Lesson 13: How To Use Beta Readers
Whether you’re planning on traditionally publishing or self-publishing, making use of beta readers is something we can’t recommend highly enough.
A beta reader is someone who reads an unpublished manuscript with a critical eye.
Depending on what the author wants from the experience, a beta reader usually provides feedback on the overall story, elements like character, plot and setting, and smaller details such as spelling and grammar.
Why Do You Need a Beta Reader?
At this point, it’s most likely that you’re the only person who has read your manuscript. As scary as it may seem, that fact has to change sooner or later.
Rather than submitting your unread manuscript straight to editors and publishing houses, it’s best that you test the waters first.
A beta reader is bound to find things that you’ve missed. They might offer solutions to problems you haven’t even thought of.
Most importantly, a good beta reader will inevitably make your work stronger. You want your novel to be at its best before you submit it to publishers.
By now, you’ve lived in the world of your story and read over your manuscript so many times that it’s really difficult to distance yourself. There comes a time when you need to step away and entrust your novel to a fresh pair of eyes.
How to Choose a Beta Reader
The ideal beta reader is someone who both reads the genre you’re writing, and who also has good knowledge about writing as a craft.
Your beta reader needs to be a reader of your genre for a number of reasons, but most importantly because you need them to be from your target audience.
There’s no point in asking someone to read your high fantasy manuscript if they only read military fiction.
If they’re a reader of your chosen genre, they have a clear understanding of how the genre works. They’ll be able to figure out which parts of your novel work for the reader, and which parts don’t.
They’ll also be able to offer possible solutions to any issues they come across, as a result of their wide reading in that specific genre.
Knowledge of writing as a craft is also important, as it means your beta reader will also be able to specify what exactly it is about a scene or chapter that’s not working.
They’ll be able to help you address the writing aspects of the manuscript that need improvement.
The best way to find these multi-talented beta readers is to consider people in the profession with whom you’re already acquainted.
They might be people from workshop groups or writers’ centres, or even book bloggers you’re connected with on social media.
Who isn’t an appropriate beta reader?
Your mum. Your dad. Your best friend. Your partner.
All of these people are too close to you to be able to provide adequate and unbiased feedback.
By all means, let them read it – after all, you’re proud of your manuscript! You’ve been working on this for ages!
Where can you find beta readers?
If no one springs to mind from workshopping groups, writers’ centres, or the blogosphere, that’s okay! There are plenty of other options.
A number of now-successful authors, who were eventually signed by traditional publishing houses such as Macmillan and Random House, started by publishing their work on Wattpad and seeking feedback from other writers and readers. (In fact, even some highly successful established authors like Margaret Atwood use Wattpad!)
However, while these platforms can be a useful place for critiquing and feedback, you must treat them with caution and discretion. Plagiarism can be rife on the internet, and sometimes uploading your work to an open forum isn’t the best idea.
While your name will be attached to whatever writing you choose to upload, bear in mind that people may still copy and redistribute your work under their own names and on different platforms.
While this may not happen to you, it can cause a whole lot of hassle down the track if it does – hassle that you, as a busy aspiring writer, could really do without.
How many beta readers?
As you’ll very well know by now, reading and writing are quite subjective activities. Which is why it’s so important not to use one reader’s opinion as the be-all and end-all for your novel.
We think two to three beta readers is the perfect amount to secure a balanced overview of your novel.
How to approach a beta reader
The best way to approach potential beta readers is via a friendly yet professional email.
You can say something along the lines of:
Hope this email finds you well!
I’m currently in the process of securing beta readers for my manuscript Dawn’s Rising and have noticed you read a lot of high fantasy.
I was wondering if you’d be interested in reading my work and providing me with some general feedback? Here’s a little teaser:
“Dawn’s Rising is set in a parallel magical realm where the heroine, Dawn, must battle evil warlocks to save her kingdom from a terrible fate.”
Let me know if it tickles your fancy, and if you’d be keen to read!
No worries if not!
Note that we’ve kept this casual and short, and have emphasised that there’s no pressure to take us up on the offer.
The last thing you want it someone feeling obliged to read something they’re not particularly interested in.
If your acquaintance agrees to read your work, it might be a good idea to give them a few things to keep in mind as they read. These could be things you’re concerned about in your novel.
For example: whether a particular character is developed enough; whether the plot becomes too complex too quickly; etc.
However, you may prefer to let your beta reader ‘go in blind’, so to speak.
This way, they’ll be getting the sort of first impression a regular reader would, and can provide feedback as such.
If you put your beta reader on this approach, they may bring up some of the concerns you already have anyway, indicating the most important issues to address.
Task: Using your networks and the advice provided in this lesson, prepare a shortlist of potential beta readers for your novel.
Now, email 2-3 of these potential beta reader candidates.
You can choose to amend the template we’ve provided, or write your own email altogether.
Just remember to be friendly, polite, and professional!
Lesson 14: How To Master Beta Reader Etiquette
Just like any other relationship or work arrangement, there’s a certain level of etiquette that’s required between you and your beta readers.
Etiquette for Writers
Make sure your beta readers know how much you appreciate their time and input. Sometimes writers forget this, but it’s a big ask to get someone to read an entire manuscript and provide feedback.
It’s difficult and time-consuming, and there’s nothing worse than ending up with a beta reader who feels unappreciated.
Make sure you thank them constantly throughout the process. They didn’t have to do this for you.
The reader’s preference
Your beta reader has agreed to read your manuscript. It’s up to you to make sure this is in the format they prefer.
If they want a hard copy, pay to have it printed and bound. If they want a PDF, convert the file and email it to them. If they want it on their Kindle, convert the file so they don’t have to.
When you hand over your manuscript, be sure to give your beta reader some guidelines as to what sort of feedback you’d like from them.
Perhaps you’re worried about the plot and subplots; specify this to your reader. Ask them to pay particular attention to these aspects of the novel, note down room for improvement, and also make note of what’s working well.
You may want a general overview of how the story works as a whole. Make this clear to your beta reader.
If you’re not after something like a copyedit, make sure your reader knows this. There’s nothing more disheartening than having a manuscript littered with edits when it wasn’t ready for it, and all you wanted was a general opinion.
No first drafts
The reason our beta reader lessons are after the structural and copyedit lessons is because your beta reader needs to read the best possible version of your manuscript.
By sending a beta reader a first draft, you’re not only wasting your time, but theirs as well.
Take their time and their efforts seriously. Fix everything you can possibly fix in your manuscript before passing it onto them for feedback.
Don’t take offence and don’t argue
You are not going to like or agree with everything your beta reader says. And that’s perfectly okay.
You have to remember how subjective readers are – they have their own preferences when it comes to fiction, just as you do.
When they critique your novel (as you have asked them to do), it’s important that you don’t take offence. This is not a personal attack on you; it’s a comment on your work, which you can choose to take or leave.
Even when you don’t agree with a comment, don’t argue with them – no matter how much you may want to. You don’t need to defend yourself. Whether you choose to action this comment or not, thank them for their input and leave it at that.
Reading a book takes a long time. It doesn’t mean your book is awful, it doesn’t mean the reader isn’t enjoying it, and it doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten about it.
Do not hassle your reader for updates. Do not ask them for their opinion when they’re only halfway through.
Be patient. You want their overall impression of your novel; you don’t want to irritate them while they’re trying to read it.
Respect their time and other commitments.
Return the favour/pay it forward
It may be that your beta reader is a writer themselves. Make sure that when they need a reader for their work, your hand is the first up in the air, volunteering.
Process the edit over time
When your beta reader gets their comments back to you, make sure you take your time when addressing these issues.
Don’t rush through them in eagerness to finish your next draft. Treat each concern with care, and take the time to find the right solution, not just a solution.
That being said, don’t take so much time that the manuscript is no longer fresh in your beta reader’s mind. You may have questions for them, and you want them to be able to recall details vividly.
Task: Download the worksheet for this lesson here.
With the questions from this worksheet, and advice from this lesson in mind, brief your beta readers on what you’d like them to pay attention to during their reading.
You can even provide your beta reader with a questionnaire of your own.
Then, leave the manuscript with them and wait for their response.
Lesson 15: How To Handle Beta Reader Feedback
At this stage you’re probably no stranger to receiving feedback on your writing, so you’ll know that you might not always agree with what’s being said.
Receiving feedback from beta readers is no different. Regardless of how polished your manuscript is, your beta reader will find something to critique.
This is exactly what you wanted them to do, so don’t take it personally.
Have a look through their feedback.
Is there a common theme throughout? For example, do they mention a particular character frequently? This may mean that this character is underdeveloped. The same goes for plot threads and setting.
Try to go through their feedback within a week of receiving it.
Be sure to ask any questions you may have within this time, while the manuscript and its issues are still fresh in your reader’s mind.
1. Using the feedback provided by your beta reader, make a new list of issues that need to be addressed.
2. Make the time to meet with each of your beta readers, buy them lunch, a coffee, or a wine, and chat with them about the process and your book. Now’s your opportunity to ask them any lingering questions, or run ideas by them on how to solve the issues.
3. Take your time addressing these issues within the manuscript (if need be, return to the 'How To Address Structural Issues' lesson for solutions on how to handle common problems).