A beta reader is one of the most important people you can have on deck during the revision and editing process. Beta readers are essential to the writing process for many authors, and yet not everyone knows what they are and what they do. If you’re curious about beta readers and want to learn more about working with them, keep reading.
What is a Beta Reader?
A beta reader is a person who reads and provides feedback on your manuscript before publishing.
Why Do You Need a Beta Reader?
You’ve self-edited your manuscript. You’ve inspected it for typos, grammatical errors, and structural integrity. Your manuscript looks perfect. No, scratch that. It is perfect. Is it really necessary to hand over a perfect manuscript to a beta reader who’s only going to rip it apart?
Here’s the thing: While your work may be perfect technically, it may not offer a compelling story or a riveting read. Your manuscript may suffer from plot-hole-itis or another common ailment known as changing-point-of-view-osis.
Beta readers help you see your story from another set of eyeballs.
Let’s face it: You don’t have the necessary emotional distance to read your own work objectively. For the same reason that you need an editor, you also need a beta reader to give you unbiased feedback on your manuscript.
How Many Beta Readers Do You Need?
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer here. You may have five or six beta readers, or you may have several dozen.
Why so many?
Human nature predicts that some of the beta readers who commit to reading your manuscript won’t actually complete it. To ensure that you don’t waste time with non-starters or non-completers, you need a variety of beta readers.
Another reason to go for more than one beta reader? A more accurate sampling of your ideal audience. If you’re only relying on the feedback of one reader, it’ll be difficult to decide what’s personal opinion and what’s general consensus. However, if you have 11 different readers, and nine of them return with the same feedback, you minimize the guesswork.
Speaking of numbers, some writers prefer to have an odd number of readers. Theoretically, it’s possible to have 10 beta readers with five saying, “Do this,” and the other five saying, “Do that.” To avoid a tie from happening, choose an odd number. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you’ll end up with an odd number (because, human nature), but at least you tried.
Do Beta Readers Replace Editors?
Ideally, you’ll submit your manuscript to beta readers after self-editing but before sending it off to a professional editor. Here’s a 9-step path you may take:
1. Write the first draft of your book
2. Revise the story (i.e. your second draft)
3. Edit your completed story for mechanical errors (typos, grammar, etc.)
4. Share your manuscript with beta readers
5. Incorporate feedback and make edits that you agree with
6. Submit your manuscript to a professional editor for a developmental edit
7. Submit your revised manuscript for a comprehensive edit
8. Complete the manuscript
9. Self-publish or secure an agent for traditional publishing
It’s important to note that not all authors take this same path. Some authors work with beta readers earlier in the process. For example, you may work with a beta reader during step 2 while still writing your second draft. In this example, you’d share your book chapter by chapter, or section by section, with the beta readers. This allows for real-time feedback. You won’t have to wait to make necessary corrections.
The drawback of this method is that your beta readers won’t have the luxury of seeing the whole story before providing feedback, so their feedback may be resolved and therefore unnecessary.
Although beta readers are part of the editing stage, they don’t replace professional editors. Professional editors are paid to comb through your entire manuscript and check for discrepancies, pacing, plot holes, and more.
Most professional editors (like the ones you’ll work with here at NY Book Editors) have years of editing experience. Some of our editors have also worked as literary agents, too. When working with a professional editor, you’ll have access to an industry professional who has an eye for detail and knows exactly what to look for in a manuscript.
How to Find Beta Readers
Let’s start out by saying that beta readers are most likely not your friends and family. Your loved ones love you. Unfortunately, that’s a disqualifier.
So, where do the perfect beta readers hang out?
Find Them in Your Community
Are you a part of a writing community? If so, you have a candy store full of beta readers to choose from. Most writers, especially those within a supportive community, are willing beta readers– but remember that not all beta readers are writers. Here’s a list of 11 top writing communities you should join and why.
Let Them Come to You
Do you have a website? Do you receive traffic on your website? If you don’t have a website, what about a social media presence? Do you have fans/ followers on your social media pages?
If you’ve already built a fan base, you can invite them to become beta readers of your work in progress.
What to Look for in a Beta Reader
Here are the most important qualities for any beta reader:
Familiarity With Your Genre
Ideally, your beta reader should be well-read and familiar with the genre of your manuscript. You don’t want to court a beta reader who enjoys romance for your sci-fi novel. It’s not the end of the world, but probably won’t give you the most insight with your target audience.
The Ability to be Honest
This is the reason you can’t go with friends and family. Try as they may, they can’t be completely honest with you about your work for fear of hurting your feelings and damaging your relationship. You need readers who don’t have a reason to hold back and are willing to be brutally honest. When reaching out to potential readers, make this one of the first questions that you ask: Are you able to be brutally honest?
Do You Pay Beta Readers?
Most beta readers are not paid for their services. However, you should send your beta readers a free copy of your finished book, whether in the form of a hardcover or an eBook. It’s also a nice gesture to autograph the copy. If you want to proclaim your never-ending gratitude, you can also list their names (not necessarily the role that they played) in the “Acknowledgement” section of your book.
When Should You Not Work With Beta Readers?
Beta readers almost always provide a benefit to authors. However, if you’re writing certain genres, a beta reader may be limited in their helpfulness. For example, if you’re writing a sci-fi novel that deals with quantum physics, you may need help from a subject matter expert, not your average beta reader.
Or, if you’re writing a nonfiction book, it may be better to opt for a fact-checker instead of a beta reader. Because of the sensitive and laborious work involved, fact-checkers are usually professional editors who are paid for their efforts.
Another reason to forego beta readers is if you’re in a time crunch and want to get your book published as soon as possible. In this case, consider only working with a professional editor who can provide both developmental and comprehensive edit within an agreed upon time frame.
How to Work With Beta Readers
Let’s go over the best practices of working with beta readers.
Develop a Tough Skin
You’re going to need tough skin as a writer anyway. But if you haven’t yet, now’s the time to adopt a steely mindset. You’re not looking for ego boosters, but people who can help you shape up your manuscript.
That said, it’s not easy to let someone dismantle your work right in front of you. Just remember that they’re critiquing your work and not your self-worth (and they’re not always right). Also, remember that sharing your art with others requires bravery.
Not sure if something’s working? Are you on the fence about a character or a plot element? Ask your beta readers what they think. It’s almost like crowdsourcing your novel. Instead of waiting for the reviews to figure out what your readers really think, you can ask them during the beta process. These are real readers, and you’ve given them permission to share their real thoughts with you.
Remember to be as specific as possible with these questions. Don’t say “whatever you can offer is fine”. Instead, include a questionnaire with your manuscript that defines what you most help with (for example, What did you think about the character reveal in chapter 4? Did you get a sense of the world, or should I include more of the setting into the story?). Specific answers are much more valuable for you. Beta readers will also appreciate the guidance.
Don’t Implement the Feedback Right Away
You’ve waited weeks for the feedback from these beta readers. You’re ready to get cracking– but don’t. At least, not yet. Read the feedback and let it wash over you. Think about how this feedback impacts your story and the characters within it. After a few days of thinking about it, you may decide to incorporate it or scrap it altogether.
Offer Different Ways to Read Your Manuscript
While many (if not most) beta readers will prefer an ebook version of your manuscript, some beta readers actually want it printed on copy paper. Be flexible. Keep in mind that your beta readers are providing you with an invaluable service (and you’re not paying them for it).
Give Them a Deadline
Give your beta readers a specific deadline for finishing your book. Be realistic. A good time to set for beta readers is one month.
Check out these related posts:
- How to Make the Most of Working With a Professional Editor
- DIY Your Edit: 10 Tips to Shape up Your Manuscript
- What’s the Difference Between Copyediting and Proofreading