At the time of writing this, I’m getting ready to publish my first story ever, Mercury, Sulfur, and Salt. It’s been an interesting journey to be sure, I poured some of myself and my experiences over my life into the story. I’ve written, and rewritten, and tweaked words. I’ve polished sentences, taken parts of the story out, and added entirely new parts to the story. In the end I’ve produced something I’m really proud of. Something I hope other people will consider to be an engaging and interesting story. However I wasn’t able to do this by myself. I’m not talking about my girlfriend (although she did a massive amount of work on the book with me, editing and acting as my sounding board). I’m talking about my beta readers.
I never quite realized how important beta readers were until I received real feedback from one. The first few people to read and finish my story all told me it was great and that they really enjoyed reading it, but they couldn’t tell me why. While the praise was incredibly encouraging and was a huge boost to my confidence as a writer, it wasn’t really all that useful. Sure it was awesome to hear that what I was doing resonated with people, but I didn’t know why it resonated with them. Even worse they couldn’t tell me what they didn’t like about it. Then a friend of mine came back at me and had real criticism, there were things in the book she didn’t like, and there were parts in the book she did specifically like. Her feedback (and the feedback of several others who came after here) was a HUGE boon to me.
Since I was the guy who wrote the story, everything that happens in the story was painfully clear to me. I know why this character hated that character, and I was intimately familiar with another character’s loss of innocence. I knew the story inside out and upside down because it’s MY story. And as a result of that? There were parts of the story that seemed to possess crystal clarity to me, but were murky and unclear to others. When three or four people came back at me with questions about a single passage in the book, I knew that it needed to be changed for clarity. When several other people came to me and said “What this character does in this chapter…well it just seems like something they wouldn’t do.” I knew I had to make the reasoning behind that character’s actions clearer.
As authors we become so deeply invested in our stories and characters because we imbue them with little bits of ourselves. Our characters are like perfect children that can do no wrong (unless we want them to do horrible things). As a result we can’t see many of the weak points or flaws in our stories. A fresh set of eyes and a brain that isn’t invested in the story the same way we are can. This is not to say that every opinion and idea that comes out of a beta reader’s mind is gold; there were many a comment I received that I thought was pure rubbish or damaged the quality of my voice in my writing. But some of the things my betas suggested were very well thought out points.
In the end my beta readers helped me learn about some of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. They helped me enhance my reader’s ability to come to know and love/hate the characters I’ve created. They helped me make my story a great deal better than it was.
If you’re looking into publishing something I’d strongly suggest seeking out some beta readers of your own. If you’ve got any questions or comments about beta readers, please share them in the comments below. I am by no means an expert on the subject (yet) but I am more than happy to share the bit of knowledge I have gained (and even more happy to learn something new!).