Why Beta Readers Can Revolutionize Your Writing

by Guest Blogger | 37 comments

What exactly is a Beta Reader, and why should you care?

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The term ‘beta' is borrowed from the software industry, meaning the beta ‘tests’ (reads) your full, finished manuscript to help you eliminate ‘bugs’ (problems) before it’s published.

Here’s a more official online definition I like: “An alpha reader or beta reader, also a pre-reader or critiquer, is a non-professional reader who reads a written work, generally fiction, with the intent of looking over material to find and improve elements such as grammar and spelling, as well as suggestion to improve the story, its characters, or its setting.”

All true, but they left out the most important benefit.

Beta readers are invaluable to your writing. Here’s why…

What Beta Readers Do For You

Every writer needs other critical eyes to assess their work before releasing it to its ultimate destiny: your family, a writing contest, publication.

It’s hard to hold a 400-page novel in your head and not leave out a few minor or major details. Beta readers help with:

* Plot holes – Aspects from your story that don’t make sense, don’t work, or are incorrect.

* Clarity – Characters, places or situations that seem clear to you, but aren’t to your readers.

* Pacing problems – Not keeping the conflict alive in your story.

* Mistakes – We all make them. I once was a reader for an author who called her heroine by two different names throughout her entire book. She sent me a bouquet of roses for catching such a glaring oversight.

Don’t Substitute Your Critique Group for Beta Readers

I’ve been in the same weekly critique group for over fourteen years now. They’ve heard all my novels through their various stages, chapter by chapter.

They are not beta readers. Why?

  1. Continuity – A beta reader reads your full, finished manuscript, like an actual reader will someday do over the course of hours, days, weeks or months. The consistency of one person’s opinion throughout your whole manuscript makes a world of difference.
  2. Avoiding groupthink problems – Often it’s the most vocal opinions expressed in writing circles, while other suggestions or ideas go unheard. You have this person’s undivided attention on your words. Priceless.

Find two or three readers for your work. You may get differing opinions, which is good.

Qualifications for Beta Readers

* Avid readers (mandatory) – This is the #1 attribute you need. Someone who reads often and loves books.

* Reads the genre you’re writing (optional) – It’s preferable to find have someone who understands your category. A fan of violent thrillers may not be the right fit for your gentle romance.

* Match your target audience (optional) – Ideally, you want the same demographic as your reader: age, gender and interests. If not, find someone who can mimic your criteria. A story about a nine-year old boy detective can be read by the parent of such a child.

* Hasn’t read your manuscript before (optional) – A fresh pair of eyes is best.

* Understands publishing (optional) – It’s a bonus if they also understand the business side of writing.

* Can be unbiased (mandatory) –  You need an honest, impartial opinion, so forget about your mom.

* Can convey their opinion without crushing your soul (preferable) – On the flip side, you want someone who shows you what’s wrong with your manuscript, without making you feel too stupid to live.

Do You Pay for Beta Readers?

Some people do, and there’ s nothing wrong with it. However, I think the best beta readers are writers. Folks who trade favors with each other. Writers understand better than civilians the discipline and courage it takes to craft a story. It's a mutual respect.

Expectations for Beta Readers

* Agree on the parameters of the beta reading beforehand – Instruct them  if you have specific requests for their focus: plot, pacing, characterization, theme, or all of the above.

* Read and return the work in a timely manner – Be realistic. Yes, your manuscript is your precious baby, but expecting someone to read your 333-page novel in twenty-four hours is unreasonable.

* Reads your work in their preferred format — Some people like hard copies of your stories, so they can make comments on it (like me). Others, want to read electronically and make notations via the computer (that’s what my former agent did). Yes, it’s not cheap to print out a book several hundred page long, but do whatever will help them help you.

If You’re Self-Publishing, You Should Still Pay for Editing

Copy editing (correcting grammar, typos, repetitions) is not a beta reader’s number one responsibility. You should still pay a professional for this service.

Where do You Find Beta Readers?

Geography is no longer an issue. The Internet connects writers from all over world. Here are suggestions for near and far:

* Local Writers Groups – Google ‘writers group’ and the name of your town to help you find options in your area.

* Writing workshops, conferences – Visit with others during breaks. No, it’s not easy to talk to strangers, but you're already attending the same seminar together, so you have a conversation starter. Risk it.

* Online writing blogs, classes, sites – It’s the same principal as above. Places like The Write Practice if full of potential beta readers, and better yet, friends. Goodreads offers a page of such resources. as well I’ve also recently learned about a great site, called Scribophile. It’s a free community of writers. You earn points by giving free feedback and spend points to post your work. Although I’ve never used it myself, I’m told the participants seem to have good intentions and it’s a fun group.

* Social media – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, all have writing groups and are wonderful places to search.

It takes time to find the right beta readers, but anyone who improves your writing is well worth the effort. Good luck.

What are you thoughts on using a beta reader? Let us know in the comments section.

PRACTICE

Practice writing for fifteen minutes about a writer named  Harry who shares his novel with a beta reader named Sally. She finds a HUGE mistake within his story and saves the literary day!

Please share what you have written in the comments and leave feedback on someone else's writing.

This article is by a guest blogger. Would you like to write for The Write Practice? Check out our guest post guidelines.

37 Comments

  1. Cynthia Franks

    I disagree about the best beta readers being writers. That’s what your writing group is for! Writers are not your market. I feel that once the manuscript is as good as you can make it, you need to have it read by beta readers who are the potential audience.

    As a writer of YA fiction, I have the privilege of getting feedback from middle schoolers. They are my best source for books to read and they give the best feedback.

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Duly noted, Cynthia. I did comment to try have your beta reader match your target audience in age, gender and interests. For me, my beta readers who are writers are better than the non-writers. I’m glad that’s not the case for you. Good luck with your YA’s.

  2. Susan Barker

    http://www.critiquecircle.com is similar to scribophile as you earn points to send up your work by critiquing other peoples work. They in turn critique yours. The site also has writing tools and information that is useful.

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Thanks for sharing about Critique Circle, Susan. Always good to have new resources.

  3. Julie Mayerson Brown

    Great advice – I had a beta read of my manuscript and gleaned some excellent suggestions. One of my writing friends organized the readers and format. That created a little distance between the readers and me, which I think helped them to be unbiased.

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      How cool to have a middle man broker your manuscripts with your beta readers. That thought has never crossed my mind, but I LOVE it. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Catherine North

    I think trust is so important when selecting a beta reader, especially if you’re naturally quite sensitive or thin-skinned. You need someone who can be honest and give you suggestions for improvement, without crushing your soul in the process. When I first started writing, I allowed literally anybody to see my work, and I found the negative and conflicting feedback overwhelming, to the point where I nearly quit. I then went to the other extreme and was terrified to let anyone read my writing. These days I look for beta readers who understand what I’m trying to do and provide the perfect balance between honest criticism and supportive encouragement. When you find that reader, they are worth their weight in gold 🙂

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      I agree with EVERYTHING you said, Catherine. A bad beta reader can break your heart and make you want to quit altogether. I’m glad you’ve learned NOT to share your work with just anyone.

    • Carrie Lynn Lewis

      Catherine,

      We’ve walked similar paths. With the first writer’s group I joined, I thought everyone had the same level of expertise, compassion, and concern, so I subjected excerpts publicly. The first negative feedbacks I received (and there were many) were almost enough to swear me off writer’s groups forever.

  5. Christine

    I agree, too, that beta readers are invaluable. And definitely find at least one who understands the time period you’re writing about and the social customs thereof. I had to laugh when, partway through a novel set in 1539, I read how the young Austrian woodworker was making a bookcase for his new bride. True, the printing press was invented in 1440 by Johannes Gutenburg, and printing out have been common 90 years later, but the state church of the day would have looked with suspicion on anyone possessing books — never mind enough books to fill a bookcase.

    I also beta-read a story set in London circa 1944. According to the story, a seventeen year old English girl meets and marries a Canadian soldier stationed on a CFB there, though her parents are dead set against the union. In my mind the story line was blown to pieces right in the first chapter.

    First off, no Allied govt based their soldiers smack in a war zone where bombs were raining down steadily. (She may have met him when he was on a leave, but not been able to see him regularly for months prior to their wedding.) Secondly, all school-age children were evacuated from the large cities in 1939, as soon as Britain declared war. This girl would have been 12 back then and one of the evacuees. Third, a girl of 17 couldn’t marry without parental consent. I think back then you had to be 21.

    As to poor Harry, mentioned above, who has gotten Sally to beta read his family history:
    “Harry,” says Sally, “I can see a few problems here. You say your great great grandfather was among the soldiers who rode into Montana with General Custer, that they were going to deal with the threat from the Sioux, led by Sitting Bull. And you tell of how the governor of Montana greeted the soldiers when they arrived in the State.”

    “That’s correct, Sally.” The governor was so pleased that the Calvary was coming to help them get things set in order, that he gave them all a special audience. They all saluted the State flag and the governor presented each one with a special tie tack.”

    “But Harry, the Battle of the Little Bighorn was fought in June of 1876 and Montana didn’t become a state until Nov1889. How will you explain that discrepancy?”

    Harry mumbled something uncharitable. “I’ll have you know I got this fact directly from my own dear Grandpa before he died — and he heard it from his grandpa, who lived through it. Now, those were men of integrity; they certainly wouldn’t falsify the facts. Thus it must be true. So there.”

    Reply
    • Frank Ralph

      haha! I like his stubbornness at the end, I think that’s something common in most writers. 🙂

    • Christine

      Oh, yes! I’ve squabbled with some of my proof-readers over some pretty minor points at times. And then when it’s “family history”…

    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Great thoughts about matching the right beta readers with your work, Christine. Thank you.
      Also, your Harry-and-Sally piece made me chuckle. She’s just trying to help, and he won’t let her. Fun example. 🙂

  6. Sonia Bellhouse

    Hi Marcy,

    Thanks for the post on Beta reading- can I say from the perspective of a
    Beta reader – (who is also a writer); that’s its an invaluable experience . It
    allows you to focus on what is/isn’t working in what you are reading as well as
    giving you insights into your own work. Currently I am Beta reading for a quite
    well known author and I am amazed at both how succinct and yet compelling her
    descriptions are. I also volunteered to read a Non Fiction book- on a topic I
    know nothing about by another writer. She is branching out from fiction into non
    fiction- it’s something I have considered myself – so its interesting to see the
    tone of the book, the break down of chapters and the overall length.
    I am also a member of a writing group- but over time you learn to distinguish each others writing and even ‘hear’ text in that author’s voice.

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      What interesting perspectives, Sonia. I’m so glad you joined the conversation and LOVE hearing what a worthy experience it is for you as a beta reader. You aren’t just giving your time and attention to others. You’re GROWING as a writer. It’s a win-win. Fantastic. Thanks.

  7. Doug Schenek

    How do you go about it if it’s a graphic novel?

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Same process, but BE SURE to find beta readers who LIKE graphic novels. Otherwise, they may not understand your work and do more harm than good. Google around to find online graphic novel groups, if you’re not already part of any to find like-minded folks there.

  8. ANNIE EVE

    Thanks for sharing. I’m just in this process and found 4 B-readers. All women. Shall i find a “man” even if my target is women ? Any advice ?

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      I think your covered with beta readers, Annie. If the right guy comes along, then sure, but I think you’re fine. Good luck!

    • ANNIE EVE

      Thanks ! your view helps me ! Have a good week-end !

  9. Regina @ Book Lovers MY

    Thank you for writing this post.

    I’m working on my first novel and I definitely need beta readers to tell me whether my story makes sense to them. Perhaps because this is my first story, I’m not dare to seek help from strangers. I would prefer to invite some of my friends or someone I know to be an avid reader to help out.

    But no matter what, your post gave me a new insights on selecting beta readers. Thanks again!

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      I agree with you, Regina. Since this is your first story, I think it’s best to find beta readers you know. What an exciting time for you. Congratulations and good luck!

  10. Frank Ralph

    “So, how was it?” Harry said. One hand was on the table, in front of the manuscript, the other was in his hair.

    “It was good, Harry,” Sally said, “but—”

    “But what? What is it?” Harry’s hand was now twirling his straight, black hair.

    “There’s a problem with one of the characters.”

    The twirling intensified, now two fingers were working in synchrony.

    “You see, Harry, Jelly-man is certainly a unique character, but he doesn’t seem the serial killer type.”

    “Why not? He drowns victims by smothering them in Jelly. What’s not diabolical about that?”

    “He is very diabolical. It’s just that he,” Sally placed her fingers on the manuscript, “He let’s Graham live near the end. It’s just not in stride with what his character has been.”

    “Yeah but there’s a reason for that, he feels sorry for Graham, because he reminds him of himself, its showing his guilt for his past. It’s brilliant.”

    “What past?”

    “Don’t you see, Jelly-man was beaten as a kid by his family, they hurt him all the time, and so when he meets Graham, he relates to it. He knows Graham’s past and lets him live.”

    “Wait,” Sally put her glasses down. “What?”

    “Yeah, it’s almost like a mirror, or a foil, that’s when one character—”

    “Harry, I know what your saying. But where did you mention all of this?”

    “Oh Sally, that’s all implied, I can’t just write that a character is a foil of another.”

    “I know that, I mean the background, how he was beaten by his family. There’s no mention of that anywhere in the book.”

    “Yeah, so?”

    “Well don’t you think the reader needs to know about his background, in order to see his emotional connection with Graham.”

    “Well yeah but, I don’t want to make it too easy, yanno?”

    “I understand, Harry, but it has to be at least implied, otherwise the reader is confused. Maybe a flashback, or have Graham find old police or medical records. That would get the point across.”

    Harry nodded. “Or maybe Jelly-man deliberately gets himself caught, so he can go prison and find his abusive father and kill him. It would be interesting, there would be action, and we get the back story.”

    Sally smiled, “We could do that, too.”

    Reply
    • Christine

      The plot thickens!
      The Justice Dept will probably blacklist Harry’s novel, though, not wanting people to get the idea someone can go to prison in order to kill someone who resides ‘inside’. 🙂

    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Thanks for the smile, Christine. 🙂

    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Frank – you made me laugh out loud with Jelly-man, the evil serial killer. This was spot-on why beta readers are invaluable. Well written; plus, extra points for the humor. HA!

  11. Carrie Lynn Lewis

    Since then, I’ve found two writing partners whose input I value.

    This
    information on beta readers is invaluable. I’ve only recently begun
    submitting to beta readers and have found that it’s the same
    trial-and-error process as finding good crit partners.

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      You are so right, Carrie Lynn. Beta readers are trial-and-effort, but I believe SOOOO worth the effort. It makes all the difference in the world for someone whose opinion you value to read your work continuously like a real reader. Huge.

    • Carrie Lynn Lewis

      Amen. Like so many things in life and in the writing life in particular, finding the right people is the biggest part of the struggle. But then very few things worth doing are easy.

  12. marimed

    This is my first time ever in this site or writing , so…
    After months of writing, Harry finally finishes his story. He’s too excited to reread it.
    He logs in to his Facebook account and into his page, where he posts his writings to a humble number of fans, and uploads the pdf file. He sits back both satisfied and anxious, waiting for the feedback.
    After two hours, Sally an enthusiastic fan finishes the story and sends him a private message:
    – Good morning, is this story a joke?-
    Harry, puzzled, writes back:
    -No what do you mean a joke? I’ve spent three months on this story, it’s the best piece I’ve written so far (angry smiley)-
    -Are you drunk? This is the worst story you’ve ever written, are you telling me that you think that this story about ice and whatever is better than the one about a serial killer 5a slip of a tongue) and the romantic ( it only happens in dreams)?-
    Harry pauses for a moment, mice? what mice? His story is a bout adventure, love friendship and self-discovery.
    -You’re the drunk one here, there are no mice in my story!-
    Sally replies:
    -Really? Then what is this about?- and she sends him the pdf file. Harry opens the file only to find a story written by his son that’s entitled ( A story of a mouse). Due to his lack of sleep and excitement of finishing the story, Harry posted the story written by his son that he’s kept in his computer.
    Harry then deletes that file and reposts his real piece. His story becomes viral online and a publishing company asks him to write for them a story which becomes a bestseller, and he lives happily ever after as Sally his editor.

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Mice, drunkenness, confusion — your practice had it all! I’m so glad Harry got the right story published (thanks to Sally) and that they fount success, and even love. This made me smile.
      Thank you for risking yourself and sharing this. I enjoyed it.

    • marimed

      Thank you for taking the time to both read and reply to my story 🙂
      I really want to become a writer but I’ve never been able to show anything I wrote to people before this site.

  13. Jennifer Bowen

    My company does beta reading editorial feedback for authors. bookhivecorp.com Coupon Code BUZZ for $100 off. 🙂

    Reply
  14. MonnaEllithorpe

    I learned a great deal of information from this post. I usually don’t offer to read or beta read books for anyone and I guess that is because I still need to work on my confidence in my own writing. Thanks for sharing your insights.

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Hi Monna,

      Glad you found this post valuable. Most writers need to work on their confidence with their writing, so you’re in the right place. Keep learning, growing and practicing…all these are the key.

  15. BookHive

    Our company, BookHive actually tests in Fiction, YA/Middle Grade & Memoir with eight to ten beta readers, and the results are a 35+ page report, both qualitative and quantitative, full of feedback. Coupon code BUZZ for $100 off. http://www.bookhivecorp.com

    Reply
  16. Michael Riley

    Thanks for your openness and support of paid beta readers. I understand why some writers are squeamish about paying. However, I see how a paid beta reader can offer options. I have enjoyed doing some gigs as a beta reader for YA authors.
    Mikey, gogetmikey.com

    Reply

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