Beta readers: why every author should use them

Beta readers are your best ally in improving your novel. They are readers who are fans of the genre in which you write. You get beta readers to look over the first draft of your novel, they are not looking at a final version, this is very important. Beta readers help you improve and hone your first draft. They will save you a lot of time and heartache by getting feedback to you at an early stage of your manuscript  before you waste time honing and perfecting something that may be flawed. Your novel writing abilities will improve in leaps and bounds with beta readers. Most importantly, they give you feedback as fans, not as editors. They are your target audience when you publish your book so you should want to know what they think. They may also provide you with your first few testimonials for your book.

Beta readers are not editors

They should not be giving you feedback on grammar, spelling, word choice or sentence structure. However if they do spot a problem I don’t mind if they point it out, some authors do. It’s up to you as an author to let your beta readers know exactly what you need from them.

What  beta readers look for

Beta readers should give you top level information about your novel such as:

  • This is / is not actually the genre you think it is
  • Your world is real and believable/ or needs some work
  • Your characters work and are sufficiently different from each other to be able to tell them apart/ or not
  • The story is enjoyable/ or is a bit too predictable
  • The story runs at a good pace/ is too slow
  • Parts of the work that are confusing
  • Parts of the story that could be cut

The importance of honest feedback

It is best to ask your beta readers to give you straight, unvarnished feedback. Most people are kind and will take some time to try and phrase their feedback in a way that softens the blow of what they have to say. It’s best to discourage that. People become vague when they are trying to break difficult news. You may misinterpret what they are trying to say, and think you’re doing fine. It saves you and your beta readers a lot of time and misunderstanding if you ask them to give you their thoughts without sugar coating. There’s no need to be brutal, but do be clear as a beta reader.

Every author should do some beta reading

Not only are beta readers great for honing your own work, but reading other authors lumpy, clunky early drafts is also really useful. It give you a chance to understand story structure, learn about the genre and gives you insights into other people’s processes. These will all make you a better writer. Even if you are only giving top line feedback, actually considering somebody’s raw work gets you thinking about what makes a good story. This will make you a better writer.

How do I find beta readers?

If you’ve already got a following as an author you can ask for volunteers via your newsletter.

You can also find beta readers via a multitude of Facebook readers and writers groups. I have got fantastic readers through the ALLi Facebook group. I have offered to beta read their books in exchange for them reading my work and that has worked really well.

You can hire beta readers through Fiverr and Upwork. I haven’t tried paying for beta readers yet as I have always had great volunteers who have agreed to do it for me. Reading through the descriptions of what some of them offer it feels more like they are offering an editorial service. This may still be worthwhile but I might consider using those paid for services after my work has been seen by my beta readers and I’ve made the changes suggested by them.

How many beta readers do I need?

Between 5 and 10 is ideal but even having one person look over your work is helpful so don’t worry if you can’t find a big initial group of readers, over time your pool of volunteers will grow.

The reason you want so many people is you get to aggregate their feedback. If one person tells you they don’t like a certain character, that’s worth considering, but you can choose to ignore that advice (the same is true for any of the feedback you get) but, if all five of your betas hate the same character you should probably do something about it. The same is true with plot holes, if one person points out a plot hole and nobody else seems to notice, you’re probably okay (although you may be at the mercy of picky reviewers further on down the line). If all five of your betas point out the same plot hole then it’s obviously so big you could drive a bus through it.

Additional reading

My blog is just a quick review of who and what beta readers are. Here are a couple of books that give you more detail:

If you are an author thinking about using beta readers for the first time (or have used them but want to get more from the experience) then I highly recommend:

Beta Reader Superhero Writer’s Handbook: How to Harness the Power of Feedback to Write a Better Book by Belinda Pollard

If you would like to become a beta reader, then this is very useful:

Beta Reader Blues: A Beginners Guide to Beta Reading for New Writers by Len Streeper