Writing Tips from a Writer in the Trenches

Beta Readers: What You Need to Know

What Are They, Why Do You Need Them, and Where Do You Find Them

New writers often find themselves overwhelmed by information and advice from so many different sources.

So many terms you’ve probably never heard of before: Purple prose, murdering darlings, active voice, passive voice, deep point of view, critique partners, beta readers…the list goes on and on.

And so much of the advice you get is contradictory: Never use present tense, present tense is great for young adult novels, never use a prologue, prologues are wonderful, join a writing group, don’t join a writing group, use at least five beta readers, never use more than two, find a critique partner, you don’t need a critique partner.

It took me a while to figure things out and decide which advice to take. I can’t offer you an definitive list, because what resonates with one writer, may be useless to another.

My advice is to read craft books, take classes, sit in on a writing group to see how it functions, go to workshops if you can, many are free, and come up with your own list.

Two pieces of advice I’ve found very useful in my writing career, are: use beta readers, and find a critique partner. (Stay tuned for my piece on critique partners.)

This post will be about everything you’ve ever wanted to know about beta readers, and possibly more.

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

Beta Readers

Definition according to Wikipedia:

A beta reader is usually an unpaid test reader of an unreleased work of writing who gives feedback from the point of view of an average reader to the author

  • Beta readers aren’t professionals, offering only their opinions as an average reader. They can help identify places in the manuscript where issues with plot, pacing, and consistency exist, and help point out areas in the narrative where the story does not create the emotional response the author was looking for.
  • Typically an author will give a beta reader a list of things they are concerned about, and ask that the reader comment on these things. Betas provide broad impressions only, no line edits or copyedits.
  • It’s best to use more than one beta reader, at least five for me. Having the opinion of a group of readers allows you to look for repetition of the same comments on the same sections. One comment is opinion, two suggests a possible issue, three confirms that something is not working, and five clearly identifies an area that must be rewritten.
  • If possible, choose betas who are in your target audience: preferred genre, age category, interests, and even gender. It won’t serve you as well to ask someone who only enjoys hard science fiction to read your romance novel, or to ask a romance reader to read a high fantasy story. Chances are, they won’t enjoy the story. Of course, they could still offer helpful feedback, but their reading preferences may colour that feedback. That being said, there are people who read across a wide variety of genres, who understand the publishing world, and who are capable of putting aside their personal preferences and offering constructive feedback. Often these are other writers who don’t necessarily write in your genre, but have a clear understanding of what makes a story work.
  • Of course we all want our families and friends to read our work, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but if you’re looking for honest constructive feedback, it’s best to choose people who are not emotionally connected to you. This means they won’t be afraid to hurt your feelings if something in the narrative is not working for them.
  • And speaking of feelings, if at all possible, search for individuals who understand that constructive criticism does not mean shredding someone’s work. Readers who are able to make their point firmly and confidently but are able to do so in a kind manner, are invaluable.
  • Use readers who have not read your manuscript before. Fresh eyes are always best. If you revise, start with new readers again.

Okay, you’ve figured out what beta readers are and how to choose them, and now…

Photo by Rémi Walle on Unsplash

Where do you find them?

  1. Twitter. Check out the hastag: #betareaders or #BetaReader, etc. You can ask for readers by tweeting with this tag. Follow @critqueconnect, you can read all about this new project here:
  2. Goodreads: You can find beta groups here:
  3. Local writing groups can be a good source of beta readers. Often other writers are interested in swapping manuscripts
  4. Writing conferences can also be a great place to find other writers interested in sharing manuscripts for review.
  5. Facebook. There are countless groups dedicated to beta readers that you can ask to join. Here are just a few: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1662819743977604/ https://www.facebook.com/groups/241737905853186/ https://www.facebook.com/groups/1782619931753141/

What to ask for from your Beta Readers?

There are many checklists available for free online. Choose one that best suits your needs. The clearer you are in stating your expectations for your betas, the more useful their responses will be.

This one that I use

Beta Reader Questionnaire

1.) Does the opening (i.e. first line, paragraph, page and/or chapter) draw you into the story?

2.) Did you connect with the characters and care if they succeed in the story? Did you love or love to hate the appropriate characters? If not, can you explain why?

3.) If there are romantic elements to the story, do you long for the hero and heroine to end up together? If not, why?

4.) Was the dialogue believable or did you find it stilted? Was the speech appropriate for the time, place and world created by the author? Did it remain consistent throughout the story?

5.) Did you “see” the world the author engrossed you in, or did you have trouble visualizing the scenery, clothing, architecture, etc.?

6.) Was there any place in the book that you lost focus while reading? If so, when and why?

7.) Were you emotionally satisfied at the end? Do you want to read another book by the author? Would you recommend this book to a friend? Please explain if there are any issues that would prevent you from purchasing or recommending this book to a friend.

8.) Did you have trouble focusing on the storyline due to any editing issues (i.e. punctuation, capitalization and spelling)?

Please provide any additional notes that you’d like to share with the author:

* * *

That’s pretty much all I can think of to tell you…

Now, go write.