On Beta Readers

This post in a single GIF. Now that's concise for you.
When you finish your novel (you will, don't worry), there's a huge temptation just to put it out there straight away. It's done! It's a story! You send it out because, of course, every publisher is going to adore it. You do, after all.

Right. So that's dangerous thinking. How do you know that anybody else likes it? How do you even know that it makes sense? I mean, you get it, because you know what the story is meant to be, and why the characters do what they do (most of the time). Any gaps you've left your brain can fill in. But can your readers' brains fill in the same gaps?

Well, unless you get a beta reader, you're never going to know.

When I finish writing, I give my work to Pepper to read. She generally glares at me for about an hour first, all the while complaining that she has enough to do without this, but she'll read it. And she's great at it. I'll explain why in a moment. What you need to do is find somebody who is equally great at reading to read your work -- though that might not be possible, because Pepper is ... well, she's one of a kind. Find somebody who is good nonetheless.

"More important things to do," she says.
What could possibly be more important than beta reading?
Oh, right.

First things first: what is a beta reader?

You probably already know this, but not everybody is a genius like me, and it's important to explain things to the Ordinary people around. Plagiarising Wikipedia (because I'm busy and because I can), a beta reader is a person who reads a written work, generally fiction, with what has been described as "a critical eye, with the aim of improving grammarspellingcharacterization, and general style of a story prior to its release to the general public."

From the same article: a beta might highlight plot holes or problems with continuitycharacterisation or believability.

So, to put it simply, since you guys need that: a beta reader is somebody who reads your work and tells you how to make it better.

But you knew that. Let's move on.

Why is Pepper Potts a brilliant beta reader?

Not all beta readers are as good as others. That writing buddy of yours told you that Geoff was a brilliant beta reader? Yeah. He might have been great for Jimmy, but he's not going to be great for you -- necessarily. I mean, the qualities of a good beta reader are fairly transferable, but there a few things you need to watch out for.

(a) Pepper knows me. Now, you have to be careful here, because if you get one of your best friends to read your work and they hate it, you might feel hurt. But at the same time, they know you, so they'll know how best to explain to you that it needs work without making you feel like a completely failure. They'll also be aware of any personal struggles you might have with certain aspects of plot or characterisation (i.e. a traumatic experience in New York that alters their ability to write anything peaceful set there) and can give you advice to help you get past that. It's also a quality that will enable them to give you more in-depth critique: they'll recognise any moments where you 'leak through', i.e. your character sounds exactly like you, that somebody who doesn't know you might not pick up on. 

(b) Pepper is interested in many of the same things as me. Namely, me. But if your beta reader doesn't enjoy reading the same genres as you, and if your book isn't their 'cup of tea', they might not be able to give you great feedback. For a start, they're not going to have 'read around' the genre, and they won't be able to compare it to anything. That said, sometimes you need someone who has never read a sci-fi novel to read your thriller set in deep space, to see if it appeals to a broader audience.

(c) Pepper is organised. There's nothing more frustrating than sending something to a beta reader and hearing absolutely nothing for weeks on end. I mean, it helps that she lives with me, so I can just go upstairs and ask if she got my email if she takes more than, like, a minute to reply, but Pepper's wonderful time-management skills generally mean I get my work read within a few days. This is something you have to discuss with your beta reader when you start. If you're fine with it taking a few weeks, then that's great -- but you need to discuss that. If you're not happy with the workaround time of your reader, you're going to have trouble.

(d) Pepper likes me. I might even say loves. And that's the most important thing. Because while personal feelings can get in the way of giving someone honest feedback, somebody who cares about you is going to want your book to be the best it can be, and they're going to help you get it there.

Pepper cannot be my only beta reader.

The problem lies, however, in only having one reader. If she tells me something doesn't work, how do I know if that's true, or if it's her personal opinion? (Usually, it's true.) I'd advise having at least two readers. I often ask Banner to read my work too, or Rhodey: if they say the same thing as Pepper, something has to change. But if they say it's fine and she's in the minority, then it's usually okay.

"Tony, we were talking about your book. Not you."
"But I feel like my psychological scarring is totally relevant!"

Okay, I figure that's enough mental exertion for today. I've explained what a beta reader is, what makes one brilliant, and dangers of only having one. That seems far too much like work, and I'm fairly sure I delegated everything like that to Pepper a long time ago. I'm going back to work on the suit my novel. Yes. Obviously. That's definitely what I'm doing.

--Iron Man


  1. That was a really good post. I haven't really done big with the beta reading thing. I beta read for the Hulk, actually, but my biggest thing is, unlike Pepper, my time managing skills aren't very good. But I don't fall asleep at the elavator in Switzerland. I'm actually coming to the point where I'll need beta readers in not-too-long, so this is a really handy post. :)

    1. Hey, and I beta read back for you! (I only fall asleep when Iron Man is talking, after all).

      Great post, Iron Man! I'm sure even Pepper couldn't have done it better. ;) There are definitely pros and cons to having people who know you really well help beta read. Sometimes they're too nice. But they do know how to break it to you gently when your work sucks. Eh, Mime? XD

    2. I can't believe you fell ASLEEP! You left me talking for two hours while you dozed off? Appalling. Absolutely appalling.


    3. Break it up boys. Break it up.

    4. I TOLD you I wasn't that kind of doctor!

      - Hulk

  2. Ehehehe, I love this post! Thanks very much . . . Iron Miriam? *cackles*

    1. You only love it because you're clearly Pepper (other than the time management thing ... St Mall's chapters?).

  3. Brilliant post Iron Man. And I don't normally say that about people like yourself.


    1. I'm flattered, Legolas. As if I needed your approval.

      --Iron Man

  4. Mr. Stark, you email someone when you could just walk up the stairs with a USB stick!?