Understand the dos and don’ts of beta reading.
Beta reading is a popular concept and for a good reason.
It offers a chance for writers to get feedback on their work at no cost.
Beta readers are relatively simple to find; ask a friend who loves to read, find a classmate or coworker who also likes to write, or join online writing groups.
Work with beta readers
They’re not always so simple, however, to work with.
Many relationships have been strained or even terminated through beta reading mistakes or miscommunications.
Here are a few laws of beta reader etiquette that will ensure you and your beta reader are still friends down the road.
If you say you’re going to beta read for someone, do it
It sounds simple enough, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent someone a story of mine and then never heard from that person again.
As a writer, it leaves you thinking that you’re not important enough to warrant even a few minutes of their time.
I understand that life is busy, and people are always on the run, but it’s important to honor your commitments.
So if someone asks you to beta read, but you don’t have the time, it’s perfectly okay to say no.
Recently someone asked me to beta read his ten-thousand-word draft, and I had no problem saying no.
But I told him why: “I’d love to read your novel, but since I’m currently working three jobs, I just can’t give your work the attention that it deserves. I don’t want to commit to something I can’t finish. Ask me again next time, though!”
Believe me; people would much rather hear an honest response that you don’t have time rather than just have their manuscript disappear into a black hole.
Don’t rip their story apart, even if it’s horrible
The classic sandwich rule can be put to good use here: first, say something positive. Second, mention what you didn’t like. Finally, finish up on another positive note.
For example, great betas will tell you: “Your world-building was excellent. I felt like the middle of the story really dragged, but the ending was great!”
The idea here is to soften the blow of the negative criticism without eliminating it altogether—it’s important, to be honest, but there’s no need to be brutally so.
When choosing beta readers, it may be more beneficial to choose a beta reader who’s not very close to you (for example, try to stay away from immediate family or your spouse).
These people will probably be very proud of you and will find it hard to give you honest feedback because they don’t want to hurt your feelings or ambitions (unless, of course, your pesky older brother gets ahold of your manuscript).
If someone beta reads for you, be prepared to return the favor
Really, this is only fair—after all, if you’re writing a book, you’re getting free editing.
Do your most thorough job on their manuscript if you want them to do a good job on yours. When you enlist a beta reader for your work, make sure to clarify what you’d like them to look for in your book.
It can be helpful when you work with a beta reader to type up a shortlist of questions.
Did the prologue make you excited about the book? Were the chapters a good length? Was this character’s personality consistent? Were there any plot holes?
This helps your beta reader to know exactly what to check when they read your manuscript, and it enables you to make the edits that you need to do.
Do your research
If someone asks you to read his or her dark fantasy novel, but you’ve never read dark fantasy in your life, you need to brush up on the genre.
Grab a few dark fantasy novels from the library, read book blogs that discuss genre clichés, ask your friend who their favorite authors are—whatever you need to do to gain at least a working understanding of the genre.
If you don’t understand the genre, you won’t be able to critique it effectively. And if someone asks you to read a genre that you’re completely unfamiliar with, remember—it’s always fine to say no.
It’s challenging to be completely objective but try your hardest.
Is your affinity for romance the reason you don’t like your friend’s completely platonic manuscript?
Are you blind to the fact that Lucius’s death advances the story because you helped choose his name, so you’re emotionally attached?
Did you cover the manuscript in figurative red ink just because it’s in free verse, and you’ve never liked free verse? Take a step back and try to be as impartial as possible.
Only check what you’ve been asked to check
Recently, I sent a manuscript of mine to a couple of friends with one simple request: tell me if this is a fantasy novel or a sci-fi novel because I feel like the line is becoming blurred.
One friend responded with one sentence: she thought it was fantasy, and she briefly told me why. Perfect—that was all I needed to know.
The other friend, though, took matters into her own hands and gave me very detailed line edits for every page in the novel, including her thoughts on my characters and plot.
Since I was still writing the first draft, I had not begun editing yet, and she sounded a bit condescending as she pointed out all my typos and mistakes. If someone asks you to critique only one aspect of his or her manuscript, then please, critique only that part.
If you don’t like something, it’s perfectly acceptable to say so—but say why. Instead of a vague “I didn’t like the ending,” clarify exactly what you meant—“I didn’t like the ending because it felt a little predictable and a little cheesy.”
This way, the writer can make changes accordingly. Saying only that you liked or didn’t like the book isn’t helpful at all. No one wants to drag the specifics out of you, so just make a point to be detailed upfront.
Point out problems, but don’t offer solutions
It’s the writer’s job to figure out that character’s backstory, so while you should feel free to indicate the holes you see, don’t tell them how they should patch things up.
If they ask for suggestions, you can absolutely give them some, but don’t be offended if the writer doesn’t use them. Remember that this is their work, not yours.
That was a lot to take in, but many beta reading blunders can be avoided by simply being kind.
Be polite, be nice, and do the best job that you can as you check whatever the writer has asked you to check. You and the writer will still be friends by the end of the process!
Hailey Hudson is a blogger and freelance writer pursuing her career from the mountains of north Georgia. She works for a nonprofit, plays fastpitch softball, and loves Harry Potter and her beagle puppy, Sophie. She loves Jesus and invests much of her time in mentoring younger girls in their faith. Follow her blog to learn more.
How To Find Beta Readers And Use Them More Effectively
The term beta is most commonly used in the world of software development. Before an app is deemed ready for public consumption, it’s usually sent out to a group of people tasked with putting the software through its paces.
Known as beta testers, this helpful bunch will sniff out bugs and offer constructive feedback on the usability of the app, amongst other things.
The same methodology is now being applied to self-publishing, with beta readers becoming a common fixture in aspiring authors’ toolboxes.
Just like software testers, beta readers lend their eyes to completed drafts to help the author refine their work for the intended audience.
If you’re yet to dip your toes into the world of beta reading or actively campaign against the very idea – they’re not for everyone – here is some insight into how they can be used effectively.
Look for them in the right places
How do you find a good beta reader? The first step is to make sure you look for them in the right places for people to read your book.
If you attend a local writer’s group, there’s a good chance you’ll meet face-to-face with such people. But failing that, the writing community on social media is the ideal hunting ground.
Providing you’ve invested time in your own social media profile and presence, you’ll have the perfect platform on which to connect with potential beta readers.
As you go about your daily social media business, take a look at your followers, and those who engage with you – the perfect beta reader may be lurking within.
Don’t just ask your auntie or uncle
Unless, of course, they happen to be Margaret Atwood or John Grisham.
The idea of beta readers is for them to be people you don’t know, or at least not very well, and as such, will be able to give a completely objective opinion and to react to your work as a reader would on first seeing it.
Friends and family support is great, but you are not looking for reassurance or comments from someone who has heard about the work since the original idea was formed.
When you ask someone to read your manuscript, you are looking for honest and impartial opinions, not faint praise.
Think about your target audience
You should always think about your target reader if you are self-publishing, or even publishing traditionally.
After all, they are the ones you are counting on to buy your book and help make it a success.
It is not always the case, but if you have a specific reader profile in mind, then make sure they are included in your range of beta readers.
For instance, if you are writing something crime-related, then make sure you have approached nearby crime reading groups or social media groups focussed on fans of crime fiction.
It sounds like common sense, but you might be surprised by the number of people who don’t follow this simple step.
Online or in-person?
Both have their advantages and disadvantages.
People you meet with regularly, such as a critique partner or those in writing or book groups may well be able to give a more detailed reaction and enter into a longer discussion.
However, those online may feel they have the distance to be more honest than if they were discussing your hopes and dreams in front of you. Therefore, a mix of both is probably the best approach.
Don’t give them a draft
You should treat beta readers as final readers, so don’t send them scraps here and there. When you work with a beta reader, your best first draft is the absolute minimum you should send their way.
However, if you can refine it further yourself until you can see no further improvements, then that’s the best time to pass on your work for review by a good beta reader.
Be mindful of formats
Beta readers consume books in a variety of ways and will likely have a preferred method. It, therefore, pays to ask them the format which works best for them before sending your work.
Some may want to read it on a Kindle, while others will prefer an old-fashioned printout. Bow to their requests where possible – you don’t want to put any unnecessary roadblocks in their way.
Will they correct your spelling and grammar?
Beta readers are not intended to be proofreaders – you will need to ensure your work is thoroughly proofread, omitting all typos and other basic errors before sending it.
A beta reader is meant to replicate the reader experience. You are asking them to review the quality of your writing, not your grammar and spelling.
Do beta readers only help ahead of publication?
Not necessarily – their reactions can help with your sales and marketing plans as well.
For instance, if a particular type of beta reader liked your work, then you could focus on that customer profile when it comes to promoting and selling your work.
If a beta reader particularly liked your work, they may also be happy to promote it through their social media channels leading up to, and after, the book launches.
You could think of beta readers like traditional product focus groups – they help with the product development but also in terms of how it can be marketed and sold.
Don’t lose heart
The likelihood is you’ll receive some negative feedback and, no matter how constructively it’s delivered, there’s always the danger that you’ll take it personally. Try not to.
Remember – a beta reader’s main job is to bring out the best in you.
Take any criticism on the chin, listen to their point of view and recommendations, and act upon them – you won’t make the same mistake twice.
Give them something to go on
Handing over a manuscript with the parting words, “let me know what you think,” is unlikely to result in optimal feedback.
Give your beta reader something to go on; tell them the kind of feedback you’d like by highlighting what they should focus on.
Maybe you’re unsure about a particular character, plot holes, and twists, or elements of your writing style.
Whatever it is – tell them to focus on how they can help shape the final edition of the book.
So, what do you think? To beta test or not to beta test?
I think it’s worth the time investment. As a self-published author, editors are hard – and expensive – to come by.
Yet a second set of eyes, or several sets of eyes, on your writing, remains an absolutely essential part of the writing process if you want to produce your best work and realize how best to promote and sell it.
Tom Chalmers set-up Legend Press in 2005, a book publisher focused predominantly on mainstream literary and commercial fiction. He has since built a number of successful publishing-related businesses, founding New Generation Publishing (NGP) – a leading UK self-publishing service dedicated to helping writers to sell their books- in 2009.