Beta readers are one of the most valuable resources in any writer’s arsenal. The idea of sending an early draft of your novel out to people can seem terrifying, but what you can get back from the experience is unmatched anywhere else.
It’s not quite the same as getting a manuscript critique from an editor, because the editor approaches the story with a critical, professional eye. A beta reader is… well, they’re more like a reader. More like your actual audience. And that makes their opinions and feedback incredibly valuable.
What does a beta reader do?
In simplest terms, a beta reader reads your story and reports back what they thought of it, what they liked, and what didn’t work so well. They generally tend to focus on the big picture stuff, such as whether the plot was strung together well, if there were parts of the story that dragged a little, and perhaps even continuity errors that slipped through the net.
The value in a beta reader comes from their fresh eyes. You have been living and breathing your story for heck knows how long and that means you’ve gotten too close to it to be able to see its flaws. Beta readers will point those out.
When to use beta readers
This can vary depending on how much self-editing you like to do before you let outside eyes see your work. Any writer confident enough to share their very, very early drafts tend to use what we call Alpha Readers. At this stage, you likely have a ramshackle, patchy first draft that is held together with string, paperclips and your own tears.
Not every writer needs/wants to use alpha readers, which is why I’ve focused this blog on betas, who have a more general purpose. Betas come into play after you’ve reworked that first draft – whether that’s Version 2 or (if you’re anything like me who just can’t let go) Version 10. The manuscript you send them should be as close to finished as you think you can get it right now.
How to find beta readers
So now you know what incredible work beta readers do, how do you go about finding some for your book? The most important thing to bear in mind when looking for betas is that you don’t want just anyone. They should be someone close to your target demographic who enjoys the genre that you’ve written. For example, if you’ve got a Middle Grade fantasy, you’d do well to send it out to readers of that age group more so than adults.
There are a couple of websites that match authors with betas, but I’ve always gotten the best results from social media. Putting a call out on Twitter, including as much information as you can about your book, should garner a few bites – even more so if you offer to do a beta swap (you read theirs while they read yours).
I’ve heard some people say that beta readers shouldn’t be authors themselves, but I’ve never followed this line of thinking. Yes, authors do have their own style and it’s possible their feedback might reflect that (‘Here’s how I would write this scene instead…’), but most writers are readers too, and they know what makes a good story. If they’ve been through the beta process themselves, they also know how to give constructive criticism.
What you don’t want to do is ask your friends and family to beta read for you. Or, at least, don’t ask just friends and family. Chances are they will feel inclined to only give you positive feedback and, while that is nice to hear, it won’t help you push your story to where it needs to go.
Dealing with beta reader feedback
I’ve mentioned a few times how valuable beta readers are, but that doesn’t mean that every comment they make on your work is going to be gold. The same applies to having your work copy-edited by a professional – you are under no obligation to accept any edits you don’t agree with.
What I will say, however, is that there is always a reason why someone has flagged something. Always. Now, that reason may be down to personal preference – perhaps the beta doesn’t like a particular trope you’ve used – but that feedback is still valuable. If they notice/dislike something in your story, there’s a chance that a portion of your readership will notice/dislike the same thing.
Disagreeing is perfectly fine, but do take a minute to really think about the comments and try to understand what they mean at their core. Make sure your rejection of feedback comes from a place of consideration and not just because someone had the gall to say bad things about your baby.