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. We’re not likely to be a bestseller (or even a mediocre seller).
So just who are the best people to beta read your work? Who are the worst? How do you know? These are the questions we’ll be answering today.
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. But they are invaluable.
Why? Because rage-filled nitpickers exist in the real world and they’re going to read your book too. So recruiting one of them to find fault with almost everything you write acts as a preemptive strike against the haters and allows you to strengthen your story. Sure, sometimes they go too far, but it’s better to have too much feedback than too little.
Recommended: 2–3 minimum
This is the person who loves everything you write even when it’s garbage. They think you fart rainbows and poop gold. While you shouldn’t take this person’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 will become a hit.
Plus, they can act as cattle drivers. Any time you’re slacking off, this person 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 story, they do know the structure of written language. These people make sure your writing is polished and professional and ready to land on an agent’s desk.
However, although these people know a lot about language, they aren’t impervious to human error, so you should probably get several of these to be as thorough as possible.
TIP: Not everyone has access to official editors or the money to afford them, but English teachers are a great substitute. If you’re currently attending a college, stop by the writing center. Most colleges have them 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 teen girls, therefore you need teen 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.
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 can 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.
These people are rare. Any time you can find them, snatch them up like an Infinity Stone and keep them close. 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 cult classic or a straight up masterpiece!
Recommended: 3 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.
Cut these people 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, but they’re not getting a full return on their time and investment. 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. You are not these specific writers.
When you’re writing, you need to forget the bestsellers and forget the classics. Write as you would write.
When they’re not trying to turn your book into their favorite author’s work, these people 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.
The gist is if you’ve got someone whose main input is trying to turn you into someone else, cut them off. They’re going to smother your voice, your style, and your success.
When I say strangers, I mean strangers. Maybe this is because I am paranoid as hell that someone is going to steal my work, but I think this is the universal fear of all writers, which is why 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; you can’t consider them accurate feedback because they give no good data to work with.
They could say they’re honest and blunt, but then decide to be nice to please your ego. You can’t trust someone you don’t know.
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Who would you never let read your work?