Beta Readers: What are they? Do I need one?

When I finished my first novel, the first thing that I did was justify purchasing and consuming a large hot fudge sundae. So delicious, so worth it. After that, I did a happy dance with my cats.

Then it was back to business. As proud as I was about my first draft, I knew it wasn’t perfect. It needed to be refined… a lot. I chose to use Beta readers to help me with that process.

What is a Beta Reader?

A beta reader is someone you trust to read through an early draft of something that you’ve written. They are, ideally, someone who is an avid reader, especially in your genre. They provide broad feedback on the piece, such as what they liked and what they disliked, and areas where they think it could be improved.

A Beta Reader is not necessarily an editor.

Most of the time, beta readers aren’t marking up your manuscript, looking for grammatical or spelling errors, or leaving you margin comments. That’s the role of an Editor. Think of a Beta Reader like a member of a focus group. They’re testing your product — ie. your writing — and letting you know what they think about it from the perspective of a consumer.

That being said, as long as you are clear about your expectations, a beta reader can really give you as much or as little feedback as you want. Have a conversation with them and let them know what you’re looking for, and if you’re open to more or less from them. (I’ll give you a handy guide to that below).

Why do I need a Beta Reader?

I get way too close to my own work, and the characters in my stories are alive inside my brain. When I read back through something I’ve written, I’m either too harsh on myself (as most of us are, from time to time) or not harsh enough (because I fail to see the areas where an idea in my head didn’t get fully formed on the page).

Beta readers offer an outside perspective that is critical for helping to develop and improve as a writer. They can identify the good and the bad in your writing, which is something that we’re often too myopic to do for ourselves.

When will I be ready for Beta Readers?

There are a lot of different opinions on this, but you’re reading my blog, so I assume you want mine. Here it is: send your 3rd draft or later to beta readers.

Most of the time, beta readers are doing this for free, and you’re using them for feedback on the big picture: plot and story structure, character development, believability, etc. Don’t give them a first draft that’s riddled with spelling errors and inconsistencies that will distract them from the big stuff. Go back through your work at least once and edit it, so that you can put a better foot forward. Trust me, you’ll get much more meaningful feedback this way.

How do I find a Beta Reader?

For me, this was the easiest part. When I quit my job to write fiction full time, almost every person that I talked to said “I want to read your book!” I actually had more people volunteer than I could use.

Do you have friends or family that like to read? Are you part of a writer’s group that critiques each other’s work? You probably have at least a couple of people in your life that would be willing to read for you, and would give great feedback. Failing any real-life contacts, writing groups on Facebook and Reddit can be a good way to find people who'd be willing to give you feedback.

Don’t forget to give back, or even give first. Volunteer to be a beta reader, and the writer you help will probably return the favor. Also, being a beta reader yourself will help you understand what you’re asking other people to do.

Failing anything else, you can always pay a professional editor to do a Manuscript Critique for you. It’s like paying somebody who’s been in the publishing industry for a while to be a beta reader. (I used a professional editor after polishing my manuscript, yet again, using beta reader feedback.)

How many Beta Readers should I have?

A least one. For my first novel, I had five. I liked having an odd number, so that there couldn’t be a tie on an opinion.

Be wary of having too many beta readers. You want to keep most people waiting and excited to read your beautiful final draft, after all.

How can I direct their feedback?

I found it extremely helpful to give a questionnaire to my beta readers, to prompt them to think about and rate certain aspects of my novel. I loved author Jennifer Windram’s sample beta reader questions, so I customized them and sent them out.

I’ve gotten feedback from my Beta Readers… now what?

Get your favorite hot beverage and a snack, sit down somewhere comfortable and free from distractions, and read over their feedback. Decide if you agree with it. Did one of them dislike the protagonist, but you adore them? Ask yourself why there is a disconnect. Maybe you love the character because of how they are in your head, but you didn’t give the reader enough on the page.

Remember that just because a beta reader disliked something, it doesn’t mean you’re obligated to change it. You can’t please everyone. As writer/editor Merle Nygate says, “If one person gives you a note, feel free to ignore it. If two people say the same thing, listen hard and seriously consider the note.  And if three people make the exact same comment, don’t argue, just make the bloody change.”

Good luck as you take that important (and often terrifying) step of sharing your work with others!