After you’ve done all that you can and all that you know how to do on your own, you may be tempted to think your book is ready to be published. It’s not. None of us are so talented, so skilled, so discerning that we see everything our work needs to be the best we can make it.
Before you send it to an editor, and especially before you self-publish your work, you need to solicit the assistance of beta readers. These are people who you know and trust to provide constructive feedback. If they’re too gushy, then you’ll get a pick-me-up that’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. If they’re too harsh, then you’ll get your stuffing kicked out of you for no good purpose. You need beta readers who can actually contribute to the quality of your work.
I did the best I could do to get the Part 1 of my memoir ready to be read. Then, I handed it off to my mother and my husband. Normally, I wouldn’t have chosen these two people. Well, honestly, my husband is usually one of my beta readers, because he’s not gushy and he has a vested interest in helping to ensure my work is high quality. He has an eye for nuances that I sometimes miss, like the ineffectiveness of spider silk as a metaphor for a weak, tenuous bridge. In this case, however, their primary responsibility was “fact checking” my work, which is a bit different when you’re talking about a memoir. I needed people who’d lived the same experiences to make sure I’d gotten it right and (to the best of our ability) in the right order.
After receiving my husband’s feedback and after having finished the draft of Part 2, I went back over Part 1 and made some changes. Now, I’m sending the newly polished version to a new set of beta readers. This time I’m sending it to people who are not as familiar with the story, people who have less of a vested interest in my success, but who are also people with good taste, good sense, and an appreciation for the subject matter. From their feedback, I’ll know where I engaged my target readers and where I failed to engage them.
The idea behind a beta reader is to get feedback from someone—someone who is qualified in some way—that you can use to improve your work. So, what would qualify someone to be a beta reader for your work? Well, they need to be able to provide honest feedback. They need to be able to provide feedback that’s important to you in a way that you can understand. They need to provide feedback from a perspective that you need to improve your work. And they need to be willing to read the work a little more carefully than they might read a published piece. The details will depend on your work and what you need to make it the best it can be.