How to Choose the Best Beta Readers for Your Book (and Avoid the Worst)
Every writer publishes their books with a healthy hope for the best — 5-star reviews, glowing comments, endless awards showering them with praise, not to mention the coveted bestseller list!
“You bet your ass you’re going to see my book there!” they think. “It’ll be the next Harry Potter!”
Unfortunately, most writers make one critical mistake that dooms their book before it even reaches the shelves: They don’t have beta readers.
Or rather, they have beta readers, but not the right ones.
This is a huge problem because beta readers should not only represent your target market’s attitude towards your story, but also the general public’s and critics’ attitude.
Now I’ll admit that most writers have fragile egos (myself included) and we’ll protect ourselves by choosing beta readers who will build us up rather than break us down, but this defeats the whole purpose of beta reading.
The moment we publish our book, the distorted reality we’ve been living in will disappear along with our chances of becoming a bestseller (or even a mediocre seller).
So who are the best people to beta read your work? Who are the worst? And how do you know?
The Best Beta Readers
Leave any shred of self-esteem at the door when you recruit these people to read your writing. They are complete assholes. They are the Gordon Ramseys and Simon Cowells of the book world and they have no remorse. This is what makes them invaluable.
Why? Because rage-filled nitpickers exist in the real world and they’re going to read your book too. By recruiting one of them to find fault with almost everything you write, you take a preemptive strike against your future haters and gain the chance to strengthen your story against their future attacks. Sure, sometimes they go too far and they’ll probably hurt your feelings (hence why people don’t like to have these people read their work) but it’s better to have too much feedback than too little, eh?
Recommended: 1–2 minimum
The Adoring Fan
This is the person who loves everything you write even when it’s garbage. They think you fart rainbows and poop gold. In fact, they know you do. These are the people most writers surround themselves with — usually in the form of doting parents and friends. While you shouldn’t take this type of beta reader’s feedback too seriously, they are a necessity. Their unending awe at everything you do boosts your motivation when you’re at your lowest and makes you truly believe you’ll become a hit.
They’re especially important to recover from the Bulldog Beta Reader’s merciless critiques. Plus, adoring fans can act as inspiration. Any time you’re slacking off, these people will remind you that you have true potential and you need to get back to writing again.
Recommended: as many as you want, just don’t let them give you an inflated sense of skill
These people are grammar nazis. They will nitpick the shit out of everything you write — “There’s supposed to be a comma here; oh, and the first letter of words coming after an exclamation in dialogue are always lowercase” — but they are a must for serious writers. While they may not know the structure of a story, they do know the structure of language. These people make sure your writing is polished, professional, ready to land on an agent’s desk.
Keep in mind that, although these types of beta readers know a lot about language, they aren’t impervious to human error, so you should probably recruit several of them to be as thorough as possible.
This is especially important because many writers do not have access to official editors or the money to buy their services. You’ll want to make up for your (unofficial) editors’ grammatical deficits by increasing the number of editors. With more eyes coming at it from different angles there’s less chance of a mistake going unnoticed.
Plus, if you’re currently attending school, I’d recommend talking to one of the English teachers or stopping by at the writing center (if you’re in college). Most colleges have writing centers and their price is included with your tuition.
Recommended: 2–3 minimum
“Hold on, Ryan, you’re saying I need someone who reads books to read my book? That sounds redundant.” And you’re right. But it goes deeper. You need a bunch of readers, both in your target audience and outside.
For example, if you’re writing a paranormal vampire romance, your audience will most likely be teenage girls; therefore you need teenage girls to beta read your book. But there are always exceptions to the rule. Twilight had quite a few middle-aged mom fans and Harry Potter has fans of all ages even though it was mostly geared towards children.
Ideally, you need people of all ages, genders, races, sexualities, and different genre tastes to read your book. Keep track of what they say about your book and which types of people like it most. If you don’t already know your target market, this will help you figure it out!
Recommended: 10 minimum. Make sure they’re trustworthy.
The difference between the critic and the editor is that the critic knows story. They know character development, plot, pacing, symbolism, moral argument, theme, dialogue, and world building — everything that makes up a great story.
They’re better than Bulldog Beta Readers too because they hone in on the real problems, especially if you tell them your goals for the story beforehand.
These people are rare. Any time you can find them, you should snatch them up like an Infinity Stone and add them to your gauntlet of primary beta readers. These are the people that will make your story a hit with the literary community as well as help you win awards and professional recognition. They take your book from commercial hit to a cult classic or a straight up masterpiece!
Recommended: 1–2 minimum, if you can find them.
If you want to turn your book into a force to be reckoned with, read this list and review it as you recruit. It, along with the guidelines in my article about how to get great feedback, are great resources for improving your writing. I’d also recommend getting beta readers for your short stories — this way you’ll have at least a few people who are acclimatized to your voice and style when you’re ready for your book to be reviewed.
There are also definitely some people you should not let beta read your story…
The Worst Beta Readers
Some people say they’ll read your writing but they never do, or they read it but never get back to you. Either way, these people aren’t helpful. They’re not contributing usable feedback to improve your writing.
Analyze how often these people follow through on their promise to help you and don’t be afraid to cut them out. You can’t say “I have 6 beta readers” if only 4 of them regularly review your work. This should seem obvious, but some writers fill a quota of x amount of beta readers and leave it at that, thinking they’ve got a solidly staffed team. However, if some of these beta readers are ghost readers, you’re not getting a full return on your time and investment. You’re sending your stories out into the world and getting absolutely nothing back. Stop wasting your time and cut these people out, even if you love them.
The Backseat Writer
“I think [famous author] would do it this way,” is their favorite thing to say. Sometimes it’s Rowling, sometimes it’s Tolkien or Bradbury or Vonnegut — maybe even Patterson, Grisham, or Nora Roberts — it doesn’t matter. These empty comparisons don’t help you. None of them matter because you are not these writers.
When you’re writing, you need to forget how bestselling and classical authors write. Write as you would write. The problem with these types of beta readers is that they don’t want you to write as you would write, they want you to write as they’ve seen their favorite authors write.
When they’re not trying to turn your book into their favorite author’s work, these beta readers may try to turn your book into their own book, suggesting things that would make your story personally fulfilling for them but makes no sense in your narrative.
A true beta reader, on the other hand, knows what you want your story to do, the impact you want it to have on people and the world, and they help you to shape it in your own image, not theirs and not someone else’s.
Don’t get me wrong, your style may feel flat and need revisions and Stephen King may provide good examples on how to do that, but if a beta reader’s main input is simply, “Be more like this author because that’s my definition of success,” you need to cut them off. They will smother your voice, your style, and your success.
When I say strangers, I mean strangers. Maybe I’m just paranoid that someone is going to steal my work, but I don’t think I’m the only one with this fear and I don’t think I’m completely unjustified in believing it happens. To me, it makes sense not to trust your work to someone you’ve never met before, especially if you haven’t copyrighted it yet (we’ll get into copyrighting in a later blog post).
Don’t let strangers read your work even if you’re desperate. While it’s great to get beta readers outside your target audience, these people are strangers enough that you don’t know what books they normally read, if they read at all, or if their opinion can be trusted. Basically, you can’t consider them valuable sources of feedback because you have no good data to evaluate them with. Until you send them your writing, that is.
But maybe I’m just paranoid and you should give them a chance. If you do, be sure to stick your name at the top of every page, convert your Word document into a PDF, and then save the emails/messages you used to correspond with them for written proof.
Beta readers are your first line of defense against bad writing. If you choose good ones, your story will have a much better chance of impressing agents and editors and overall appearing like a professional piece of writing. Without beta readers (or bad ones), you’re looking at a future full of uncertainty and rejection — specifically, uncertainty and rejection that could’ve been avoided if you had recruited a good team of writers to give you the feedback your story needs to become a masterpiece.