What are beta readers and why do you need them?

Book shelf book variety

Whether this is your first project or your seventh book, beta readers will give you a broader perspective of your content. If you choose them well, they’ll provide you with insights about narrative development, believability, and impact. In this article, I’ll talk about why you need beta readers, how to find them, and what to look for when selecting them.

Why you need beta readers

At the end of the writing process, authors inevitably ask themselves “but will my readers like it?” It’s true that not everyone’s going to love what you’ve done, whether you’re an established author or not. But what’s not true is that there’s nothing you can do to appeal to a bigger audience. Yes, you read that right: You can, in fact, get an idea of how your work will be received before you send it out officially.

Once you’re satisfied with the material you’ve put together and can’t think of any other changes you want (need?) to make, get someone else’s eyes on it. Yes, an editor is useful for this; however, I’m talking about casual and professional readers. It’s about your work’s reception and feel, not a technical breakdown of the piece.

That said, some beta readers will give you a little more. Professional (paid-for) beta readers offer what amounts to a light manuscript assessment. You’ll get more industry-based tips like comments on plot structure and effective point of view.

In general, you’ll get feedback from “I like it” to “this character didn’t work for me because” to help you figure out if you need to make changes. Did that ending scene come across like you wanted it to? Did anyone get the joke on page 73? Could I be even more emotional/violent/outrageous without losing my audience?

Beta readers let you test the water before committing to a final product.

Where to find beta readers

You can get beta readers from anywhere. Classmates, family members, freelancing sites… there are tons of places to turn to for a literary hookup. Where you pick them from largely depends on who you know and what genre you’re writing in. While what you’re looking for is far more specific, and covered below, deciding where you should send your precious cargo only takes a little thought.

First, start as formally as you can. If you have access and funds, you could pay for professional beta reading. Otherwise, look for people who have a history of beta reading in your genre. If you know a published author, see if they’ll give your work a read. They might have some hard-earned insights for you.

There are a plethora of online writing and reading groups that are often receptive to inquiries about beta readers. Search your social media to find a good fit for you, based on your topic or target audience, and get involved. You may be asked to do a beta read for someone else, as well, and that can be an incredibly informative experience.

Goodreads, for example, has a Beta Reader Group you can join.

If you want to find something in-person rather than online, check out local writing groups, book clubs, or qualified instructors (like a professor of economics if you’re writing a book predicated on supply chains). People who perform research, have a love of any kind of literature, or are involved in the industry you’re writing about will have some sound reflections to share.

Friends and family aren’t to be overlooked, either. They know you as a person and will have a more intimate experience with the text than a stranger will. That also means they’ll be super biased. So while you do want your friends and family to review your work, you need to remember that they’ll be unable to be impartial. They will, however, be your primary support group and likely happy to discuss your work with you almost as often as you are. That can be worth its weight in gold!

What to ask a beta reader

There’s no magic number of beta readers—one is better than none and 30 can be overwhelming, though. While you’re considering the where and the who, I want to go over a bit of the how and the what. Namely, how do you work with them and what do you need to ask to get the most out of a beta read.

What do you look for in a beta reader?

You can…

  • make a contract and/or NDA. Or not. Most beta reads I’ve done or had done did not involve a contract. That said, they sure could if you want them to. Just make sure you’re clear on what’s covered if you’re using one. Do your research!
  • send them the whole novel or piecemeal. I usually suggest sending the whole thing, but there are cases that warrant only sending sections. For example, perhaps your econ professor only needs to look at chapters 3, 5, and 9 since they’re on that topic and you have other beta readers for the rest.
  • give them direction on what you want out of the reading—or not! There’s nothing wrong with a blind read (no guidance), but it’s a good idea to share where you’re at in the process at least. If you want to give a little more direction, use the questions below as a launching point for the ones you should be asking.
  • set a deadline. By this point, you should have an idea of how long it takes to read your book. If you don’t… read your book! Then give them an extra week to get their feedback finalized. If a reader can’t match your fixed deadline, this may be another reason to only give them certain chapters.
  • give your work a movie rating and let your beta readers know if it contains any sensitive topics (potential triggers). Sensitive topics include, but aren’t limited to: sexual, mental, or emotional assault and abuse; extreme violence; and graphic descriptions of violence or sexual acts.

Questions you should consider asking your beta readers…

  • What’s your favourite part? Why? What did you think would happen after, and were you happy or disappointed that it did or didn’t happen?
  • Did you like the main character? Did they act in their character throughout the story and was their growth believable? What character(s) didn’t you like? What would make you like them?
  • Is the world believable? Does anything strike you as unrealistic within this world?
  • Did any passages bore you? Please share them and tell me why they didn’t work for you.
  • Did any scenes make you uncomfortable? If so, do you think they belong in the book?
  • Am I missing any major development points? Were you left with questions at the end of the book? What would you add to it if you could?
  • What other books does this remind you of, if any, and how?
  • Was my book the right length?
  • What was the story about and did it have an impact on you?

Notice I didn’t put “will you review my book?” on the list. Of course you want to get reviews of your book. Of course it makes sense for the beta readers to give you one. But it shouldn’t be part of your initial questions because it may turn off some readers or stop some from doing an honest read. At the very best, I’d wait until the read is done and then you can follow up about also doing a review.

One more point of advice: Feel free to disagree with your beta readers. You don’t have to change anything; however, if you notice a pattern in the responses, you might want to consider if that’s the hill you want your book to die on. Consider the source and its impact, then ask some follow-up questions and get alternate opinions to confirm or contest.

In the end, the book is your baby and no one else has to think it’s cute.

Published by M Gardner

Editor and writing coach. I'm keen on helping establish and grow unique authorial voices for maximum impact in the reading world.

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