You’ve finally written “The End,” and it’s now time for the next stage in prepping your manuscript for publication: Find some beta readers who will take your story and help you make it better.
But what’s a beta reader, where do you find these mythical beings, and how can you make the most of them?
What is a beta reader?
Beta readers will read your book and give you helpful feedback on it. But you want more than just “I liked it” or “Yes, it was good.” That’s great for the ego, but it doesn’t tell you anything about how to improve your book.
You want people who will take the time to carefully read your story and make notes on what did and didn’t work for them. Beta readers look at your story with fresh eyes, and they will pick up on issues you missed simply because you’re too close to the story.
1. Find your beta readers
You can easily search Facebook and Goodreads for groups where you can ask for beta readers. You can also ask your writer friends where they’ve found theirs, post in genre-specific groups if allowed, and ask in your own reader group.
Should you pay for beta readers? Well, like much in the indie author world, it depends. Most of the time, you won’t pay for beta readers, but you may need to if you need a specialist, such as if you’re writing a police procedural and need an expert who can make sure your writing is correct. You might also consider paying a professional if you just haven’t got the time to go through the process of finding your own or if you want to be sure of the quality of your reader. Costs vary for hired beta readers from just a few dollars to around 300 to 400 dollars.
Pro Tip: Use software to manage your beta readers. Sites such as BetaReader (https://betareader.io/) and BetaBooks (https://betabooks.co/) let you manage your beta readers and easily collate your feedback.
2. Assess your team
It’s great when you get a lot of volunteers to beta your story; however, you need reliable people who will stick to your deadline and do the work. When you’re looking for beta readers, ask them questions and find out if they have any experience. A lack of experience doesn’t rule them out, but at least find out if they know what’s involved and how long it might take them.
Make sure they are a fan of your genre too. There’s no point in asking someone who hates fantasy and zombie stories to read your fantasy romance spin on The Walking Dead. All that will give you is endless criticism that you don’t need.
Check if they are a writer. You will get different feedback from someone who also writes rather than someone who only reads. This can be great as they know what you’re looking for, but they may also comment on how you can fix your story, which may not be what you want.
3. Keep the number manageable
Three to five readers per round is a solid number as it’s enough for different opinions but not so many that you’ll be overwhelmed. You’ll be able to establish any patterns and find areas that most of your readers agree on. And with an odd number, you also have a tie-breaker vote if you’re unsure what to do with a piece of feedback.
As for how many rounds you need, well, that’s up to you. Do as many rounds as you think is necessary to improve the story.
Pro Tip: Send your story out to beta readers in batches, not all at once. You’ll want someone new to assess the changes you’ve made after the first round of beta readers so you can see if you’ve solved the problem. This ensures that every version of your story that’s been beta read and self-edited has had at least another pair of eyes before your book goes to your editor.
4. Provide a clean draft
Your beta readers are looking for big picture issues, not spelling mistakes and punctuation. If you provide an error-riddled draft, they’ll probably get distracted by that, and they may miss weak spots you really needed to know.
Make it easy on them. They’re doing you a favor, so give them their copy in the format they want as long as it has the option for them to add comments. Microsoft Word works well since most people have it and you can track changes, but you may need to print and post copies to beta readers who prefer to hold a copy in their hand.
5. Add trigger warnings
Many people have topics that they can’t read about without getting upset. Even if it’s only a tiny paragraph halfway down page thirty, make sure you warn people up front that your writing may deal with uncomfortable, disturbing, or triggering topics. Don’t give your helpful beta readers a negative experience. They might not come back.
6. Give clear instructions
Give your beta readers a clear deadline that gives you plenty of time to incorporate their feedback. Give them at least a couple of weeks to get through your book. Let them know you will be checking in with them part of the way through to make sure they’re okay and can finish on time. If you don’t check-in until the due date, they may have forgotten about your story, and then you will have no time to get any feedback from elsewhere.
Tell them what you’re looking for and give them questions to answer, such as
- Does the opening grab you?
- Would you read on after the end of each chapter?
- Is anything unclear?
- Does the story flow?
- What do you think of X or Y characters?
Don’t overwhelm them, but the clearer you are in your expectations, the better feedback you’ll get.
7. Manage your expectations
You may be lucky enough to find an amazing beta reader who basically does a full developmental edit for you, but you can’t expect that. Beta readers are there to catch specific issues that you’re looking for, not to save you the cost of an editor.
8. Put on your big girl panties
It’s never easy taking criticism, even if it’s well meant and genuinely helpful. We get it. But you’ll never improve or see your blind spots without your lovely beta readers, so buckle up!
Try to keep in mind that these people really do want to help you and that they’re not being deliberately mean or trying to make you feel bad.
9. Take what you need from it
However, you don’t have to accept all the feedback. You are allowed to make the final decision about what you keep and what you ignore.
Take the time to go through your comments and decide what you’ll implement and what you’ll reject. But be careful of knee-jerk reactions. We get that you’re attached to all your characters and that you loved writing that particular scene, but if it isn’t working for your beta readers, take a step back and do your best to be objective.
10. Organize and apply your feedback
Wait until you have feedback from all your beta readers before you start applying it. You can then organize it properly and compare each person’s feedback.
You’ll probably end up with three types of feedback: feedback you ignore, feedback that you use, and feedback you’re not sure of.
Put the ignore pile in a separate document so it’s there if you want it, but you don’t have to pay any attention to it if you don’t want to.
Then look at your unsure pile. Go through this again, but don’t spend too much time on it. Quickly use your instincts to mark each piece of advice either as something to ignore or to use, then move what you don’t want to your ignore document.
Collate your helpful feedback so it’s ready for implementation, and organize it in an order that makes sense for how you’ll edit your story.
Then just go through and make the changes you know will make your story shine.
Pro Tip: Say “thank you!” Your beta readers really can be the difference between a dull draft that costs you a ton of extra money on edits and a shiny, polished draft that flies through edits. Tell them often how much you appreciate them. Consider sending them goodies, such as swag, and a free signed copy of the print book when it’s complete. You’ll develop a great relationship that will benefit you both.