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What Are Beta Readers? And Do You Need Them?

Q. What are "beta readers"?
- An attendee at the Jackson Hole Writers Conference

A. This was such a good question that I thought I should address it here.
"Beta readers" is a term used for a close circle of writing friends who are the first to read your work. Well, they're not the first, techinically - because you are (you're the alpha reader). What you're aiming for is a group of other writers who write the same category and can offer thoughts on your work that is both honest and helpful.
The reason that beta readers are important is that they help you edit your work, thereby 1) making the work better, 2) allowing you to avoid spending boatloads of dough on a freelance editor, and 3) give you a variety of perspectives on everything.
So how do you find these beta readers? Let me tell you how I found mine. When I was finished with this recent middle grade novel (my first novel ever), I didn't know what to do. I work in a publishing house with tons of other writing pros, but the problem was: My friends here don't read MG work. So I promptly joined the local writing group for children - the (rogue) Cincinnati chapter of SCBWI. I went to some meetings and asked my one friend in the group, Nancy, who she would recommend for a manuscript swap. She made several suggestions so I contacted people and asked if they were game. Some said yes; some said no. We swapped manuscripts and set a deadline for edits (maybe one month). I got back their thoughts and edits, incorporated most of them - cause most were very good - and ignored the rest. That's how it all works.

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Betamax, yo...

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