Did you know that good beta readers are one of a writer’s most valuable external resources? Not only can the right beta reader help you improve your manuscript in a way that you never could on your own, but they’ll also keep your editorial costs down.
Fantastic! But … what are beta readers, where can I find them, and how do they help me?
What the heck is a beta reader?
Beta readers are people who evaluate completed or work-in-progress (WIP) manuscripts. Sometimes they’re fellow writers and offer a reciprocal evaluation. Many are avid readers themselves and offer their feedback either in exchange for a set fee or a word-of-mouth testimonial. These helpful people will give you their opinion on what works and what doesn’t in your story.
Good beta readers are worth their weight in royalties so treat them well. Make sure that:
- Your manuscript is the best version that you can produce without outside help.
- It’s in the format which they are comfortable with, i.e. .docx, .pdf, .mobi (or comes with clear instructions on how they can convert it).
- You’re clear about what you want from them. Let them know if you are aware of specific problem areas that you want them to pay particular attention to.
- The turnaround time that you are asking for is reasonable.
Great! I like the sound of these beta readers. They seem like wonderful people. Where can I find one?
Beta reader wish list.
When looking for your ideal manuscript evaluator there are several characteristics that you should look for. First of all, let’s talk about who they aren’t. Beta readers are not:
- Your best friend or mate since school.
- Any member of your family member. No, not your mum, dad, brother, sister, cousin, auntie, uncle, granny…
- Your husband, wife, or romantic partner of any description.
- The person who has been reading your manuscript as you’ve written it.
These lovely people are all either too close to you or too invested in your story. They’ll want to help but they’re not objective enough to give you the candid, constructive criticism that you need. The people who love you or who have shared in the agonising, creative process so far won’t want to hurt your feelings or cause you any pain. Yes, the process will leave you more open to criticism, and it will probably be painful. However, the pain is necessary. You know that. Well, OK … deep down, you know that.
This is what good beta readers are:
- Honest and dependable. They need to live up to their promise of help and do it within the agreed timeframe.
- Avid readers and/or writers themselves. Both of these groups have a good understanding of what makes a great story. You’ll get useful insights from both sides of the process if your betas are a mix of readers and fellow writers.
- The target audience of your book. If your book is aimed at young adults (those in their teens or early twenties), you want your beta readers to be within that age range too. If you’re writing within the mystery genre, you’ll want people who regularly read or write mysteries.
- Able to offer a constructive critique. Strong opinions are good but any criticisms must able to be communicated without crushing your confidence. Balance is the key; they should highlight the strengths in your manuscript as well as the weaknesses and faults.
- Aware of the importance of a writer’s “voice”. They’ll know enough of the publishing world to understand the fluidity with the rules of language.
- Understanding of what’s needed at the beta reading stage. They’ll know that their job is assessing the big picture not nit-picking about any typos or spelling.
- Experienced or knowledgeable about any specialist content in your book. e.g., foreign locations or language, astrophysics, law enforcement, deep-sea diving.
A single beta reader may not have all of these characteristics. Therefore, many writers gather a team of betas to cover all the necessary aspects for what their manuscript needs. Having a small team ensures you are well on your way to some excellent feedback.
Oh, yes! I’d trust my manuscript to people like that. But where can I find them?
Where do beta readers hang out?
If you have the money or time is of the essence, you can pay for a manuscript critique. You can find many professional beta readers advertising their services through social media, or freelance websites such as fivver. However, if you’re working to a tight budget, you may end up spending money that should have been used as part of the editing process. To help with this very issue, I offer my beta reading clients significant discounts off later editing needs.
If financial constraints mean that you’re unable to pay for a beta reader, take the time to choose wisely. Honestly, my best advice is to simply go where writers go (Twitter, Facebook, writing blogs, and writing forums) and start making connections. It’s important to find beta readers that are the right fit for your book.
The best time to begin your search is, at least, a year before you think you’ll need them. Yes, that long. Taking this time means that you get to know more about lots of different people, building productive relationships and contacts. This leads to longer-lasting professional friendships which you’ll benefit from throughout your writing life.
Some key pointers for making and supporting connections with your potential beta readers:
- Be genuine. Don’t pretend to be interested in someone’s life or writing just to get them as a beta reader. The relationship with your beta reader needs to be one based on honesty.
- Be generous. Offer up your time and feedback willingly. Volunteer to critique other manuscripts before asking for yours be assessed. Fellow writers will soon reciprocate because they want to help you.
- Be gentle. Take your time; it takes patience to nurture the sort of relationships that both parties can trust and rely on. You want to be sure that your manuscript will be safe in their hands.
Yes, yes, but WHERE can I start making these connections?
As I mentioned before, you can find beta readers through a variety of places:
- Writers’ seminars and workshops. The first contact will be face-to-face. But then you can keep in touch via whatever method both party agree to, usually social media.
- Local writers’ groups and critique groups. Find out what’s going on in your area by visiting your library or try meetup.com.
I know that the pandemic has had an impact on in-person connections. However, most face-to-face events have become virtual ones instead with the help of Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet.
Social media. Interact with other writers on Twitter, join Facebook groups for writers, Goodreads has a Beta Reader Group, LinkedIn has various discussion groups for writers covering a variety of genres.
Writers’ forums. Sign up to writers’ forums that have critique dedicated areas. You’ll most likely have to do some beta reading yourself before you can offer up your own work for assessing, but it’s all part of the relationship-building process. Joining other writers’ forums that don’t have areas dedicated to critiques will help you meet like-minded authors. In time, they might be interested in beta reading the kind of books you write.
Book discussion forums. Some book websites focus on specific genres and have community forums where people discuss the books they love from that genre while other sites allow discussions about any and every genre. Frequently, you can also find sections dedicated to authors and writing where critiques can be exchanged. OnlineBookClub.org is a great site with active forums and resources available for writers and authors as well as readers. They have separate forums for different genres as well as boards specifically for authors and the art of writing.
Writing blogs. Search for blogs related to writing. Which ones are well-written and have content that engages you? Interact with the author by commenting on posts and sharing what they have to say across your social media accounts; they may even begin to reciprocate. Over time, you’ll be able to tell if there’s potential for a mutually beneficial beta reading partnership.
Remember the fundamental rules of relationship building: Be genuine, be generous, be gentle.
Excellent! I know who I’m looking for and where to find them. But why should I go to all this effort?
Why do I need a group of beta readers at all?
It takes hard work and dedication to build up a portfolio of beta readers who you can call on when needed. What makes it worth your while?
Working with beta readers will:
- Improve your writing skills. You’ll become increasingly aware of your weaknesses and develop a more professional style that’s more conducive to success in the publishing world.
- Improve your manuscript. Problems and areas that you grappled with will be resolved, missed plot holes will be highlighted and solutions suggested, weak characters will be strengthened … The list could go on and on.
- Create your very own support network. Authors are solitary creatures and don’t usually have a team behind them. However, your portfolio of betas will be people who are dedicated to the written word, who get you. They’ll understand the challenges and recognise the triumphs. Even if only a few of the connections you make join your beta team, you’ll have built up an invaluable network that’ll prove its value time and again.
- Save you money. A large enough team of beta readers means that you can garner their thoughts at key junctures of your manuscript’s development. Done properly, you may be able to skip the developmental and substantive editing stage at the beginning of the process. This will dramatically reduce your costs and mean that the line/copy-editing stage may come in cheaper too. The ‘cleaner’ your manuscript is, the lower your overall editing costs will be.
As you can see, just one of these benefits makes the time and effort spent finding good beta readers worthwhile.
I hope that you’ve found this article beneficial. Before you go, don’t forget to find out more about the services I offer.