I originally posted this article a year ago, but I think it’s a good one to revisit, especially since I’ll be doing some beta reading myself tomorrow!
Assembling your team of beta readers is kind of a big deal. After all, these are the people whose opinions and knowledge you’re going to let shape the future of your story and you as a writer, so you can’t choose just anyone.
Think carefully about what each potential reader brings to the table in terms of knowledge, experience, and mindset, and be on the lookout for any of the following archetypes.
1. The Grammar Police
These are the people who either feel physical pain at uncorrected text or get some kind of sadistic pleasure in putting red pen to paper. This person may or may not be into the genre you’re writing and they may or may not give you much feedback when it comes to the actual story, but boy can you count on them to find every extra comma, split infinitive, and typo.
Now, you shouldn’t abuse this person and treat them like your personal proofreader (unless they want that job), so please try to do that yourself beforehand. The Grammar Police’s sharp eyes should be used as back-up, to make sure your project looks as clean and professional as possible, and possibly to teach you a few obscure rules you might not have known.
2. The Fangirl/boy
These are the people who keep you writing when you feel like none of your words are coming out right and you will never ever be successful. They are your cheerleaders, your first fans, and the ones who will hold you to your deadlines (because they NEED to know what happens next). With this person in your corner, you will finish your project because you know at least one person in the world wants to read it. Your Fangirls and Fanboys will give you great feedback on plot and character because they’ll emotionally invest themselves in your story.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to identify this type until after they’ve started reading your work, but a good place to start is with those who love geeking out over other novels in your genre. If you are lucky enough to have a Fangirl or Fanboy among your beta readers, enjoy their enthusiasm!
3. The Constructive Critic
This type is a must-have, and ideally, all of your beta readers will have this trait to some degree. The Constructive Critic will give you just that—constructive criticism. They’ll be able to tell you what worked for them and why, and what they think can be improved. It’s not so much what they say that defines the Constructive Critic, but how they say it—with specificity and respect. The best Constructive Critics will have at least one suggestion for every problem they identify, but none of them will ever leave you hanging with a mere “I didn’t like this.”
Other types can be (and hopefully are) Constructive Critics as well. Try to populate your beta readers with Constructive Critics with different areas of expertise. A Grammar Policeman who is also a Constructive Critic won’t just mark up your pages, but teach you why they’re marking up your pages, and a Fangirl who is a Constructive Critic won’t just pick a ‘ship, she’ll show you where you can increase the dramatic tension between the characters.
4. The Topical Expert
If you’re trying to incorporate specific knowledge or skills into your story, it’s a good idea to have someone familiar with that area look over your work. For instance, if you’re writing about someone surviving in the woods, it might not be a bad idea to have a beta reader with some camping experience, if not a hardcore survivalist expert. A doctor or nurse can point out that a certain character should be dead by now, a lawyer can teach you the finer points of inheritance law, and an engineer can say “this is how robots actually work.” The Topical Expert will help your story ring true and they might even be able to give you some real-life examples to inspire new twists or character moments.
Be aware that some Topical Experts will be able to serve as full-fledged beta readers and give you other notes, but not everyone is an avid reader so you might have to compromise in order to get the insight you need. This might mean only sending your Topical Expert relevant scenes instead of the entire manuscript.
5. The Close Personal Friend
Okay, so every writing site out there is going to tell you that your beta readers can’t just be your mom and your best friend, and they’re right. However, that doesn’t mean your beta readers should exclude friends and family, especially if they have some expertise to offer. You do want more neutral, writing-focused voices in the mix, but I actually think it’s a very good idea to include one of your best friends as a beta reader.
Sending your project (which is basically your child) out into the world for scrutiny can make you feel very vulnerable, and it’s nice to know that at least one of the people you’re giving it to will keep it alive, whether they love it or not.
But beyond the moral support, the Close Personal Friend knows how your mind works and can catch things that no other beta reader would. Does the dreamy love interest for your protagonist have a weirdly similar name to the guy who sits behind you in Economics? Or does the victim in the murder mystery you’re writing have too much in common with your mother-in-law? These are things a Close Personal Friend will recognize before it’s too late.
Some Types to Avoid
1. The Naysayer
This person never grasped the full meaning of constructive criticism. They’ll criticize your work, sure, but it’s not exactly helpful since they can’t tell you why or offer suggestions on how to fix it. Even worse, there are some Naysayers who seem to get some kind of self-esteem boost by tearing your work down—the more they criticize, the smarter they feel.
They might try to disguise themselves as Grammar Police to show off their technical knowledge, but be aware of tone; there is a difference between catching mistakes and highlighting them.
2. The Blockhead
Much like the Naysayer, the Blockhead doesn’t give you a lot of useful suggestions, but their issue is that they can’t see past their own opinion. And if you don’t do it their way, they do not like it, plain and simple. This person could get hung up on anything from plot direction to character choices to basic facts. For instance:
Blockhead: This just isn’t my thing. I like sci-fi.
Weary Writer: Okay, but I warned you beforehand this was historical fiction.
Blockhead: Yeah, I know. It was just hard for me to get into it because it wasn’t sci-fi.
Weary Writer: Did you have trouble connecting with the protagonist, or was the first chapter a little slow…?
Blockhead: Yeah, I guess it was a little slow. I just read this book last month that started off with a robot attack on the first page—
Weary Writer: Robots don’t really fit here, but what if I moved the runaway carriage scene up a bit? Would that capture your attention faster?
Blockhead: Maybe…What if the horses were robots, that like, the coachman invented?
Weary Writer: *bangs head against desk*
3. The Head-Patter
“It was good.” “I liked it.” “Fun.” “Cute.” “Not bad.”
These are the phrases of the Head-Patter, a well-meaning but not super helpful reader. On the one hand, you appreciate that they took the time to read your manuscript, and it’s nice to know your work is well-received. On the other, what you need from your beta readers is more than a pat on the head; you need to know what will take your work from good to mind-blowing.
This person is the polar opposite of the Naysayer. The Head-Patter will build you up, but getting specific criticism from them is like drawing blood from a stone. Whether they’re afraid of hurting your feelings, looking foolish, or because they honestly don’t know, the Head-Patters cannot articulate what it is about your work that they like.
This list is by no means comprehensive, but hopefully it will make it a little easier for you to identify those in your life with the potential to help you whip your project into shape. The most important thing is finding people whose judgment and experience you trust, because why bother asking for advice if you aren’t going to consider taking it?