Beta Readers: Who Are They and Where to Find Them
When picturing a writer, it’s easy to imagine a solitary figure toiling away at his/her desk. But the truth is, writers rarely work in such a vacuum. Instead, they rely on feedback from their potential readers (also known as beta readers) to help better develop their work.
It’s no coincidence that all the great authors we know today relied on at least one beta reader with whom they could share their writing. Take J. R. R. Tolkien, for example. The author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit would test out material on his two sons, who offered him their opinions and ideas.
He also had another influential reader: his friend and fellow writer C. S. Lewis. Tolkien once wrote: “[Lewis] was for long my only audience… But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The Lord of the Rings to a conclusion.”
In this article, we will explore exactly what beta reading is by delving into the world of beta readers: who they are, what kind of services they provide, where they can be found, and why every author needs them.
In this article, you’ll find:
- Beta readers definitions
- Beta readers vs alpha readers
- Why hire beta readers?
- Qualities of good beta readers
- How to work with beta readers?
- Questions to ask beta readers?
- How many beta readers do authors need to hire?
- Where to find beta readers?
What Is a Beta Reader?
Beta readers review an author’s manuscript before publication. They approach the written work as casual readers, and in that sense act as the author’s “test market.” They then point out aspects of the work that they like or dislike, parts that are unclear, elements they find intriguing or boring, etc.
It is worth noting that beta readers are different from professional editors and proofreaders. These readers are there to offer the general reader response–like “I really liked…” or “I didn’t quite get…”–whereas editors approach the manuscript from a writer’s point of view.
For instance, developmental fiction editors will focus on things like ensuring the storyline is airtight, the characters are fully developed, and the pacing is appropriate. On the other hand, a proofreader will polish the manuscript by ridding it of typos, inconsistencies, and grammatical and spelling errors.
Where Does Beta Reading Come in?
So where, you might ask, does beta reading fit into the publication process? We’ve broken it down for you into seven main stages, whereby the author:
- Writes the first draft;
- Self-edits this draft;
- Shares the manuscript with beta readers;
- Implements changes after receiving feedback from beta readers;
- Sends out the revised manuscript to a professional editor;
- Revises the edits and sends out the manuscript to a final proofreader;
- Has the manuscript ready for publication!
What Is the Difference between Beta and Alpha Readers?
The word “beta” in “beta reader” implies that such readers aren’t the first ones to read a manuscript. Instead, it is the alpha readers who get to see the manuscript when it is still a rough first draft. If we follow the aforementioned seven publication steps, alpha readers would come in right after Step 1, before the author self-edits the manuscript.
If beta readers are an author’s casual/general readers, alpha readers are known as the “big picture” readers. They see the manuscript when it’s not yet fully formed, and authors rely on their feedback to get a sense of what the initial reactions are to their work. An alpha reader might help a novelist decide on a main character’s fate, or possibly nudge a researcher to choose a slightly different research angle.
Why Do Authors Need Beta Readers?
When an author is working on a manuscript, chances are he/she has read it over and over again multiple times. The time spent thinking about it, planning it, and eventually writing it renders the author extremely close to the text. While such proximity is of course necessary, it prevents the author from being able to achieve the distance required to appropriately review the work.
Having beta readers is crucial for an author because they can offer a fresh perspective that can help improve a manuscript before it’s officially shared with the world at large.
What Are the Qualities That Make a Good Beta Reader?
Although beta readers aim to offer a “casual” reader response to manuscripts, possessing the right characteristics enables them to provide the most valuable type of feedback for authors. Here are some of the qualities that make a good beta reader:
Familiarity with the Author’s Genre
Beta readers act as a glimpse into an author’s future target audience. This means that an author should ideally choose a beta reader who is familiar with his/her genre of choice. This familiarity with the genre enables beta readers to provide more poignant insight because they’re used to seeing what works and what doesn’t.
Capability of Being Honest
Many authors shy away from choosing close friends and family members as their beta readers because they worry that they might not provide the most honest feedback. Honesty is a crucial characteristic for a beta reader because any sugar-coating at this stage will prove unhelpful for the work later on. It’s better for an author to learn that there is a plot hole, or that a character needs more development, now, when he/she can still do something about it.
Understanding the Art of Constructive Criticism
While of course beta readers should be honest, that does not mean that a good beta reader is brutal just for the sake of it. The ability to give constructive criticism is key to helping an author make the necessary changes to his/her manuscript. Indeed, the best beta readers are the ones who are happy to provide detailed commentaries on elements of the manuscript and who help the author dig deeper into their topic to arrive at a richer core.
Sticking to Deadlines and Being an Efficient Reader
This might seem like a given, but having a punctual and efficient beta reader who can stick to deadlines is absolutely crucial for any author. A good beta reader is able to combine speed with efficiency in order to provide the author with timely feedback.
How Can Authors Work with Beta Readers?
Here are some key tips for authors who wish to achieve the best results from their beta readers:
- Find the right readers for your manuscript: We’ve already established that a good beta reader is one who is familiar with the author’s genre. It is the author’s job to search for this kind of reader and seek them out.
- Establish deadlines: Authors should set clear and realistic deadlines for their beta readers. This way readers know what is expected of them and can inform authors of their availability.
- Offer your manuscript in different formats: Be flexible with how you showcase your manuscript to your beta readers. Some might prefer it to be sent as an ebook, others might want a printed version in order to facilitate note-taking. If you are open to sharing different formats, you increase your chances of finding suitable readers.
- Be open-minded when it comes to criticism: It takes practice not to take criticism of your work personally; once you are able to put yourself out there and accept constructive criticism, your work will be better for it.
- Don’t choose indifferent readers: It’s great to be open to criticism from your beta readers, but don’t go for readers who are not interested in your work in the first place. Sending your nineteenth-century romance novel to a historian who despises romance literature won’t do your work any favors.
- Compare readers’ notes: If you’ve enlisted the help of more than one beta reader, it’s useful to compare their different notes in order to see what they agree on. If more than one reader points out there’s a problem with a particular scene in your novel, chances are there is one.
- Take your time with the feedback: You might be tempted to implement your beta readers’ feedback right away, but it’s best to do so carefully and in your own time. You might find that making a change in one chapter of your book necessarily means making other changes throughout.
- Ask the right questions: Don’t expect all beta readers to provide detailed feedback on every aspect of your manuscript. If you have specific questions you want answered, ask them!
What Questions Should Authors Ask Their Beta Readers?
To give you an idea of the type of questions authors should ask their beta readers, we’ve created two separate sample reader reports: one for fiction manuscripts and the other for works of nonfiction.
Fiction Manuscript Sample Reader Report
- Provide a summary of your overall impression of the book.
- Are there any weaknesses in the narrative structure and/or character development? If so, please state what they are, along with some examples.
- What are the strong points of this book? Was there a particular aspect that drew you in?
- How would you describe the writing style?
- On a scale of 1 to 5, how easy was it to follow the storyline?
- Who is your favorite character and why?
- Who is your least favorite character and why?
- On a scale of 1 to 5, how would you rate the pacing of the book? Does the story flow naturally?
- Is the setting of the story clearly developed? Is the “story world” a believable one?
- What did you think of the ending of the book?
Non-Fiction Sample Reader Report
- What do you think the author of this work seeks to accomplish? In other words, what is the work’s thesis?
- Did the introduction grab your attention?
- Does the work make an important contribution to the relevant field of scholarship?
- In what aspects does the work challenge existing research on the topic?
- Who do you think is the target audience of this work?
- Is the work written in an accessible and readable style?
- Is the length of the work suitable for its content and purpose?
- Did any part of the book feel redundant?
- Is the author’s argumentation clear and logical?
- Did the conclusion wrap up the author’s argument effectively?
How Many Beta Readers Does an Author Need?
There is no magic number when it comes to how many beta readers an author should enlist. However, as a general rule of thumb, it’s safer if an author chooses more than just one reader to look over his/her manuscript. Here are some benefits of having more than one beta reader:
- Obtaining a wider range of feedback.
- Being able to predict your target audience’s reactions more realistically.
- Having access to different readers’ notes and examining the commonalities.
- Increasing the chances of finding beta readers who are available.
- Avoiding disruptions to your work if one or more beta readers drop out.
With that being said, authors should be careful not to send out their manuscripts to too many beta readers; a larger sampling could result in varying opinions that end up competing with one another and confusing the author.
Moreover, attempting to coordinate with a large number of beta readers could prove to be inefficient, especially for authors who are on a tight schedule. This is why it’s recommended to have a minimum of two and a maximum of ten readers.
Where Can Authors Find Beta Readers?
Beta readers are everywhere—all an author needs to do is know where to look for them! Here is a list of possible places to find the perfect beta readers for your manuscript:
- Freelance websites: some beta readers enlist their services for a small fee on freelance websites such as Upwork and Fiverr. Others can also be found on sites like Writerful Books which offer professional manuscript assessment services, including beta reading and editing.
- People you know: some authors opt to send their manuscripts to close acquaintances, and even friends and family. Although some family members might find it difficult to be openly critical of the author’s work, sometimes the author is lucky enough to find someone close to them who will also give feedback openly and unreservedly.
- Author website: If an author already has a follower base, then he/she can use their author website, or any form of social media, to reach out to beta readers about a new manuscript.
- Writer communities: A quick Google search for writer communities in your area will probably yield some fruitful results. These communities serve as a way for authors to exchange ideas, manuscripts, and feedback. You just might find your ideal beta readers and fellow writers there!
- Social media: Not a fan of meeting up with readers in person? No need to worry; you can join virtual writer and reader communities on social media from the comfort of your home. Here’s one of the beta readers’ Facebook groups.
- Goodreads: Many people view Goodreads as a website for readers, but the truth is it’s actually also home to numerous writer support groups. For instance, check out this Goodreads Beta Reader Group.
Whether you’re a prolific author or an aspiring one, you need your beta readers. They’re the ones who will help take your manuscript to the next level by fleshing out the weaknesses in your plot or the holes in your argument. These readers will also pinpoint the strong suits of your work, encouraging you to dig deeper to unearth that richness they know is there.
Even though Tolkien might not have consciously known that C. S. Lewis was what we now call a “beta reader” for The Lord of the Rings, he certainly understood the value that his dear friend and reader brought to the masterpiece of fantasy we know today.