Beta reader is one of those terms in writing. You hear it all over the place, but nobody ever gets around to clearly defining what they are other than implying you need some. They really don’t get around to telling you how to get good ones and how to leverage their power to maximum effect.
Which is too bad. Beta readers can be one of the best tools in your writing arsenal. Used well, they improve your writing in ways you couldn’t imagine before. Even used poorly, they at least help the writing process be a little less lonely.
That’s why we’re spending some time today taking that time to explain this invaluable part of the writing process.
What are beta readers? What are the different ways to find them and work with them? What are the best practices to keep you from wasting a lot of time in the beta reading stage? How can you get started in your search?
Patience, grasshopper. The answers follow.
What Is a Beta Reader Anyway?
Let’s start by defining beta readers in context. Their name comes from their position in the “letting other people read your work” process.
Alpha readers are the folks who look at your words when they’re fresh on the page (or screen). They get the stuff that’s probably not even proofread–first and second drafts not intended for public consumption. They look for big issues like glaring continuity errors and basic readability.
Most alpha readers are close enough to you for the first look to be immediate and convenient.
My alpha readers are my family. My wife loves to read my work as I finish it each day, and provides valuable insights. When I write my young adult work, my teen son reads it. He’s not as sophisticated a consumer of fiction, but he’ll tell me when he’s bored and push me to write faster if he’s really enjoying it.
Beta readers, as the name implies, get a look at your work after you’ve fixed what the alpha readers said was wrong. Most times you’ll run a spelling/grammar check on your writing before sending it to a beta reader, but you won’t have done a close edit.
These folks look for broad things like characterization, pacing, and voice. They’ll also call out particularly good or awkward sentences. For many people, their beta readers are part of a writing group that reads one another’s work. Others have a set of friends and colleagues who beta read on their own.
My beta readers are a small cadre of people who like my work but don’t mind hurting my feelings. I’ve hand-picked about a dozen people, and rotate through them based on what kind of writing they personally like best.
Charlie (or gamma) readers…well, they don’t really exist. Once you’ve handled the issues beta readers identify, your work needs more specialized assistance. Instead of a general charlie reading, you’ll be looking at a developmental edit, or a substantive edit, or a professional book coach, or help from an expert in something you’ve identified requires extra attention.
I’m a professional charlie-stage reader–a book coach–as part of how I earn my living, and I use professional contacts for my own charlie-stage reading.
This is a point where spending money is the best policy. You get what you pay for at this stage, and investing in your book is like paying college tuition.
Beta readers, then, are people who look at the second draft of your work. They take it from good-but-not-ready-for-general-consumption to ready-for-a-professional’s-eyes.
More importantly, they start looking for problems in your manuscript at about the time you’ve gotten so close that you’re no longer able to take a robust, vigilant look at those particular words.
They provide the fresh eyes when you need them, and tell you what’s right and wrong with what they see.
Individual and Group Beta Readers
There are as many kinds of beta readers as there are kinds of writers (which means at least 7.6 billion as of this morning, and another 7.6 billion next week as those people grow and change). But that near-infinite variety falls into two general kinds of experience.
You can work with individual beta readers, who each read your work and report on it, working alone. Or you can be part of a writing group, where several people work together to review what you’ve written and help to make it better.
With an individual beta reader, you send them your pages and they get back to you with their individual notes.
Advantages of individual beta readers mostly center around time and convenience. Each person works on her own schedule, and gets notes back to you without having to coordinate with others. This equates to you getting those helpful notes back more quickly and letting you move on with the writing process faster.
With a writing group, your work isn’t the only work on each person’s to-do list. Further, even if somebody completes reading your pages quickly, they also have to wait until the next group meeting. During the meeting, it’s easy to rabbit-hole down a particular part of your work and not discuss other, potentially more important, factors. It’s a slower, more frustrating process.
On the other hand, something special happens in a writing group you can’t get with solo beta readers. When the group all gets together and starts talking about your work, that synergy can find solutions and ideas that never would have come up with people working alone. Your writing will change under the influence of that group discussion, and often for the better.
There’s no right or wrong answer to the individual vs. group beta reader question.
I recommend trying both and choosing whichever works best for you. Heck, I recommend using different methods for different writing projects, since some will benefit from the magic of group critique while others will need the focus and speed of individual beta reading.
How to Find Beta Readers
Now that you understand what beta readers are, and have made a decision about what kind you want to try first, your next step is to go find some.
This is a tricky proposition for many writers. Writing is a solitary profession, and it often draws introverts. Worse, most aspiring writers have day jobs…meaning they don’t exactly have time to work, write, see to family, and get out in the world to find a good group of beta readers to support their writing habit.
But it’s worth investing a little time to find them. Start by looking here:
- You know at least two other people who write. If you “click” at all in terms of reading and writing styles, you’ve found your go-to folks.
- Reach out to your community on Twitter or Facebook to see if any of your current fans would like to get access to early drafts of your work in exchange for their honest commentary. Your own tribe is often your best resource here!
- Check the community bulletin board (or electronic equivalent) at your library. If nobody’s posting, put your own note up asking for people interested in reading and commenting on unpublished work.
- Frequent Facebook groups, Google+ communities, and online forums for budding writers. Make connections. Many have dedicated spaces for finding critique groups and beta readers.
- Similar to the above, check out online groups for your specific genre; readers and writers there are often delighted to get early access to new books–and they know the area you’re writing inside-out, so they can make very targeted comments.
- Join your local writers’ group and attend a couple of events. Make friends.
- Take a writing class through your town’s Parks & Recreation department, or a nearby community college. Make friends. Ask them to read your stuff, and tell them you’ll read theirs.
- Check coffee shops and bookstores in your area for reading events. Go there and talk with the readers and the audience.
- Look for (or create) ads for writers groups on Craigslist, local writing websites, and similar online spaces.
Bonus tip. My favorite beta readers are a few of my exes. They care about you and want you to succeed, but have no vested interest at all in not hurting your feelings. And they looooooove telling you when you’re wrong.
If you have a good friendship with a literary ex or two (and your current partner doesn’t mind), I highly recommend this source of beta reading mojo.
Places to Find Beta Readers Online
Some great places to look for beta readers online include:
- Goodreads Beta Reader Group
- Beta Readers & Critiques
- Critique Circle
- Critters Speculative Writers Workshop
- Indie Author Group
- My Writers Circle
There are many, many more Facebook Groups, Goodreads groups, and websites for writers in all genres and walks of life–do a Google search for “[your genre] + beta readers” or “[your genre] + writing critique” and see what pops up!
TCK Publishing’s Beta Reader Connection Service
Or you could hop over to TCK Publishing’s free Beta Reader Connection service! Sign up to offer your skills as a beta reader or to look for beta readers for your next book – or both!
It’s completely free, and it’s a great way to find active, engaged beta readers looking for your genre.
How Many Beta Readers Do I Need?
Whether you want a writing group or the individual experience, you want somewhere between three and five beta readers on your side.
Fewer means you won’t have enough different kinds of reader looking at your work. More starts to muddy the water as you get slightly different takes on the same issues.
How to Work with Beta Readers
Using beta readers right will dramatically improve your writing in a surprisingly short amount of time. Using them wrong is a huge and frustrating waste of time, and can even ruin friendships.
To help you use them right, here are the top dos and don’ts of beta readers and you.
Dos and Don’ts of Working with Beta Readers
Do define the kind of notes you’re looking for.
Send your manuscript with two to five broad questions about what you need to know about this draft. Include questions like “What did you like most and hate most about each chapter?” or “Is (character) believable in his motivations?” or “What questions do you have at the end?”
This helps direct the beta reader toward the kind of feedback you need most.
Ever. Your beta readers will be wrong sometimes, but it’s not their job to get critiqued on their critiques. You’re not looking to justify your mistakes, or prove why one particular sentence or decision is why you’re a literary genius. You’re looking to find out what people think of your work.
At best, arguing wastes time you could spend rewriting. At worst, it puts stress on a friendship.
Do perform a basic proofread.
You don’t have to make it submission-perfect, but any issues that might confuse a reader or make it harder to understand should be taken care of before you send things out.
You want your beta readers to give their opinions on what you meant to write, not on what an avoidable error made them think you meant. Besides, an error-ridden manuscript is fatiguing to read. You’ll get better quality notes from a formatted, proofread set of pages.
Don’t stop with one round of beta reading.
Sometimes a work needs a few passes at this stage, often with each pass looking for different things.
If you have enough interested beta readers, I recommend using new readers for each pass. That’s not necessary if you only have a few readers “on deck,” but definitely produces better results than asking readers to look at the same pages multiple times.
Do triage the comments.
As you receive your work, identify each note as part of one of five categories:
- To Do — places where the comment is clearly accurate and you wonder how you missed it. Make a list of these, and work through them one by one.
- Ignore — comments that are off-topic or clearly wrong. Do what the title implies: delete them and give them no further thought.
- Cherish — your feedback will also include points where the beta readers said “good job.” Save these in a file for review when you feel bad about your writing, and look for themes you can double-down on to make the rest of your work as good as those choice pieces.
- Projects — these are like your to-dos, only they require more work. “This dialogue line is awkward” is a to-do, but “Johnny’s dialogue sometimes rings false to his character” is a project. You also work through these one-by-one, but it often takes multiple steps to finish the job.
- Consider — some comments are neither clearly right nor clearly wrong. Tag these for consideration and discussion (NOT argument), then move them to their proper bucket once things are clearer.
Don’t ignore majority opinion.
You’re going to disagree with some of the feedback that comes in. Sometimes you’ll be right. Other times, your disagreement will find a middle-ground solution where the wrong feedback points to what the real problem is.
That said, if you get the same feedback from multiple readers, pay close attention. Even if you don’t like it or agree with it. “Kill your darlings” is another writing truism, and for good reason. The harder you want to argue, the more likely it is they’re right.
Do ask what format your reader wants.
Some will want a clean Word document in markup format. Others will want ink on dead trees. Still others love Google Docs or another collaborative platform.
Whatever format an individual beta reader wants, that reader is right. Remember who’s doing who a favor here, and make it as easy as possible for them.
Don’t take feedback personally.
I know it’s hard. Your words are a part of you, and you will inevitably be told that something you’re enormously proud of is a steaming, brown pile of terrible.
That’s hard to hear, but it’s not a statement on you as a person. It’s somebody who likes you doing their best to help you improve a craft that’s important to you.
At best, taking feedback personally prevents you from getting the benefit you need out of the beta reading process. As worst, like arguing, it can ruin a friendship or professional relationship.
Do perform beta reading for others.
This works one of two ways.
If your beta readers are also writers, you’re returning a valuable favor by helping them improve their writing and advance their careers.
If they aren’t, beta reading for others also helps you become a better writer. You immerse yourself from time to time in seeing how writing can be good and bad, exciting and boring, elegant and awkward. By reading for those traits, you become better at identifying it in your own writing. And you help another writer improve. It’s a win-win.
Don’t stick with problematic beta readers.
Some beta readers never follow instructions. Some don’t understand or like the genre you write in. Others seem more interested in feeding their own egos by tearing your work apart than in giving an accurate, nuanced critique. Still others are great, but can’t respect your timeline.
There are many reasons why a willing beta reader might not be a good match for you. Don’t keep working with this bird in hand. Go out and find a reader who works well with you.
Do let your beta readers know about your timeline.
Don’t come off as a taskmaster, but it’s reasonable to ask to get feedback within a few weeks so you can move forward with your project.
If you’re part of a writer’s group, this will handle itself as part of scheduling meetings and participation. If you’re using individuals, just include a line with the manuscript when you send it. Most readers will work hard to meet a reasonable timeline, and those who don’t…well, you’ve identified somebody who didn’t work out as a reader.
Don’t use your alpha readers.
They’re close to you and usually part of the population that likes to do you favors. But they’ve already read the manuscript.
One of the most important powers of a beta reader is providing new eyes when you most need them. Using alpha readers is the opposite of that. If at all possible, use a different set of friends and colleagues when it comes time for the beta reading stage.
Do get beta readers even if you don’t want to.
One of the greatest roadblocks in many writing careers is fear of what an editor or the public might say.
If you have great beta readers, they’ll already have torn your work (kindly) into shreds. There’s nothing an editor, reviewer, or reader can say about the finished work that a beta reader won’t already have done worse. It’s a good way to get over that all-too-common fear.
Don’t just work with your peers.
Most writing groups and writing organizations are full of aspiring writers. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there are a lot more aspiring writers than established writers.
But many aspiring writers have illusions about good and successful writing that professionals have grown out of. It can be challenging (and a little intimidating) to find established, professional writers willing to beta-read your work, but find one or two if you can. It’s impossible to overstate how much this will improve your writing.
Do compare beta reader feedback side by side.
Wait for all feedback from all of your beta readers to come in, then look at it side by side. You’ll find contradictory opinions, which can help you identify what to ignore. You’ll find places where they agree, which can help identify what needs changing even if you don’t want to change it.
Most important, you’ll find themes to the feedback. If you look for those themes actively, you’ll create another list of feedback the readers didn’t think to put down. Sometimes those themes are the most important factors to change or celebrate about your work.
Don’t ever complain about your beta readers.
You’re asking these people for a favor, and part of that favor is asking them to tell you you’re wrong. It’s tempting sometimes to be snippy about that, but resist that temptation at all costs. This goes double for beta readers you had to “fire.” It’s just not classy. You’re better than that.
Do keep looking for beta readers.
Even if you have a full flight on deck. More beta readers means more potential voices. It gives you bench strength for when you have to fire a reader, or if a particular project just doesn’t fit one of your regulars.
It also gives you a broader, more robust community of people who care about writing. Even if you never get full critique from half of them, that peer group is nothing but a good thing.
Don’t let the feedback get you down.
Look at your beta readers like coaches. When your little league coach told you not to hold the bat like that, it might have hurt your feelings a little, but it also helped you get better at baseball. Even if you were holding the bat right and the coach didn’t know what he was doing, he made that comment because he cared about you, and the sport, and your development as a person and an athlete.
Always consider even the hardest-to-hear feedback in that light.
Beta Reader Services
We’ve created a free beta reader service to help connect beta readers with authors.
Whether you’re looking to find beta readers or become a beta reader, you can apply for our free service using the same form.
The Final Word
A lot of writers already have beta readers, even if they didn’t know to call them by that name.
If you already have some, great! Use the dos and don’ts we discussed above to help hone that relationship into a scalpel that shapes your writing into the best words you can produce.
If you don’t have any, go get some! Use the sources I listed above and find a half-dozen people willing to look at your work and help you make it better.
Either way, it’s time you used this valuable tool in the writing toolbox. Going without them is like building a bookcase without a screwdriver. It’s possible to succeed, but it takes longer and the whole process is more frustrating.
Have you used beta readers in your writing? Where do you find your best betas? Share your tips and tricks in the comments!
For more on editing and revising your work, read on!
- How to Self-Edit: Tips to Improve Your Manuscript, Save Time, and Be a Better Writer
- Understanding the Different Types of Editing
- Getting the Most Out of Your Relationship with Your Editor and Cultivating Beta Readers
Jason Brick is a professional writer, martial artist, travel addict, and dad whose work has been published across multiple genres and formats. He has contributed over 3,000 articles and short stories to print magazines and online sites on topics ranging from home improvement, to health and wellness, to cocktail recipes, to small business management. Some of Jason’s top-level corporate clients include Black Belt and Thrillist magazines, American Express, Intuit, and Mint.com. Find him online at Brick Comma Jason.