Critique series: Finding and using beta readers
Beta readers are people like family and friends, right? The first time I finished a book, I had my grandfather reading it, my parents read it, and I managed to get one of my friends to read it, too. My granddad wondered what I thought about on a normal day because I couldn’t be sane, and my parents wondered why they were dead in the first chapter of the book (they weren’t, and they weren’t the inspiration for the parental figures). My friends loved it, which, duh. It was my first book. Of course it was fantastic, right? I’m a writer. It’s supposed to get good feedback like that, right?
Sorry, but no. I’m not saying friends and family aren’t the first people you should turn to. They’re a great resource, and they can be good encouragement. If they’re willing to be honest, they can be good for your health—the writer health part. They can be beta readers, and they can do an awesome job at it.
The thing is, though, friends and family shouldn’t be your only resource. Fellow writers, editors you might know (like me), people who are critical readers, and even your English teachers/professors are good resources.
Disclaimer: For the record, editors aren’t free readers (like me). I’m selectively free just like any other editor. My “like me” comment was because I’m an editor, and you know me because you’re reading this post. We’re at least acquaintances at this point, but that’s not the point.
What is a beta reader?
If you read the post I wrote before this one, alpha readers are the readers you have while you’re writing your book, which you can read about here. Beta readers are the critiquers you have after your book is as awesome as you can make it. You’ve made the revisions you know to make because you went through my series on revisions, and you need another pair of eyes. That’s where your beta readers come in. They will read your finished book, take notes, maybe correct a few things, write down questions they have, and point out flaws and plot holes so you can go back and fix them.
They. Are. Awesome.
Here are a few of the main things they do in comparison to an alpha. Keep in mind, they’re similar.
- They can point out plot holes that you and the alphas might have missed
- They can help identify when the book gets boring/slow or point out when it’s too fast or confusing
- They have the whole book, not just parts at a time, so they’ll be able to identify how the story and narrative flow
- Your betas will be fans and promoters, too
- Where you and your alpha might have forgotten during the revision stage, a beta will see unnecessary scenes and characters that might have once been important in the early stages of your writing
- Your alpha will meet your characters as you discuss it with them; your beta has no idea. They’ll have more questions about the characters than your alpha might have
They do so much more, of course, but these are a few great examples that contrast the roles of alpha and beta.
Why do I need a beta reader if I had an alpha reader?
If you remember, this is what I said in my alpha post about this same question:
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Beta readers read after your story is finished and revised. They are the fresh pair of eyes that will find things your trained, all-knowing eyes can’t. You know everything about that story, so you can’t find things when you know the answer already. Well, your alpha reader will be the same. You discuss your story with your alpha reader (or readers) and the story sits in their brain like it does yours. They are good for the writing process, but after things are finished on your end, they are almost as blind to mistakes as you are.
Like that. Alphas will forget things in your story like you will. They’re two different people. Treat them like chocolate and peanut butter. Both are amazing, and when you eat one by itself, you might wonder why you need the other. Put those things together, though, and you realize that they make your life whole again. If you’re allergic to peanuts or chocolate, I’m sorry. I truly am.
I just need one beta reader, right?
Um, no. That’s blunt, huh? It’s okay. This answer is the same for alpha readers, and it’s so easy to just slip a manuscript to one person. However, what one person misses, another person sees. Even an editor makes mistakes. You will, too, and your beta reader will, as well.
Our brain tends to fill in the blanks sometimes, and, like any piece of art, one person’s interpretation is different from the next. Where one might make sense of something, another might be confused and realize something is wrong. That has less to do with skill and more to do with proper interpretation of text, however.
But I don’t want the whole world to read my book. I need some readers who haven’t been alphas or betas.
Trust me. There are hundreds of thousands of people who can still read your book. You know how publishers have ARC readers and stuff who write reviews before publishing? Well, your alphas and betas will not be ARC readers, but they’ll have a similar role because they’ll be early promoters of your book. They’re not really obligated, but if they know how good your book is, and especially if they’re as invested in it as you are, they’ll talk. They’ll tell people who might be interested.
If you had a role in making something great, wouldn’t you want to share it with everyone, too?
I already fixed plot holes. I don’t think a beta reader will find much.
Perhaps not, but how do you know? Again, you’re blind to your mistakes at this point. Let them find what you can’t. Fix what they find. I’m an editor, and you won’t ever catch me writing a book without looking for a beta reader or ten. They’re invaluable. And, they’re free.
Free? Sweet, so I won’t need an editor, right?
Good joke. Remember, editors have sharper eyes than the average person. We get paid because we’re “beta readers” who are trained to do the job, and we know how to refine a writer’s voice. It’s not like either DIYing your windows or hiring a professional. It’s more like building a barn for your little farm and then getting someone out there to tell you whether it’s up to code after all your friends come out and take a look. You can do the job, and you can even get help from someone who has done it before. But, without that professional pair of eyes, you might have missed something without realizing it. We know what to look for.
How do you work with a beta reader?
You send them the manuscript then wait, right? Go for it, but if you don’t hear back from them in a month, don’t be surprised. When you look for beta readers, one of the first things you should ask is if they have time to read it. If not, maybe they can be an ARC later or maybe they can just buy the book if they’re interested.
Look for people who will read it within a couple weeks or a month, maybe two. It depends on your timeline, but give them time to read slowly and take necessary notes. They’re reading a draft. Either way, schedule checkpoints and discussions when you can so they can keep you updated, and you can help them stay on track. Otherwise, you’re at the mercy of their schedule and willingness to make the time.
Is it a good idea to tell them what to look for?
Yes. Now, don’t tell them that they should only look for ___, ___, and ___. But, it wouldn’t hurt to make a short list of things you might be concerned about. You can even provide a comprehensive Q&A list, as one of my readers suggested, that details a few scenes, moments, character development thoughts, etc. that you want them to consider through their read.
This is up to you. It’s not mandatory, but it’s a good idea because it will give them a place from which to start. It will allow them to keep those important things in mind, but remind them that they can point out anything else they see along the way.
What if they don’t get back to me?
This is another reason you need more than one. Not all of them will. That’s just a hard truth. It’s not always because they don’t like the book and are afraid to tell you—which doesn’t make sense because that’s what they were supposed to do. Sometimes, they just don’t have the time. That’s okay. You have other betas. But, it’s best to ask them to let you know if they realize they don’t have time so you’re not playing the waiting game for no reason.
What if they say they couldn’t finish my story? What if they say it’s cliché?
Whatever they say, ask why. Get the feedback you need. It will be a painful thing to hear, but that’s the job of a beta reader. Ask. Ask them why so you can fix the problem. Remember, the reader isn’t always right, but you should always consider what they have to say because you’ll have plenty of readers who might think the same thing. Don’t take what they say personally. It will sting, but it’ll make you a better writer, too.
Consider giving them a gift.
This isn’t mandatory, nor are you obligated, really. This is a courtesy. Even a signed copy of your book when it’s published isn’t a bad gift, but a coffee shop gift card or something won’t hurt, either. Again, you don’t have to, but they deserve it if you are able.
How do I find beta readers?
Glad you asked! We already discussed family and friends, which are usually a great go-to for the first batch of betas. Fellow writers are a good place to look, too.
The best beta readers will always be the writer for which you are also a beta reader. I know you want me to say something easy that allows you to take and not give, but don’t be self-centered here. You might think you don’t have time for reading, but if someone is going to set aside time for you, why won’t you help them? Anyone who wants to participate in an alpha/beta reader trade can fill out a contact form. In Authors’ Tale, we’re slowly starting a forum in which people can get help like this. If you’re willing to be a beta reader but don’t have a book to share, fill out that form and simply say so. For now, it’s not yet a forum but we’re building a list.
Write for yourself, but edit for your reader.
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