Someone in a large online group that I belong to recently asked, “How many beta readers should one use?” The answers varied: 2-3, 5-7, a dozen or more, but the consensus was that too few may not give you a good sample, and too many may give you conflicting opinions. I’ve found 3-5 is a good number, as long as you can get a good representative sampling of critical readers (who aren’t “yes” people).
In that same online group, a couple of respondents said they only used editors. A third option, unmentioned by any in the group, is a workshop.
So, which is best? The answer is all three, but with caveats. To understand this answer, we must examine all three and what each can accomplish.
Critique groups (and workshops) are run by writers for writers. In one of our early posts, Scott talked about critique groups and how to find a good one. Check out the link below.
In a good critique group, one made of supportive and discerning writers, you’ll have a better chance of learning how to find and fix problems on your own, thus improving your writing. You’ll also get exposure to the writing styles of others, which can only help you in the long term. Beta readers are there to read, not teach, and editors (depending on the editor) likewise are not teachers, not that you can’t learn from them as well.
On the other hand, using a critique group primarily for editing purposes has some drawbacks. One, the focus of a group is generally on the story and the writing and less on the nits of grammar and punctuation. Although some members of the group may be very grammar-savvy and will help you, that’s not the main function of such a group. Two, a critique group is likely only good for a couple of passes through a given manuscript. After a while, they become too familiar with it and may not be able to view it as objectively as they did at first. Nevertheless, a good critique group is generally your first line of defense in crafting a good manuscript.
Once you feel you have that good manuscript, it’s time for a fresh set of eyes, and an actual audience, to see it. This is what beta readers do best. These should be people who have either never seen the manuscript (preferable), or ones who saw a very early incarnation that was nothing like the current version. It’s best, though, that at least some of your best have never seen it.
Once you get their reactions–assuming there are problems and depending on what they are–you’ll either make the changes to fix problems, or you’ll seek advice from others on how to proceed. If the changes are significant, that is, the beta readers thoroughly trashed it, this is where you take stock of both groups. Why are there discrepancies? Did the critique group fail you, or did you not select a suitable set of beta readers, ones representative of your presumed target audience?
I strongly advise that you avoid using writers, especially new ones, as beta readers because you risk having them trying to rewrite the novel as they would write it, not as you envisioned it. Weight their comments carefully, perhaps discuss them with your critique group, and if you can’t resolve the problem, then try for another set of beta readers.
At this stage, you’ve put a lot of time into your work, so you don’t want to have to make major modifications–possibly wrongly so–based on a set of readers who didn’t understand your book or viewed it in the wrong light. At all costs, you should never launch into a major revision unless you are confident that you really screwed up, especially if your critique group doesn’t agree with the beta readers.
Once you’ve reconciled things–and fixed any problems–it’s time for an editor. As Scott has recently been discussing, there are several types of editors. Ideally, you have to find one that you trust implicitly and who knows your work, yet can remain objective. One problem is that, unless the editor is a friend willing to work for less than the going rate, this is going to cost you some money. Even the best editor, though, is never going to be right all the time. He or she will have personal preferences. My personal choice is to use an editor solely to find inconsistencies and errors in the text (content editing), plus grammar, spelling, and punctuation nits. This type of editor will usually be much less expensive.
I’m not against editors at all, but their role should be to find and correct mistakes. As I said before, an editor is not always someone who will teach you to be a better writer in terms of crafting a story. That’s what workshops and critique groups are for.
The purpose of beta readers is to judge whether you’ve produced something marketable, something that people want to read. And editors should be used to provide the final polish.
Now, I realize that many will disagree with me. Some prefer a single source of outside input on the final product: beta readers or an editor. The problem that I have with using only an editor is that you’re getting only one opinion. Rare is the editor who is truly knowledgeable of all genres and styles of writing. And findiong those rare ones, if you can, is difficult, and they are likely not inexpensive.
Once you’ve become confident in your writing abilities (and your books are selling), you may not need a critique group or beta readers unless you decide to branch out into a new area of writing less familiar to you. If you’re completely confident in your self-editing abilities, you can perhaps dispense with an editor, although I highly recommend that you at least find a good proofreader because no writer is going to catch every one of his mistakes.
The worst mistake a new writer can make is to work entirely on his or her own, believing there is no need for a critique group, beta readers, or even an editor. I’ve seen too many use the excuse that they can’t afford an editor, so they publish the book anyway, often with disastrous results and bad reviews. I see it all too often. Writing is easy, but writing a good book is hard, and bypassing any of the opportunities to ensure that it is as good as it can and should be is doing themselves a disservice.
Only when you’ve established yourself as a consistently good writer can you consider omitting critiques and beta readers. Believe it or not, a number of established writers still participate in critique groups or have critique partners.
And you should never publish without engaging a good editor, no matter how good you become. Although I consider myself to be a good editor for other people’s work, I do not trust myself with the final edits of my own work. I never have and never will publish without using an editor or trusted proofreader.
If you choose not to use shortcuts and eliminate one of the three methods given here, then be sure you know the risks of doing so. Building your reputation as a good writer is hard. Destroying it through carelessness and shortcuts is remarkably easy.