There comes a time in every serious writer’s life, when they first have to expose their draft-baby to the outside world (and showing it to your mother doesn’t count, as parents in my experience usually provide nothing but false confidence). Although I’ve put short stories online, and queried a previous (mother-approved) version of my work-in-progress, I know in my heart-of-hearts that beta-readers, editors and/or proofreaders are a crucial part of the writing process. And so, as my current (and hopefully last) rewrite of The Painted Past is moving slowly towards the finish line, I am starting to think about the next step.
As any writer will tell you (my personal reference for this is Mur Lafferty’s You Should Be Writing podcast, available on iTunes), good beta-readers are hard to find. They have to be honest, critical and helpful at the same time. Telling someone you don’t like their work is easy, telling them what you don’t like in a constructive manner is hard.
There are a few ways of finding beta-readers. If you happen to be friends with an established author, feel free to harass them, although don’t expect them to have the time to help. For the rest of us who aren’t so lucky, friends are usually a bad source of beta-reading, unless they happen to also be writers and/or avid readers, because our friends and family members are usually not only more invested in not hurting our feelings than in providing honest, brutal feedback, but also don’t tend to have the right kind of background to help us become better writers. Of course there are plenty of exceptions, but these magical critical friends can take a lot of time to find. In short, while you should share your work with as many people as possible, don’t expect your friends to have any in-depth advice.
A writing group, online or IRL, is a better alternative for finding beta-readers. The people there already have an established interest in writing and have their own work that they would also like to have critiqued. The trick here is to find the group that’s right for you, which can also take some time. Every group has a different dynamic and focus. Some groups consist of people who thrive on pointing out mistakes, which isn’t a helpful goal. Some groups are in contrast too supportive, acting like your mother. A group of writers that are all serious about publishing their work, write in the same or similar genre, and are of compatible personalities, is the ideal. Depending on where you live, you are more likely to find such a group online, on the forum of a writer you all love or a publishing house perhaps. While Absolute Write is often hailed as the go-to destination for newbie writers, it can be difficult in such a large group to find someone who is compatible and willing to read through your work. Finding a beta is a lot like dating, really.
There are professionals you can hire, people paid to read through and edit your work. Personally I would hire these people only after you’ve had some people tell you that your work is worth the investment. An editor can provide an invaluable service, since they know the industry and how to make your work shine. But they can’t make something that is never meant to work shine, or at the least it will cost a lot more money. To give yourself and them the best chance of making your work work, it is important to provide them with the best draft possible. It is important to note that there are also scam-editors out there, trying to take advantage of the despair of hopeful writers convinced they have a bestseller on their hands. Always make sure any editor you decide to hire is associated with a legitimate editing society or comes with personal recommendations from people you know before you hire them.
Of course the ideal situation any writer hopes to find themselves in is to send their polished draft to an agent or publishing company, have it accepted, and then work with an editor paid for by someone else to fine-tune the work. Agents are often the best beta-readers. But we have to find out if our work is good enough for them first, and we can’t do that on our own.
I have no idea which of the options will work best for me, probably the second one, but I do know that it will be very scary to let someone I don’t know very well read my novel for the first time, and that it is absolutely necessary for me to do so before I query it.