The New Writer's Guide to Working With Beta Readers
Nothing improves the quality of your writing like a little objective feedback.
Sure, a few well-honed self-editing skills can go a long way toward helping you craft incredible stories. But at the end of the day, you’re simply too close to your work to truly revise and refine it to be the best that it can be. This is where a second pair of eyes (or many seconds) can come in handy, specifically in the form of beta readers.
I recently worked with beta readers for the first time to seek feedback on my upcoming book Build Your Best Writing Life, and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. I’m now excited to share what I learned from that experience in a new two-part series here on the blog, beginning with today’s post answering the most common questions about working with beta readers:
Question #1: What does a beta reader do?
Beta readers critique completed drafts of unpublished projects, providing writers with suggestions for improving the quality of their manuscripts. Typically, writers engage beta readers after drafting or revising their stories, seeking constructive criticism on issues regarding plot, character, setting, theme, dialogue, description, world-building, style, voice, and other common elements of the craft.
Some writers also engage beta readers to provide feedback on later drafts of their work, seeking insight into the quality of their prose. In these situations, beta reader feedback typically addresses a story’s dialogue, descriptions, internal narrative, action sequences, style, voice, and tone on a line-by-line basis.
Some beta readers may even proofread a work, specifically seeking errors and inconsistencies in the text.
Question #2: What should you look for in a beta reader?
Because beta readers exist to provide feedback that will help tailor a book to readers’ consumption, writers typically seek beta readers who are well-versed in their project’s genre and age market. A beta reader who only enjoys romance is unlikely to provide helpful feedback on a science fiction project, while someone who solely reads adult novels probably won’t prove much a help in critiquing your middle-grade adventure.
However, some writers also like to employ a few beta readers who aren’t well-versed in their genre or age market to see how future readers new to their niche would enjoy their work.
A beta reader can be a reader or a fellow writer. Some authors prefer to have writers beta read their work since writers are often better equipped to provide insight into the major craft-based issues that can plague early drafts. For example, a non-writer may note that a character fell flat but prove unable to explain that the story’s stakes weren’t high enough to give that character the motivation to act.
These same authors may prefer to engage non-writers to beta read their later drafts to gain a better understanding of how future readers may react to their published books.
That said, most writers don’t mind engaging a mix of writers and non-writers to beta read their work so long as they trust their beta readers to provide honest feedback. Non-critical feedback isn’t helpful, but some beta readers can be too shy or inexperienced to offer their honest opinions on what needs work.
Bearing all this in mind, avoid asking friends or family members to beta read if they aren’t well-versed in your genre or age market or if they’re more likely to coddle you than provide constructive criticism.
Question #3: Do writers pay beta readers?
Not typically, though some writers and editors do offer paid beta reading services through their websites. This can be a great option for writers who want experienced feedback on their projects but can’t afford to hire the more detailed services of a developmental editor.
Note: Beta readers are not the same as sensitivity or technical readers, who read and critique a manuscript for potentially problematic issues or inaccuracies respectively. Sensitivity and technical readers are frequently paid for their feedback.
Question #4: How many beta readers should you engage when seeking feedback?
Beta reader feedback is often highly personal. Seeking feedback from a good handful of beta readers — I recommend somewhere between three and twelve — can allow for patterns in the feedback you receive to emerge, helping you better understand which criticisms should receive the most attention.
Generally, I find it better to seek more beta readers than less. Chances are that at least one beta reader won’t provide feedback that proves all that insightful or constructive (or won’t get back to you with their thoughts at all). Having a few extra beta readers creates a buffer against the possibility of ending up with too little feedback to glean any meaningful direction.
Question #5: Where can you find beta readers?
You can seek beta readers in several ways. Firstly, by considering any readers and writers in your personal life. If you know someone who fits the criteria of what you’re looking for in a beta reader, don’t be afraid to reach out. The worst they can say is no.
That said, most writers find their beta readers via the online reading and writing communities. If you haven’t yet taken the time to build relationships on your platform(s) of choice, jump right in. Reading and writing communities can be found on Facebook (including our Well-Storied Facebook group), Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Reddit, and beyond.
(Psst — If you’re an introvert who feels intimidated by the idea of engaging on social media, click here.)
Question #6: Are writers expected to beta read in return if one of their readers is a writer?
This is a common practice, but no. It isn’t strictly necessary to beta read in return for one of your beta readers. Doing so is a great way to build relationships and give back to the writers who have helped you, but you only have so much time and energy. If you can’t (or simply don’t want to) beta read in return, it’s okay to decline the offer and share your gratitude in other ways. More on this in part two.
Finally, I’d like to highlight that working with beta readers is not only a great way to gain a little helpful feedback on your project; it’s also a way to connect with some of your book’s earliest fans. Beta readers are often a book’s first champions, the ones who help spread the word about the phenomenal story that is your book, and that support is priceless.
If you think you’re ready to work with beta readers to improve your writing, keep an eye out for the upcoming second edition of this blog series, where I’ll share the steps you can take to ensure a great beta reader experience for all — from prep work to deadlines to applying beta feedback. Stay tuned, writer!