Beta Readers: Where To Find Them, How to Use Them, and Why You Need Them

For writers, a thoughtful beta reader is worth his or her weight in gold. Before ever handing your manuscript off to an editor, a qualified beta can let you know about plot holes, character inconsistencies, slow pacing, and any number of other big-picture issues you may have missed during the self-editing phase. Since betas are so crucial to the writing process, it made sense to me to devote a post on this most blessed invention.

What is a beta reader? 

There are professional beta readers, and there are unpaid betas. In either case, the beta reader is ideally someone who (1) Knows your genre, (2) Is an active rather than passive reader (questions the texts, notes plot holes, etc.), and (3) Is able to identify problem areas and communicate them clearly to you, the author.

When is my novel ready for a beta read?

Beta readers aren’t there for your first draft, or your novel-in-development — save that for your writing group. Your manuscript should be complete, proofread to the best of your ability, and you should have gone through at least a couple of rewrites to ensure that the work you’re sending them is actually a coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end. Think of it in terms of making a piece of furniture. If your manuscript were a table, it should have a top, four legs, no nails sticking out, and should be recognizable as the table it will ultimately be. It doesn’t have to be varnished or even necessarily sanded down, but you shouldn’t send it to your beta with two legs and a jagged splinter hanging off the side.

Where do I find beta readers? 

If you belong to a writing group, you can frequently call on members of that group as beta readers. Websites like the World Literary Cafe, Writer’s Digest, or Goodreads also have areas designed specifically for authors seeking betas. If you decide you need a professional beta reader, many editors (including this one) offer the service, or can refer you to someone who does.

When should I pay someone for beta reading? 

If you have a novel that you believe has significant structural issues, a professional beta reader can help pinpoint what those issues are and help you address them. When hired to beta read at Adian, I provide a complete written summary and analysis of all aspects of the story, breaking down areas that could use improvement and providing suggestions for revision. While it is not a content edit, a writer receives much of the same feedback (without the benefit of receiving a line-by-line edited manuscript at the end of the job) for a fraction of the cost.

When I give my beta reader my manuscript, should I ask specific questions before they begin? 

This depends on your reader. Some betas want a list of questions, while others prefer to read the manuscript cold and note any questions or concerns that arise that way. Unless the beta specifically says he or she does not want any questions first, I do recommend giving a quick rundown of some of your areas of concern. If you’re particularly worried about pacing, character development, dialogue, etc., give your beta a heads-up. Personally, my preference is to have as much information as possible regarding the author’s concerns.

How long should it take for my beta to finish reading? 

If you’ve hired a professional, you should come up with a timeline beforehand so that you know when you can expect to hear from your reader. If you’re relying on someone who offers the service for free, or you’re trading beta reads with a fellow author, tell them up front what your timeline and publishing schedule looks like. Do recognize that this is a time investment for them, and act accordingly. Say thank you. Don’t nag while they’re reading. If something comes up and they’re unable to meet your deadline (with the exception of the paid beta, of course), try to understand their perspective and work with them to come up with a new timeline.

What happens after my beta has finished reading? 

Take a little time to digest what feedback the beta has provided. Just a note: Criticism — even constructive criticism — can be hard to take, but resist the urge to try and explain or defend yourself in response to every comment made. Always keep in mind that  you won’t have the opportunity to explain your choices to your readers; your beta(s) give you a great chance for an intimate look into what many of your readers’ thoughts and reactions will be. Rather than be defensive, be grateful for this opportunity from people who aren’t passing judgment — they’re trying to help you make your novel better, not tear it (or you) apart.

If you didn’t provide pointed questions before, now is the time for them. After you’ve had some time to process the suggestions and feedback given, look through your questions to determine what hasn’t been addressed yet. Start coming up with a plan of attack. The notes should give you some direction in terms of how to make your next revisions. If they don’t, ask: What would you do to make this a better novel? How long did it take before you were invested in the story? Were there points when your interest lagged? Was the ending satisfying? If not, why? If they loved it, what did they love about it?

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As more and more writers publish their work, the value of a communicative, thoughtful critical reader becomes increasingly important. Work on honing this skill in your own reading, and you’ll find that it not only helps you assist other writers, but will become invaluable in judging and refining your own work.

Jen Blood is bestselling author of the Erin Solomon Mysteries, and owner of Adian Writing, Editing & Publishing Consultation. Click here to get your free copy of Editing A to Z, a Comprehensive Cheat Sheet for Writers.