their meanness is like a gift. Some people are good at giving others solace, or caring for those in need. Beta readers are good at tearing you apart, then leaving you to pick up the pieces.
So as a final note to authors everywhere: if you’ve just given the work-in-progress you’ve been slaving over for months to a beta reader, and they told you it was absolutely wonderful and you don’t need to change a thing, they’re full of poop. The fact that they came back with no criticisms at all doesn’t mean that you’re a genius (unfortunately), it just means that they’re a lousy beta reader. Put together a reliable network of people who read (preferably people who love your genre) and whose opinions you trust. Honestly, these meanies will become a critical part of your writing process.
Keira Michelle Telford is an award winning dystopian SF author from British Columbia, Canada.