Did you finish your book, but you’re not confident enough to publish it or hire a professional editor yet? Great news–There’s a way you can improve your manuscript for free before investing in an editor or sending it to a literary agent for potential rejection and utter heartbreak.
With volunteer beta readers! We’re going to cover:
What is a beta reader?
Beta readers are volunteers who read your writing before it’s edited or published. They give opinions, answer questions, and give you different perspectives on how your piece can be interpreted.
When you’re writing, it’s hard to see the flaws in your own work because you’re too close to the process. Sometimes taking a break and coming back to it can help you spot problems, but the best way to get an unbiased opinion is to have someone else read it. This is where beta readers come in.
Beta rounds typically happen after self-edits but before professional edits. You know you’re ready for beta readers when your story is as good as you can get it on your own.
Now that we know why we want beta readers, how do we get them?
How to find good beta readers
Beta readers can be hard to come by. They’re working for free, and if you don’t already have books published or an author platform, it can be hard to incentivize people to volunteer. Here are some tips for finding beta readers, and specifically finding ones that will work well for you.
- Form a writing group or find writing partners. When you’re starting out and don’t have an established platform, finding beta readers can be difficult. One way around this is to form groups with other writers where you swap critique. This gives you established, regular feedback you can depend on. If you don’t have writer friends, check out Facebook, Twitter, Discord, and other online spaces for writing groups. A lot of authors with online followings have their own. For example, my Discord is accessed through Patreon, and we have a thread specifically for finding writing partners.
- Use hashtags on social media. Recruiting strangers is always an option, though they can be unreliable. Try to recruit twice the amount of beta readers you ideally want, because usually about half of them are going to ghost. Hashtags you can use to find beta readers include: #BetaReaders, #BetaBustle, and #CritiquePartners. You can also use hashtags specific to your genre to find more effective readers. Speaking of,
- Know your target demographic. If you’re writing LGBTQ YA, a 50-year-old straight man probably isn’t gonna vibe with it. You can have people outside of your target demographic, but focus on the feedback from your desired readership. Their opinion will be what is most relevant for your book, so make sure most of your beta readers are within that demographic.
- Grow your platform. I get the majority of my beta readers from my YouTube subscriber base. There are drawbacks to using your existing readership for new projects, like readers wanting to be nice because they like you and not giving honest feedback, but it’s much easier to find interested readers when you already have a platform. Just be prepared to spot biased feedback.
- Don’t be afraid to turn people down. When you have the ability to be choosey with beta readers, don’t be afraid to do so. There are plenty of reasons you might not want someone to beta read for you, especially long-term. I even keep a list of people to specifically never use again. Later on, we’ll talk about how to break up with problematic beta readers.
Now that we’ve got beta readers, what do we do with them?
How to work with beta readers
Here are some tips for working with and retaining beta readers and getting the most out of their feedback.
- Let them know what is expected. Be clear about what you’re asking from them. Do you want overall macro suggestions, or are you looking for line-level feedback? Be as thorough as possible in explaining what you want them to look for and the type of feedback you want. Throwing an entire manuscript at a reader with no guidelines can be overwhelming, leading to incomplete feedback or even the reader ghosting.
- Find a balance between staying receptive to feedback and not taking it too personally. Beta readers are there to help, and they help by telling you what you did wrong. It’s an oof, but it’s good for you. Also, they’re volunteering. Don’t get mad because they did what you asked them to do. Try to separate yourself from your work so that critique on the work doesn’t damage your self-esteem and slow your momentum.
- Provide a questions list. The questions you ask will widely vary based on if it’s a partial read, a whole read, a character-centric vs plot-centric read, et cetera. It depends on what information you’re trying to collect. But giving readers a specific list of questions makes their job a lot easier, and it will provide you with more helpful feedback. I’ve included a list of example questions later on.
- Establish a dialogue for back-and-forth discussion. Having a real conversation with a reader is sometimes more helpful than just having their responses to questions. If you have follow-up questions about one of their answers, ask! I had one beta reader for Starlight who I worked with for a couple of months on one particular story because they had really insightful feedback, and it was a genre they specialized in. Without that reader, I would have cut the story completely.
- Keep a spreadsheet with your reader’s information. Factors like age, gender, orientation, geographical location, socioeconomic status, and genre preferences will sway their opinions–you should know where readers are coming from to know how to apply their advice and feedback.
- Look for trends, not individual responses. If you get a piece of feedback from one beta reader that you don’t agree with, you’re probably fine to ignore it. If you get that same piece of feedback regularly, maybe take a second look. Writing is super duper subjective, so look for trends and don’t weigh heavily the opinions of just one reader.
- Express gratitude! Even if they’re telling you things you don’t love to hear, beta readers are volunteering their time to help you out, so make sure you tell them thank you and treat them with kindness.
- TIP: If a reader tells you exactly how to fix something, they’re probably wrong. I’ve found this to be a nearly infallible heuristic for filtering good feedback from people projecting their own taste and style onto your writing. If they give a specific way you should write something, take that as a subjective opinion or them projecting their own preference.
Here’s a sentence from my story, The Swamp Witch: “Marigold pulls her pipe from her pocket and lights it, evaluating him before hooking it between her teeth.”
A piece of feedback that might be style projecting would be if a beta reader said: This sentence should be two: “Marigold pulls her pipe from her pocket and lights it. She evaluates him before hooking it between her teeth.”
While this beta reader might not necessarily be wrong, their opinion is subjective.
A piece of feedback that I might have listened to could be: This sentence feels like it goes on for too long.
If someone presents a suggestion as if it’s objective rather than subjective, it’s most likely their own taste and doesn’t hold quite so much weight.
I mentioned using questions to help your readers structure their feedback, so let’s look at some examples.
Questions for beta readers
It’s great to provide a specific list of questions for your readers, but those questions vary based on your needs. You can ask questions for the piece as a whole, particular chapters, or particular aspects–it depends on your goals for that beta round. You can use a beta round for a specific character arc, plotline, et cetera.
Here are some example questions you might consider asking.
- How do you feel about Character A? Or specifically their arc, personality, flaws, description, dialogue, or any other aspect.
- How do you feel about the dynamic between Character A and B?
- Is Character A likable?
- Could you tell them apart easily? Are any characters too similar?
- Did you find Character B’s action in chapter 4 to be very predictable, or were you surprised?
- Did [specific action] feel realistic for that character?
- Were any characters unrealistic? Who and why?
- Which character is your favorite/least favorite? Why?
- Which character dynamic is your favorite/least favorite? Why?
- Did any characters feel unnecessary? Who, and why?
- What did you interpret to be the themes and morals of this story?
- How was the pacing? Did any parts feel like they dragged? Did any feel too brief?
- Did you find yourself skimming? If so, on which parts?
- Did the different plotlines converge in a way that made sense to you?
- Which plot point did you find the most/least interesting?
- Did you spot any plot holes?
- At [this point] in the book, are you still compelled to read on?
- Did you feel rising tension through the story?
- Was the climax impactful?
- Did the ending feel satisfying?
- How did this scene make you feel?
- Where do you see the story going after this scene? Do you have any predictions?
- Does this scene feel important to the overall story?
- Were any scenes difficult to follow or confusing?
- Did any scenes feel like they didn’t belong, and why?
- Which scene was your favorite, and why?
- Does every character feel necessary in this scene?
- Is the timing of this scene effective? Do you think it should be earlier or later in the story? If so, elaborate.
- How was the pacing of this scene? Did it feel rushed or drawn out to you?
- Did any of the descriptions in this scene stand out as weak?
- Did any lines in this excerpt stick out to you as particularly good or particularly bad?
- Did the syntax flow well?
- Were the character’s voices/dialogue distinct from each other?
- Did any bits feel particularly cliche or tired in their phrasing?
- Were any parts overly wordy or difficult to read?
- Did any of the imagery not translate clearly?
- Did [this particular] metaphor come across?
- How did you interpret [specific line, image, metaphor]?
- How do you feel about [particular word choice]?
- How did [particular line, image] make you feel?
Essentially, the questions you ask beta readers depend on the answers you want. If you want to know about your characters, ask questions about the characters. If you want to know if your climax is exciting enough, directly ask them. They can’t know what information you want if you don’t tell them.
Beta readers are fantastic, helpful little pals. But sometimes, it just doesn’t work out. How do you deal with a beta reader breakup?
How to dump a beta reader
Depending on the context of your interactions, it can sometimes be hard to break ties with a reader when it isn’t working out.
Some reasons you might need to drop a reader include:
- They aren’t providing helpful feedback. In this case, you’re wasting both of your time, and there’s really no reason to keep them around.
- They’re not adhering to an agreed-upon timeframe or delivery method. Especially when working with multiple rounds of beta readers, being prompt and reliable are very important traits.
- They’re ignoring your feedback guidelines. I’ve had readers completely ignore the questions I sent them and just give me line edits I didn’t ask for. That is in no way helpful, so there was no reason to keep them around. Also: if they can’t read and understand the guidelines, how can you expect them to read and understand your story?
- They’re being rude or making you uncomfortable. Even though they’re doing you a favor, there’s no reason to be disrespectful in any situation, so you shouldn’t feel bad for letting them go.
- You just don’t want ‘em around. If you don’t vibe with a reader, that’s enough reason not to want to work with them. Of course, beggars can’t be choosers–if you’re low on readers, you won’t be able to be as particular, but you don’t have to work with someone just because they want to work with you.
That isn’t anywhere near an exhaustive list of reasons you might not want to work with a person, so here are some tips for releasing a beta reader:
- Do what you can to screen readers at the start so you’re less likely to end up with readers you can’t work with.
- Try to be straightforward but professional. Avoid lying to get out of situations, but don’t be needlessly mean.
- If it takes some of the pressure off, address the message as if you’re finishing up beta reading with all of them, not just dumping one particular person. Example to follow.
- If a reader is being inappropriate or threatening in some way, block them immediately. There’s no need to be polite when someone is being aggressive.
Here’s a template to get you started on a breakup letter:
Thank you so much for your help so far! That’s all I need at the moment. I really appreciate your time and efforts, and I’ll be in touch if I have anything else for you.
Beta readers are super helpful little guys. They’re kind enough to contribute their time and effort to help writers create their art. In return, writers can be clear on their requirements, offer guides and question lists to help with feedback, give heaps of gratitude, and offer to beta read their readers’ manuscripts. They can also be upfront when the feedback is no longer helpful, releasing the beta reader back into the wild where they can grow strong and free.