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What are Beta Readers and How do You Find Them?: Tools for Writers Series

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You need readers.

Obviously.

But before you release your book to the masses, you should seek out a beta reader first.

What the heck is a beta reader and why should you trust them with your manuscript?

In this post, we'll discuss everything you need to know about beta readers, specifically how they help you produce your best story, where to find them, and how to work well with them.

So, What's a Beta Reader?

You've probably heard of beta testers before. These are real users who test products, like software or websites, to ensure that everything is working correctly.

Similarly, beta readers “test” your manuscript before publication. A beta reader’s job is to assume the role of an average reader. They’ll read your book and give you actionable feedback.

Beta readers should read your book after at least one round of self-edits. Next, consider the beta readers’ feedback when revising your manuscript. You’ll then have the option to send the revised manuscript to a second set of beta readers to gather new feedback. If you’re ready to advance beyond beta readers, you can then submit your work to an editing service for a professional manuscript critique.

Beta Readers Vs. Critique Groups

A critique group is a band of writers who share their work. The best critique groups are small and filled with fellow writers of the same genre. Critique groups can be supportive and are essential for any writer who wishes to improve their work quickly.

However, critique groups are not the same as beta readers. The first distinction is that a critique group is made up of writers. Beta readers are readers. Most beta readers don’t write and won’t approach your book from a writer’s perspective. They may not get all of the nuances that a fellow writer will see. And that’s the point. You want to see how an actual reader will experience your book.

The second difference is that critique groups are a mixed bag. Not everyone in your critique group may be on the same level. Some may be experienced writers with several published books. Others may still be in high school and working on their first novel. It can be challenging to account for the different levels of experience when absorbing feedback. It’s better to cherry-pick who you’d like to read your manuscript instead of submitting it to the entire group.

Finally, your critique group may not accept full, unedited manuscripts for review. Different groups have different rules when it comes to what can be submitted.

Beta Readers Vs. Alpha Readers

Oh yes, there’s such a thing as an alpha reader. Alpha readers are people who see your manuscript before it’s completed. They may even get to see your first draft before you spell-check. Alpha readers are likely to be close loved ones, like spouses or best friends, who see your book in its early stages. They may provide you with a pat on the back and cheer of encouragement, but they can never take the place of beta readers.

By contrast, beta readers aren’t close friends/ family and will usually get your manuscript after you’ve self-edited.

Why even bother with beta readers if you’re going to submit your manuscript to a professional editing service? Do you need both?

Why are Beta Readers Necessary?

Beta readers

Why even bother with beta readers if you’re going to submit your manuscript to a professional editing service? Do you need both?

You absolutely need both. Here’s why:

Beta readers aren’t editors and do not replace them. Editors are professionals who review and revise your manuscript. An editor may perform several types of tasks. They can offer manuscript critiques where they evaluate the structure of your work. This includes plot, theme, character, consistency, and voice. An editor may provide a comprehensive edit where they go line-by-line and analyze your prose for revision opportunities. Then, of course, an editor can provide a copy edit where they check on spelling, punctuation, grammar, and continuity errors.

Read more about editing services here.

Beta readers are everyday people who read books because they have a passion for the subject matter and/or the genre. That’s not to say that editors aren’t passionate readers. The distinction is that editors are professionals who approach critique from a technical perspective. Not only can they tell you when something in your story doesn’t work, but a professional editor can also explain exactly why it doesn’t work, and how to fix it.

Who Should You Choose to be Your Beta Readers?

Let’s start with who you shouldn’t choose as beta readers.

Never choose friends, family, or work buddies. The problem with this group of people is that they love you or, at the very least, care about your feelings.

Your future readers aren’t part of this group. They don’t know you. They certainly don’t love you, and they don’t care about your feelings. This will be painfully obvious when you read their scathing reviews of your book on Amazon and GoodReads.

Unlike your spouse, siblings, or best friend, your future readers won’t give you an “A” for effort. They’ll point out plot holes, inconsistencies, choppy writing, and weak characters with disgust. They won’t be impressed by your ability to follow your dreams and write a manuscript. They’ll be incensed that they spent time trudging through your manuscript only to be disappointed by the end.

This is why you shouldn’t wait until publishing to get candid and maybe unflattering feedback on your work. You need to get that feedback now when you have the chance to act upon it.

Unfortunately, those closest to you won’t give you objective feedback because they know you and don’t want to hurt you. They also may not know how to read a book for critique purposes. Are they familiar with the genre and its conventions?

This is why you need a beta reader. They can be impartial and share their perspective as an actual reader.

Beta Reader Criteria

When selecting a beta reader, choose someone who’s:

Honest - You need a reader who’s unafraid to be truthful, even if it stings.

Part of your target audience - Choose a reader who represents your target audience as much as possible. Ideally, select a reader who knows and enjoys your book’s genre.

A stranger - Select a reader who doesn't know you personally (or is far enough removed that they won't hesitate to share their honest impressions).

Where to Find Beta Readers

Where do you find these magical, impartial truth-tellers? Here are a few places to find beta readers:

  • Start on your website. If you have a website, you can encourage visitors to contact you if they’re interested in becoming a beta reader for your upcoming book.
  • Ask your writing community (both online and locally). Check GoodReads, AbsoluteWrite, and Beta Readers & Critiques.
  • Appeal to your social media followers.
  • Put up a flyer at your local library, coffee shop, or bookstore.

Best Practices for Working With Beta Readers

Here’s how to effectively work with your beta readers:

Work With Multiple Beta Readers

Consider working with between 5 to 10 beta readers. The goal is to get a variety of opinions and see what’s true for most readers. You don’t have to act on every opinion, but if you get the same feedback over and over again, pay attention and make necessary changes to your manuscript.

Work With Beta Readers at Different Stages in Your Editing

Split your beta readers into groups. Then, ask group 1 to read the first draft, make changes, then ask group 2 to read the second draft.

Provide Clear Instructions of What You Need

Give your readers a list of questions so that you get the answers you want.

Set a Deadline

Explain to your beta reader when you want feedback. Ask if they’re ok with those terms before sharing your manuscript.

Ask for Their Format Preference

Would they prefer a printed or digital manuscript? If digital, can they access Google Docs? (Google Docs is a free, internet-based word processor that enables sharing between two or more people.)

Beta readers

Ask Them to Be Honest

Encourage them to be honest with you, even if it hurts.

Don’t Take it Personally

Feedback can be soul-crushing, but it’s not a referendum on you as a person, just on your story. You can use their feedback to improve your writing.

Final Thoughts

Because your beta reader can give you the perspective of an average reader, you should include them in your editing process. They’ll help you strengthen your manuscript by pointing out opportunities for improvement.

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