Beta Readers: The Unsung Heroes of Literature

silhoutteThis article is by Julian Saheed.

There is a reason we all leave space for acknowledgments in the first few pages of our books.

Though our names appear on the front covers as the architects of the story, there are those who check to make sure the final product is what people want. Those whose eyes are red from reading, whose hands are tired from scribbling and whose contributions must never be taken lightly.

I speak of course of that most noble of vocations, the Beta Reader.

We should look upon them as the jeweller who takes the diamond and shapes it into its final sparkling form. With tireless proofreading they enable an author to see all those things which they are naturally blinded to. They form the final line of defence before sending you manuscript out to the wide world for consumption. Without them we would all be lost. Yet they never share the limelight with the author.

Why Beta readers?

We must not confuse our Editors with our beta Readers. Editors take your first draft and show you exactly where you went wrong. They identify why your engine isn’t humming as smoothly as it should. Going back to the jeweller analogy, we as authors mine the ore, the Editor scrapes the ore away to find the diamond. Once we have that edited draft, or diamond, our Beta readers polish it up nicely for consumption.

Beta readers are there to take a look at our story from the viewpoint of our consumers. They take a much broader look at our writing and provide us with feedback on themes, plots, character development and interactions. They explain to us how our story made them feel, at which points they cried, at which points they laughed. Most importantly, they tell us what they did not like. Their feedback is provided from the mindset of a reader, not the mindset of an editor, whose approach is much more technical. This is precious feedback. Feedback that can help you avoid displeasure in your fans, something we all strive towards.

Getting the most out of your Beta Readers:

So you have finished your story. An editor has drenched it in red ink and fixed all of your grammatical errors, told you what to cut and what to fix. Now you want to send the finalised draft to your Beta Readers. Take a step back, take a deep breath. We know how excited you are to be this close to having the story finished. Ask yourself these questions.

Do you have the right Beta readers?

Anyone can call together a group of friends and get them to read a manuscript. Don’t do this. It’s the equivalent of asking an economist for advice on playing football. You need people who know their stuff. If you are writing Fantasy, you need people who are well read in Fantasy literature. Only they can tell you if your target audience is going to enjoy your work. An avid reader of romance and little else may help spot missed grammatical errors. They won’t give you much on the believability of your magic system.

Select individuals who themselves are good at expressing their opinion. Ask them to give you their in-depth opinion on a book which you have both read. If you get an answer akin to, “I really liked it. It was great.” Move on. You want the person who can spend an hour telling you their favourite scene, character and how they thought that the powerful themes resonated with them. They will give you the feedback you need.

Do they know exactly what they are supposed to be doing?

When you hand over your manuscript you need to let your Beta Readers know exactly what you are looking for. I make it a point to email them all the specific things that I am looking for. Often I provide them with the questions that I will be asking them once they have finished reading. This gives them the right frame of mind to begin reading. If you wait until the end to ask them all of your questions they might struggle to remember certain points. It’s much easier to build a model when you have an instruction manual.

Have you set up an efficient way to receive their feedback?

There could be little worse than having access to a wonderful Beta Reader and then only getting a handful of comments from them over a coffee. It is fantastic to receive feedback about your work. But a conversation is never going to be efficient. Whether it is giving them each a hard copy manuscript to make notes on, or asking them to use a digital reader which allows for note taking, you must ensure that you receive your feedback in writing. Get together with your Beta Readers. Talk for hours on end about your work, but make sure you take notes yourself and also collect theirs. I myself have made the mistake of hearing wonderful criticism to only forget half of it by the time I returned home.

And at the very end do not forget to say thank you. Acknowledge them in your front matter. Send them a cake. Get a tattoo of their name. Do everything you can to make them know how grateful you are for their hard work. Most of the time they aren’t being paid. Pay them back with the respect they deserve.

To all the Beta Readers out there who have given their time in service to the cause, on behalf of writers everywhere I salute you. May the gods of a thousand worlds shine their blessings upon you.

For Further Thought

Have you worked with a Beta Reader?  If so, how did the experience improve your novel?

What particular questions have been most effective at getting quality feedback from your Beta Readers?

How have you thanked your Beta Readers?

About the Author:

Julian Saheed works by day and fights dragons at night. He resides in Melbourne, though most of the time he is wandering through dimly lit castles, tangled forests and forbidden dungeons. You can find his blog at juliansaheed.com and his latest novel, The Tyrant’s Onslaught, at Amazon.

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AshleeW
5 years ago

I haven’t yet used beta readers, but am planning on it quite soon with my WIP. My main question is this: Do you hand over your manuscript after all the editing and revisions are completely over and it’s as polished as you can get it? Or do you hand it over mid-process (maybe after some minor revisions) so that, on the basis of the beta readers’ feedback you won’t have to tear apart your already-polished work? What have you found works best?

Julian Saheed
Reply to  AshleeW
5 years ago

Don’t edit it too much before it goes out to Beta Readers. You might find yourself changing quite a few things. But try and make sure you have at a minimum the grammar and structure at an acceptable level. You don’t want your Beta Readers to lose their attention in the story because of too many spelling errors.

Nicholas C. Rossis
5 years ago

I started with dozens of beta-readers. Nowadays, I’ve narrowed that down to the five most useful ones. They have been invaluable in helping me iron out plot mistakes, doing largely the part of a developmental editor, but from a reader’s point of view. However, I also use a professional editor and proofreader.

As for compensation, they always get a shoutout in the credits, plus free books and bonus short stories. Also, I offer to do the same with their own work, for the three who are authors.

Julian Saheed
Reply to  Nicholas C. Rossis
5 years ago

I think that is a great strategy. And I did the same. Started with a larger group and narrowed it down to those who give the right feedback.

Sara L.
5 years ago

Nice article! I agree that beta-readers are invaluable. I haven’t had any look at my WIP yet (still on the first draft), but I’ve had some review my shorter pieces. Beta-readers (and critique partners as well) can pick up on things that you the writer miss or aren’t aware of. Also, as someone who’s been a beta-reader herself, I know how much writers appreciate feedback from anyone who reviews their work.

I don’t think they need to be compensated with money (unless they’re a professional beta-reader, and there are some out there), but I think listing them in your Acknowledgements section and/or giving them an advance copy of the final book would be sufficient. People love seeing their names in print! 🙂

Daniel Adorno
5 years ago

I agree about the necessity of beta readers in reviewing new works. Finding beta readers can be difficult, but what’s worked for me is Goodreads and my email list. Look for groups on Goodreads that like the genre(s) you write in, become part of that community (don’t start asking for beta readers of the bat!), and then private message a few who like the same books as you. I’ve been to get a handful of beta readers this way.

If you have an email list (and you should as an author), send out an email letting your subscribers know that you are looking for beta readers. This has also worked for me to get people on board. As far as compensation goes, at the very least you should give them a free copy of the final finished work, either in ebook or paperback form. I’ve also offered to give my previous novel to them for free if they haven’t read them. You can pay monetarily, but I think getting people in your audience who are eager readers will yield better opinions than just a random reader looking to get paid.

P. H. Solomon
5 years ago

Good food for thought on approaching and working with beta readers. Where do you find readers? I know you can request readers on Twitter using #betareaders but anywhere else?

Librarylady
Librarylady
5 years ago

I had heard of Beta Readers but wasn’t sure what they did. How do you find a beta reader? And yes, I too am wondering how much you pay them. Surely they don’t provide this service for free? This sounds like a great resource though. No matter what, your friends will pull punches when it comes to your life’s work , masterpiece of a novel. No one want’s to tell you it sucks. Someone who will be straight with you is invaluable. Thanks for a great and informative post.

Julian Saheed
Reply to  Librarylady
5 years ago

I think it is really important to be honest to your Beta Readers. Tell them to tear your work apart. You need honest feedback. You need them to be critical. You want them to tell you every little thing that they did not like.

In terms of finding Beta Readers, if you do not have a group of friends or colleagues who can put their hand up, I think writers forums are a great place. I am sure if you put forward a request and are willing to be a Beta Reader in return you will find help when needed.

Randolph
Randolph
5 years ago

It can be hard finding a genuinely interested beta reader. 8 out of 10 give me generic comments like “I enjoyed it.” “It was an interesting story.” It could be a false confidence boost if I don’t probe in depth.

Heather Smith
Heather Smith
5 years ago

Beta Readers are an important asset to writing and getting a story or book published. My question is, should you compensate them monetarily? If we’re not to use friends, then where do we find Beta Readers?

Cristina
Reply to  Heather Smith
5 years ago

I am in some writing groups on FB and Google+. Part of what they help with is connecting beta readers to writers. The one group on FB actually posts a pinned thread each week for members looking for beta readers. Have you tried online writing groups?

Julian Saheed
Reply to  Heather Smith
5 years ago

I believe that you should compensate them in some way. It doesn’t have to be monetary specifically. Gifts are always good, but you can think of creative ways to thank them as well. I have given my beta readers the ability to name places in some of my work.

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