If you’ve been writing for a while you will have come across the term beta reader. But what is a beta reader and why do you need them? Let’s take a look at those questions and more to help you get your head around the topic.
What is a beta reader?
A beta reader is someone who reads your manuscript during the draft phase before it goes out to either an agent/publisher or before you hit the publish button yourself.
What does a beta reader do?
Beta readers can have one or many purposes. Some use beta readers purely as proofreaders asking them to highlight any spelling and grammatical errors and so forth. Others use their beta readers more akin to their name – first readers – where they are asked to comment on the manuscript (or parts of) considering the characters, storyline, pacing, plot, believability and so on. How you use your beta readers is purely up to you.
When should I use a beta reader?
Again, it’s up to you, however, when you bring a beta reader in will depend on what you want them to do. If you want them to act as proofreaders, they would be part of the final editing and proofing before your manuscript goes out. However, if you want feedback on your story in relation to plot and characters, you would probably find this information useful earlier on in the drafting process.
If you are planning to submit to agents or publishers for traditional publishing, I would suggest bringing in the beta reader after you have written and self-edited your first draft – so maybe draft two or three. That way you get important feedback from your beta reader as to what is working and what isn’t, and it gives you time to take on board and consider the feeback and go from there.
If you are self-publishing (and this is purely my opinion only), I wouldn’t bring a beta reader in until your manuscript has undergone a structural or developmental edit with a professional editor. A professional editor is the one who has the industry experience to know what works in a story and what doesn’t, they don’t just go on what they like or don’t like.
This gives you a chance to edit the manuscript and bring it into line with a professional mansucript that will work commercially. Then you bring the beta reader in, to get their opinion on what they like and what doesn’t work for them. When you receive their feedback, it won’t alter the overall structure or storyline, but you can tweak characters, specific motivations and specific scenes to make your story stronger.
Do I ask my beta readers to read my whole manuscript?
Again, totally up to you. It can be a big ask for someone to read an entire manuscript and give feedback. I find that getting feedback on the first few chapters is best. That way you get to see if you are writing something that your readers are enjoying and most importantly want to keep reading.
If you do ask your beta readers to read the full manuscript you need to be prepared to allow them time, at least a month. And don’t be surprised if some just don’t get around to reading it.
How many beta readers should you use?
There are different trains of thought on this. Some say the more the better, some say a smaller amount is best. I sit towards a smaller number side of the scale. Why? Because the more feedback you have, the more varied the feedback will be, and it may make you feel overwhelmed, or at worst, totally disheartened.
I find 3-10 beta readers a good number to work with when you are after story and plot feedback.
If you are after proofreading then, yes, more could possibly be useful in picking up the most amount of errors.
Should you provide your beta reader with specific questions to answer?
Yes, or at the very least give them an idea of what you want to know. If you just ask for general feedback, you will get everything from ‘I loved it’ to ‘It didn’t work for me’ and that’s that. You need to guide them to tell you not only what they liked or didn’t, but why.
There is a great post over at writingcooperative.com which gives you 15 Questions to Send Beta Readers which is a great place to start. You can steal these questions for yourself, or use them to guide you. It’s also important to tell your readers that you don’t expect them to answer every question and they should use them as a guide to the type of feedback you want.
What should you do with the feedback from your beta readers?
Again, it depends what feedback you are asking for. If it’s simply proofreading then easy! Go ahead and fix those errors!
With more detailed feedback on story and characters, I find it best to write down the key points from each of your beta readers in a table and then see what feedback is common (there will be common points!). It’s these points that you need to consider for your story. For example, if everyone is saying that a character is unlikable this is a bit of a red flag. Unless the character is meant to be that way of course. Or if most of your beta readers are saying that the opening chapter didn’t grab them, then this is something you need to work on.
There will be feedback you receive from your beta readers that will purely be personal opinion. It is up to you to take action on these or not. If it’s something that you feel others might also feel, then perhaps you can work on it. But don’t feel like you have to action every comment you get. It’s impossible for you to write a book that everyone will connect to and love. All you can hope for is more positive than negative!
Should my beta readers be writers or readers?
Tough question. I find the 80/20 rule works best. 80% readers, 20% writers. When you request feedback from other writers the feedback will be more technical which can be useful, but it can also make you doubt yourself very quickly. As long as you can take constructive criticism from another writer well – and with a grain of salt – then you’ll be okay.
Readers will be your best beta readers though. Why? Because they are readers and they love to read. Simple!
It’s also important to make sure your beta readers read in the genre you write in. There is no point in getting the opinion of someone who loves Sci-Fi if you are writing a romance novel.
So there you have it. All your questions about beta readers answered.
I’ve just recently received feedback on my first chapter for both my manuscripts in progress, and it has helped me strengthen the opening for both novels. Including rewriting the first chapter! But I know that it has made my story stronger and will put it in the best possible place to grab readers and keep them reading.
Beta readers are a vital part of the writing process if used in the right way. Just always remember that it is your story and take all feedback with a grain of salt.
Good luck and happy writing!