5 Things You Should Know about Working with Beta Readers

by Joel Friedlander on March 19, 2014 · 16 comments

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By Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas

If you’re a self-publishing author, you’ve likely either read or been told that you need to hire an editor. But a professional edit costs money, and while self-publishing gurus will recommend that it’s money well spent, not every author has the wherewithall for such an investment.

Strange words coming from two editors, right?

If a professional edit isn’t currently in your budget, what do you do? Answer: find a beta reader! While beta readers are not editors — they likely won’t have the training, years of study, practice, or the inclination to snuggle up with The Chicago Manual of Style, just for fun — we do think that they can be helpful additions to your publishing team.

Profile of a Beta Reader

The point of acquiring beta readers is to garner information that will help you write a better book. So ideally, at least one of your beta readers should be the kind of person who’d be most likely to buy your book. Why? Their response to your book will help you gauge which parts of the book will work for your audience, and which parts may not.

We also recommend that you find a beta reader who knows more about writing craft than you do. (As editors, you knew we’d say that, right?) Think about it. One of the best ways to get better at anything is to get feedback from someone who’s more skilled and knowledgeable than you are. And if you can find a beta reader who has read lots of books in your genre and has a clear understanding of how your genre works, you’ve struck gold.

Where to Find Beta Readers

One way to find beta readers is to work your social media platforms. If you’ve been spending time to develop a positive online presence and a reputation for being helpful, an unforced opportunity to ask for help may present itself.

If you’re still building your author platform, consider joining a site like Scribofile, where you can offer feedback on other people’s writing to amass “karma points,” which you can then spend on acquiring feedback for your work. Wattpad is another option for finding beta readers. You can upload your book and write a compelling blurb that inspires people to read and respond to your book.

Local writing or critique groups may be an option for face-to-face feedback. Go to meetup.com to see if there are “crit” groups in your area.

Working With Beta Readers

Now that you’ve found your beta readers, consider the rules of engagement that will help you to create a healthy working relationship. Authors don’t usually pay beta readers, so any interaction needs to be positive and affirming. Presumably, this won’t be your last book, and treating your beta readers right will leave them open to helping you out next time, too.

  1. Don’t Give Them a Draft

    Your beta reader is still a reader — a reader who might tell other readers about your book. It’s important to treat your beta readers right, and that begins with what you ask them to read. Don’t give them your first draft. In fact, be sure that what you give them is the very best writing you can produce on your own. Write your draft and set it aside for at least a week. Go back to it and rewrite it if you need to. Then set it aside for another week — again. Revise, revise, revise, until it isn’t remotely possible for you to do any better.

  2. Your Manuscript, Their Way

    Before you send your manuscript to your beta readers, ask them what format they’d like it in. Beta readers might want to print your manuscript or read it on a Kindle. If they prefer the latter option, send them instructions for how to get your manuscript on an e-reader. Do whatever you can to remove any obstacles that will prevent your beta reader from carving out time to read your book.

  3. Give Them Guidance

    Let your beta reader know what kind of feedback you’d like from them. Develop a checklist with questions you’d like answers to. Do you want readers to comment on the strength of a character, or the organization of a concept? If you create a specific list of questions around content, beta readers won’t spend their time punctuating sentences. Adapt your revision checklist to meet the needs of each book your write.

  4. Don’t Take it Personally

    Remember, it takes a great deal of time to read and respond to a book. And your beta readers will have opinions that might sting a little. Be gracious for any feedback a beta reader gives you, even if you don’t agree with it. Ask yourself, “Will addressing this comment make for a better book?” If so, take their advice and apply it to your next revision. If not, whatever you do, don’t defend yourself. Your beta reader already knows your position (you’ve done as you’ve seen fit, as evidenced by your manuscript) but they don’t agree. Thank them for their comments and move on.

  5. Return the Favour

    Remember, you’re not paying your beta readers to read your book. They’re offering feedback because they want to help or they’re interested in your book’s premise or topic. If your beta reader asks you to be a beta reader in future, seriously consider returning the favour. And when it comes time to publish your book, give them a mention in your acknowledgements. Everyone likes to see their name in “print.”

Beta readers can play an important part in helping you to create a better book — particularly at the revision stage of writing. After you’ve revised your book, based on their feedback, and once again made your book the best it can be, you’re ready for an editor (you knew we’d say that, right?).

Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas
Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas of Beyond Paper Editing are Contributing Writers for The Book Designer.
They are also authors, copyeditors and proofreaders who work with and instruct self-publishing authors.

You can learn more about Corina and Carla here.

Photo: bigstockphoto.com

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    { 13 comments… read them below or add one }

    James Jean-Pierre September 10, 2014 at 6:08 am

    Thank you for sharing this information. My question is, if you already used an editor for developmental and sent it to someone else for a developmental critique would you still recommend using a beta reader or would that be enough?

    Reply

    Jason Kong March 26, 2014 at 1:57 pm

    What are your thoughts about using people from your existing fan base as beta readers if you’re a fiction writer? Maybe soliciting help from your most loyal readers on your email list, for example?

    I suppose that would be case of having folks quite likely to buy your book, but those not necessarily more skilled at writing.

    Reply

    Carla Douglas March 26, 2014 at 7:28 pm

    Jason,

    Thanks for your question — and what a great question!

    It hadn’t occurred to me that a writer could look to her email list as a source of beta readers, but what better place? So yes, loyal readers would make excellent beta readers, and for a few reasons.

    For one thing, you want someone who is familiar with your genre to check out your manuscript. Whether they realize it or not, they have internalized the structure of the genre — they know when the action should be rising and falling, and they also know when something doesn’t feel “right”.

    In the same vein, a reader from your email list will likely be reading other authors in the same genre. They’ll be able to tell you right away if your story fits the trend — and whether you’re exploring similar themes, describing similar characters, and so on. They are doing a lot of background research without knowing it!

    You don’t necessarily want a beta reader who has particular writing or editing skills. Your editor will take care of this. A beta reader, on the other hand, will weigh the emotional connection you’re able to make with a reader, how quickly you can accomplish this, and whether this connection is authentic. I’d argue that there’s no one better than a loyal reader to measure this, and it’s crucial. Readers can be unforgiving if this sense of connection and trust is violated.

    One caveat: Be careful to avoid readers who are so loyal that they will overlook faults, flaws and weaknesses in your manuscript. You want a beta reader who can be impartial. If they are loyal fans, they need to be able to look at your work and comment on it objectively,
    even if it means that they must be brutally honest and critical in the process.

    Hope that answers your question — thanks again for your comment!

    Carla

    Reply

    Tina Chan March 23, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    Oh man! This article hits so many points head on regarding beta readers! (which is funny because I actually wrote a blog post listing the pros of being a beta reader a few weeks ago, lol) It really, really helps beta readers if you give them a “checklist” of some sorts (haha, kind of like guided questions you get in school for a reading assignment) so they know what kind of feedback to give. Also, it’s good to note that while betas will probably help correct a type here or there, we’re not professional editors (we’re usually just people who love reading and would like to help out authors)

    Another good place to find beta readers is in Goodreads forums. As a beta reader myself, I often check Goodreads for any budding novels that might catch my eyes :-)

    Reply

    Corina Koch MacLeod March 24, 2014 at 7:12 am

    Thanks for the Goodreads tip, Tina.

    Disclosure: You’ve caught me out. I am a former elementary school teacher (and I now teach online courses to editors and authors), so I’m perhaps more fond of checklists than the next person. But I think that when you’re a beta reader — the person in the position of helping someone — you want to know how best to help. You need a bit of a job description. Checklists are one way that authors can offer beta readers guidance.

    And you’re quite right: you can’t expect beta readers to be copyeditors. In fact, I’d suggest that it’s in your best interest to encourage them to focus on content and clarity. Sure, someone may point out overused words or grammatical misfires, but what you really need from betas at this stage in the publishing process is to point out those areas of your book that aren’t serving the reader. You then have the information you need to go back and rework those bits.

    Reply

    Ceejae Devine March 19, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    I actually received a “mini-review” from a beta reader today. She’s a professional woman I’ve known for over ten years, so it meant a lot to me.

    Here’s what she said:
    “I wanted to let you know I read the first 50 pages of your book and have really enjoyed your story! At no time did I want to quit reading…but had to once because I had an appointment to get to. I like your writing style a lot. Very easy to read.”

    She’s agreed to read the rest of it, so I’m feeling really positive and now, given your suggestions, when I send the next part I will see if I can add any more to the list of things that would be helpful.

    Reply

    Corina Koch MacLeod March 19, 2014 at 5:12 pm

    That’s very encouraging, Ceejae. Congratulations! It’s quite a feat to lead with a strong beginning that a beta reader just can’t put down.

    It sounds like you already have a list of items for your beta reader to look for. Good for you. By way of example, I ask beta readers to highlight any sentence or section that doesn’t make sense, or that they have to reread. You’ll create a list of items that makes sense for the kind of book you’ve written.

    Don’t be afraid to stare your fears down, though. If there’s some element in your book that you think you didn’t quite nail, put it on your list. As scary as that might seem, you want to encourage beta readers to look for things that aren’t working. It’s always cheaper, from an editing perspective, to do your fix-ups earlier in the writing process, rather than later.

    Reply

    Ceejae Devine March 19, 2014 at 6:38 pm

    Great tips! I’ll make sure to ask her to use a highlighter. I have one other women who’s willing to read it, so I’ll mention that to her as well. Thank you!

    Reply

    Carla Douglas March 20, 2014 at 4:20 am

    Ceejae,

    Glad you find these tips helpful. The highlighter pen and the highlight feature — so simple to use, but so useful when you need to zero in on key areas in a piece of writing!

    Best of luck with your novel,

    Carla

    Reply

    shelton keys dunning March 19, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    This is a really good post that points out an underutilized option for self-publish-minded authors on a budget. I want to caution against some assumptions though.

    Beta-reader does not mean “free” advice. There are people out there that will provide this service without charge, and one can certainly get a lot of genuine, insightful feedback from a source like Wattpad. But. Some people charge for their time, whether they’re providing a detailed developmental edit, or a general point-out-where-you-see-plot-holes report. If you’re seeking a quality response, a professional response, then be prepared if your Beta-Reader charges a professional fee for his or her time. If someone volunteers, make sure they’re aware not only of what you’re expecting from them, but the budget you have upfront. Now, chances are that if your Beta-Reader does charge a fee, it will be a minimal fee compared to that of a developmental editor, sometimes a barter or trade like a gift card to a coffee shop or a bookstore will suffice, especially among friends.

    And while one should not expect their beta-reader to be cozy with Chicago Manual of Style, this is because that sort of edit should already be done by the time it gets to the hands of a beta-reader. Most beta-readers are equally as qualified to proof and edit a book as anyone with an “editor” title. If your work suffers from poor grammar, a good beta-reader will politely decline and point out that your story might have merit, but it should be edited for grammar first.

    Reply

    Corina Koch MacLeod March 19, 2014 at 4:53 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Shelton. You’re quite right in saying that one good turn deserves another. If someone is offering to spend valuable time to read your book and offer feedback, consider how you might honour them for that effort. As you’ve suggested, you can get creative with this.

    Personally, my books don’t go through the copyedit stage before I submit it to beta readers, but I do my absolute best to to make it the best it can be before I run it past other sets of eyes. I also run it through some editing tools (more about that in a future post).
    Depending on the kind of book I’ve written, at the beta read stage, I’m looking for readers to point out content issues — anything that’s not clear, for example. I design a book-specific list of content issues that they can be looking for.

    I’d agree with you that it’d be best to sort out structural issues (how your book is organized) before the beta read stage. That’s where a structural editor who is trained to look at big-picture issues can help.

    Finally, after I’ve responded to their suggestions and made changes to my book, I submit it to a Chicago-lovin’ copyeditor. I want to make sure that content issues and structural issues are resolved before a copyeditor begins work. It’s cheaper that way.

    Reply

    Greg Strandberg March 19, 2014 at 1:32 am

    I didn’t know about Scribophile, I’ll have to look into it. Thanks!

    Reply

    Corina Koch MacLeod March 19, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    Greg,
    Thanks for your comment. There are lots of ways to get feedback on your writing. Scribofile is just one of them. It’s always advantageous to be able to hand pick your beta readers from communities you participate in, but if that’s not possible, online crit groups may yield worthwhile connections.

    Reply

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