A beta reader, as far as I can glean from the world wide web is a term that originated among fan fiction writers, on forums.
Fan fiction writers are people who write in the style of an author they admire, or continue story lines where the author left gaping chasms, or had the nerve to die. These are typically fans of classics in a particular style (the victorians, for instance: George Eliot, The Brontës, et al) or contemporary commercial fiction (J. K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, so on).
My friend Robin Kaye, who is now a romance novelist (and not a shabby one, either), started out writing Jane Austen fan fiction. Fan fiction writers are definitely a subculture, and one of which I am generally ignorant, so apologies in advance if I make any misrepresentations here.
My sense of things is that a beta reader is a developmental editor who works for free. Another term for roughly the same thing: critique partner.
So the short answer is, yes. You should get yourself a beta reader. At least one. More than one would be good. And, as I mentioned before, you should not be related to or having sex with your beta readers.
Think of it this way: Getting the truth about your fiction (or any writing) from someone who loves you, or even strongly likes you, is as likely as an honest answer to, “Does this make me look fat?”
Where would I get a beta reader?
If you’re already a part of a writing forum online, that’d be a great place to look. Or a club or social organization that focuses on writing (like a poetry society or writers’ guild, these often exist by region or state), or a professional organization (like AWP or National Writers Union), or your Facebook page.
I will suggest Craigslist, but advise you to proceed with caution, and probably only if you live in a very large urban area. Craigslist is mostly useless if you live in a small town unless you’re giving something away (like baby clothes or appliances).
On LinkedIn there are discussion forums for writers and editors.
The thing that has always bugged me about online forums is that the core group of people on a forum is often lonely and mean-spirited, and using the forum as a way to take out hatefulness on other people who they’ll probably never have to face.
OR, there’s such a long and massive history of in jokes and forum jargon and stories that it’s almost impossible to feel welcome. These lodge a stone of discomfort tight in my belly. I have never found the forum model to be elevating. But it works for some people. And it’s out there. So go do it. Tell them I said hello.
There may also be writing courses or workshops in your community. Check out your public or university library or any organizations and nonprofits devoted to writing, like Attic Institute in Portland, or Mid Atlantic Arts on our fair East coast.
Please, please don’t be a dip and send these people email asking for a list of writers. Go on their websites and look for opportunities to network with other writers, like taking a workshop or doing a residency.
There is a different way.
You could start a writers’ group.
Writers’ groups are awesome. Not least because you can actually go to a coffee shop and look writerly with other people instead of by yourself (which is idiotic and pretentious).
- You actually get to look at other people. Watch other writers interact socially. It can be revealing. Writers are a cagey bunch. We’re all full of self-deprecating jokes or wry comments. And when we’re engaging on the topic of our work, unless we have piles and piles of practice at a workshop poker face, we’re defensive and possibly prickly.
- It’s a give-and-take relationship. It’s not some stranger giving you hours upon hours of their time for absolutely nothing. You are as obliged as the other members of your group to provide thoughtful feedback.
- And let’s be honest: it’s more likely that you’ll get quality critique if you’re working with a group of people who are serious enough about writing to be in a group. On purpose, with meeting times and all the accompanying social anxieties.
- A random beta reader that you scared up online is as likely to be a fan fiction troll as a person with something valuable to say about anything, least of all your pride, joy, and toil: your draft.
All you need is one other writer to begin, and as you meet and work together, you’ll accomplish some of the following: you’ll increase your network, you’ll open a gateway of potential for partnerships, you’ll get accountability, you’ll learn stuff about yourself and your writing, your writing and critique abilities will increase, your outlook will improve, you’ll have camaraderie, an outlet for writerly venting, or you’ll eat less cake.
Cake is like band-aids for boo-boos of the soul.
I am of two minds on the value of beta readers and critique partners and writers’ groups. My stronger mind on the topic feels like the value of the writers’ group–the social critique–far outweigh the potential downsides in terms of community building and potential growth. But my devil’s advocate mind would like to make the following points:
- It’s still better to pay a professional when it comes time to prepare the manuscript for submission to agents and publishers. Professionals have a vested interest in your work, not in your friendship.
- As with every social endeavor, on and off line, writing groups can turn ugly and cost you potentially copacetic relationships.
- Groups require time and organization, and unless you’re lucky enough to know a bunch of obsessed, competent, organized humans, the brunt of the organization will fall on one person, every group needs that person, and she can be hard to find.
- There’s always the possibility that the group will fizz out, after–of course–you’ve devoted considerable time and energy to getting started and offering critique.
- The critique partner/writing group relationship is difficult to get right. So resist the urge to become BFFs. It will be strong, since when you show somebody the unedited draft, you’re inviting at least some bad news, and that is hard on the ego–and much easier to take from somebody you’d have a beer or a movie with.