Bob is the first book I've written that I've had betas read, and I must say, I've found the feedback invaluable. For instance, one of my beta readers caught every single one of my slips into third person omniscient (there weren't many, mind you, but enough to make me blush), and another pointed out the overall lack of tension in the first third of the manuscript. Like I said, invaluable.
So I've been thinking a lot about beta readers the past couple of weeks. Here are a few thoughts I've had on the topic.
Being a beta reader is as important as having one. It's just good karma to give more than you take. Besides, the more I revise (my own or someone else's manuscript), the more my revision skills improve, and that benefits me more than it benefits anyone.
The best beta readers are (probably) writers. A lot of people read, and quite a few people aren't bad at turning words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. But there's a lot more to writing good novels than that. Writers think about things like story construction, character development, and escalating tension every day, so they're going to notice those things--and problem with those things--in my manuscript.
You need more than one beta reader, but less than a hundred. All right, all right, so the number's kind of arbitrary. (I picked it mostly because it sounded nice in the sentence.) But the principle still stands. There are only so many things I can do to improve my manuscript, so after a while, the feedback I get will either be redundant or--let's face it--ridiculous. I don't need a million and one people's advice; I only need the suggestions of a handful of people I trust. (For me, that number is somewhere between six and ten.)
On the other hand, I do think everyone needs more than one beta reader. What are the chances a single person is going to catch every trouble spot in my manuscript? And how do I know the problems that person does catch are actual problems with the story and not just personal preferences? Also, if I only have one beta, I'm only going to get one clean read. After two or three read-throughs (or eight or nine), that beta's objectivity on matters like world building and clarity is going to be just as fuzzy as mine. I need fresh eyes for every round.
(Which isn't to say I can't ever come back to my earlier betas, of course. Betas who have already read the manuscript are great resources for brainstorming and such, but they're probably not going to be the best judges of how well I fixed the problems they raised, because they can't help but bring back a certain amount of understanding about my world, my story, and my characters.)
Having some betas read shorter chunks of the manuscript is helpful. When betas have less to read, they have more time to focus on the finer details. I've found it useful to have several betas read only my first fifty pages or my first chapter or even my first page. I can always apply the feedback they give me to the rest of my book, and the truth is, the beginning is probably the most important part of the manuscript, anyway.
How do you use beta readers? And what points about betas did I miss?