Finding great beta readers is like hunting unicorns. You know they exist. You know they frequent the little glen you’ve camped out in. You check the almanac and set out your little homemade unicorn treats. You do everything humanly possible to attract the best, most magical unicorns.
And yet, despite your best-laid plans…
Some readers are more like the galumphing rhinoceros. They say they enjoy your writing, but what they really want is to stomp on your dreams. Any comment they make draws attention to the “fact” that your ideas are actually worthless.
Some readers are more like a one-horned deer. They step so carefully through your manuscript that you almost can’t tell they were there. A few leaves might be nibbled, or some underbrush trampled, but they leave you with the distinct feeling that they’ve done nothing much at all.
Some readers are like a kirin. They’re part reader, part writer, part flake. Their notes meander and lose focus. Three whole chapters will have helpful, in-depth comments, and the next half of the book will contain one corrected run-on sentence and a “LOL”.
Some readers are narwhals. If you squint and look at them from really far away (and you’re a dehydrated sailor out at sea, not in a glen), they look like exactly what you need. Yet, if you get closer, they slip away, along with your manuscript, never to be heard from again.
So, you wait. And wait. And wait. Until, finally, an actual unicorn appears. You freak out and without thinking, toss your manuscript at their feet before throwing yourself back into your hiding place. They sniff it. They nibble the edges. They seem intrigued by your first sentence. Then, without batting an eye, they rip through your creative soul and point out every single loophole you’ve missed. They find typos and character mis-descriptions, and they notice when you give every single character the same physical tick. If something doesn’t make sense, they not only point it out, they suggest a way to fix the issue. They don’t try to rewrite your story, and they don’t make you feel like an idiot when you go over notes together. This, my friends, is a unicorn-level beta reader.
While I like to think that my critique group is pretty much the greatest, I also think it’s important to get non-writers to beta read your projects. My critique group hears face-to-face explanations, and they get down to the nitty-gritty without hesitation, but my beta readers can look at the book as a whole and find things that no one else saw on the chapter level. If you've been having trouble finding a great beta reader, try asking a friend who is a teacher. Some of my best beta readers have been teachers. (Because teachers are magical unicorns, you know). It’s taken a couple of years, but now I have my own little herd of unicorns all to myself*.
Michelle writes nerdy stories about impossible things. There are explosions. You can find her here on Mondays, or nearly every day on Twitter, @redactionaire.
*This sounded kind of creepy on my editing pass, but instead of deleting, I wanted to add a MWAHAHA. So: “I have my own little herd of unicorns all to myself. MWAHAHAHAHA!”^
^It’s been a long day.