The Basics of Beta Readers

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I see you out there, your fingers aching with that sweet, sweet pain of finishing a novel. You have a sense that someone should look at it before you publish. The neighbor’s babysitter, perhaps, because she has a degree in English? Okay, it’s in English muffins, but that’s close enough, right? Or maybe someone said you should have a beta reader. What’s that, some kind of telepathic fighting fish? Um…no.

1. What is a beta reader?

This is someone who very nicely agrees to read your manuscript and to give you feedback so you can make improvements before you unleash your work into the hostile murky depths of cyberspace.

2. But I read the #$@$&* thing seventeen times. I’m done. And my mother loved it. Why do I need a beta reader?

Brains are funny things. Once you’ve gone through multiple drafts, you tend to stop seeing the words. Your brain has become accustomed to them. Especially if you’ve done a lot of revising, it’s easy to miss facepalm-worthy continuity errors and way too easy to fall in love with your own “darlings” and protect them at all costs, even if they’re not doing your story any favors.

Plus, input from a beta reader can help you craft a tighter manuscript, so when you send it out for editing, the process will be a lot smoother and possibly less expensive. And will definitely reduce the chances that your chosen editing professional will put his head through a wall and say snarky things about your language skills on their FaceTwit pages. No, seriously. We do not do that. We are professionals. Even after a few tequila shots at the grammar bar.

3. What does a beta reader do?

As readers, they’re helping you work the bugs out of your story, either before you hire an editor, or afterward as a final test-run. When you use a beta depends on your working style and the needs of that particular manuscript. Among many other things, betas can help you identify:

• Plot problems and unresolved story threads
• Dialogue or actions that don’t sound or feel “right” for a character or situation
• Problems with pacing (too slow or too rushed)
• Effectiveness of openings, chapter flow, and endings

Note: although they may identify spelling errors and grammatical weirdness along the way, don’t expect your betas to take the place of a thorough editing and proofreading.

4. How do I choose a beta reader?

Ask for recommendations. Your local librarian might know some avid readers. Check with the virtual peeps in your favorite cyber watering holes, and ask the admins if you can put out a request. There are even some groups devoted to matching up authors with beta readers.

To get that fresh perspective you need, the ideal beta should know little or nothing about your story. So that eliminates your writing group, critique partners, anyone who has read an early draft, or the supermarket checkout clerk you’ve been chatting up for the last six months with serial synopses of your romantic-steampunk-vampire-cozy-mystery.

Unless you have a completely honest relationship or don’t mind a lot of yelling and awkward silences, it’s probably best that this person is not related to you or married to you. Sometimes there’s just too much emotional “stuff” involved for you to get a clear-eyed assessment.

The best betas are enthusiastic readers. They are familiar with and like your genre. For instance, no offense to the writers of such, but zombies creep me out, and not in the good way. You probably don’t want me beta-reading your zombie thriller. A fan of icky undead things, however, is a better choice.

5. How can I best work with a beta reader?

Like any professional partner, get the expectations clear right away. If you have a deadline, ask if this works for your beta. Ask if they’d prefer a paper or electronic copy. Do not assume anything. You know what happens to people who assume. The zombies eat them first.

Once you deliver your manuscript, be patient. We all have other things going on. Most beta readers volunteer their efforts. This might be a good time to take up knitting, perfect your tiramisu recipe, or start another writing project.

Don’t expect your beta to read your mind. You may luck out and get a reader who is super detail-oriented and can, unprompted, nail down why Chapter Three is driving you to adult beverages and why your entire writing group wants to repeatedly slap your protagonist. But a little guidance can help both of you. If you have a sense that specific things aren’t working, ask about them. This way, you can get more helpful information from your test readers while the story is still fresh in their minds.

Here are a few questions that I’ve sent to betas along with my manuscript. Tailor it to fit your needs and you’re on your way to creating a better book.

• Were the opening lines compelling? Did you want to read more? If not, why?
• Did the story hold your interest? If you drifted away, can you identify where and why?
• Any characters that need more development?
• Did any scenes feel unnecessary or out of place?
• Did you notice any words, phrases, concepts that seemed overused?
• Did the ending seem satisfying and believable?

Do you use beta readers? Have they helped you? What advice would you give someone who is working with one for the first time?

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

32 thoughts on “The Basics of Beta Readers”

  1. Good, sound advice. I have a few beta readers (for my fiction and my non-fiction) and boy do they take the worry out of letting a manuscript go forward with glaring errors and omissions – especially those embarrassing typos you fail to spot time and time again.

  2. Excellent post, Laurie, and I’m coming at it from the standpoint of a frequent beta reader. The better your expectations and the more comfortable your beta readers feel in giving feedback, the better for all concerned.

  3. This is great advice, Laurie. I’m down to exactly one honest beta reader. Next manuscript I give him will include your list of questions, which will help him give me more specific feedback. Thank you!

    1. It really helped me, having the questionnaire. When I began using it, the feedback got more focused. It also helps all the post-beta back and forth when you remember the question you should have asked in the first place. 😉

  4. Great post, Laurie. I probably should be better about giving my betas guidance when I hand my book over to them. I keep thinking that if they don’t flag something I perceive as a trouble spot, then maybe it’s not a problem. But I suppose I should give them fair warning, huh?

    1. Thanks, Lynn. Yeah. It could help. Maybe the reader didn’t particularly think of it as a bump, but if you ask, they might say, “Well, now that you mention it….”

  5. As a copyeditor, I want to second Laurie’s comment about using beta readers to make the editing process easier. I’ve received a couple of manuscripts in the past that looked like they had never been read by anyone but the author. They had problems that went far beyond what copyediting is meant to cover, and it made my work very frustrating. Of course, I would never badmouth an author on my FaceTwit page. But when I copyedit or proofread, I want to feel that I’m taking a gem and giving it the final polish. I don’t want to feel that I’m digging the thing out of ten feet of rock.

  6. Great guiding questions, especially the one checking if there were sections where the reader found attention drifting. I would add that it’s good to have more than one beta reader, because no one person ever read the same book.

    1. Excellent point, Krista, which I forgot. Yes. More than one is good. To catch things another might have missed. And if ALL of them point out the same “issue,” odds are it’s beyond a matter of personal preference.

  7. Yep. Never let your baby out without a good beta drubbing. And find yourself a fabu editor who has a really good sense of humor. Otherwise, drink several adult beverages (tequila shots work quickest–I’ve done a study) before opening the file they send back… it makes life so much funnier.

    Great article, Laurie.

  8. Excellent article, Laurie – it should be required reading for all writers. It also helps to read if you have been asked to be a beta-reader. I’ve been a beta-reader four times now, and the process was infinitely more successful when the writer provided an outline of what he/she wanted out of the experience.

    Thanks so much!

    1. Thank you, Jo-Anne! Being a beta is a fantastic education as well as a way to give back to your writing friends. I really appreciated being given a questionnaire. It helped focus my feedback.

  9. Very sound advice Laurie. I really appreciate my beta readers. It’s amazing how much we miss as authors, even if we read the darn script or novel, over and over again.

    1. Thanks, Carol! I’m still finding things that everyone missed, seventeen or eighteen drafts in! 😀 So the more eyes, the better, I guess. Until it gets so confusing you start spinning around. And that’s not good, either. 😉

  10. I couldn’t live without my beta readers! Every author needs to develop trusting relationships with the people who read for them. Beta readers have to feel comfortable telling you things you might not want to hear.

    Wonderful article!

    1. Thanks, Donna! One of my betas has been reading for me for over fifteen years. He has definitely told me things I didn’t want to hear, but it’s totally fine. It’s all to make the book better.

  11. Good info, Laurie. I had a Beta reader for my novel, and she was very helpful. She was part of my critique group, but only the first few pages had ever been critiqued there, so she didn’t know the story. She also teaches writing at a local college, so she knew what to look for. I still don’t have a book published, but I’m getting closer all the time.

  12. Hi Laurie, I’m using Beta readers for book two, who have read book one and it seems to be taking a weight off. A second and third pair of eyes that don’t know you is invaluable. Great post.

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