Writers and readers hear terms bandied about and don’t often understand them. Beta readers was a new one to me when I started writing novels.
The short answer is YES, you do need them. But just what is a beta reader, and what do they do?
A beta reader is not an editor but someone who reads extensively and agrees to read your manuscript. They should be familiar with the parameters of your chosen genre, too. You are not asking them to correct typos or punctuation, but to tell you how your story reads to them.
When you are close to the finished copy of your book, having beta readers’ insights can provide valuable feedback. Call it an early marketing tool, if you will, as you try to have your book be the best it can be. These readers can point out things you need to perfect before your book goes to print.
I typically have beta readers on a new manuscript after it’s been revised and polished but before my final revision and copyediting. That way I can fix any issues they find, and sometimes even incorporate suggestions. One beta reader told me the opening of The Evening’s Amethyst, the fifth Nora Tierney English mystery, needed a stronger opening punch and two others hinted at that. In a domestic mystery, it’s sometimes tough to do that as you set up the story. In that case, simply moving up a cold case chapter of a child abduction to the opening gave readers a tense thread they could follow at the start of the book. And it’s a stronger book for it.
Exactly what your beta readers should look for are those things that will be most useful to you as the author. This is covered by me in an email that tells them what areas to pay particular attention to, and those cover questions are usually along the lines of:
Are there areas where the plot lags or the story slows?
Are there any questions raised that aren’t answered by the end of the book?
Did you feel the story was lacking in any area?
Did the characters and setting ring true to you?
These are just examples of things you might ask you beta readers to look for when reading. I am clear on when I need their feedback, too. Now where do you find these beta readers?
My first recommendation is NOT to use close family. Despite being a consummate reader, my mother loves every word I write and wouldn’t be able to give me quality feedback. Instead, look for friends or acquaintances who you feel will be able to be honest, the hallmark of a good beta reader, and who agree they have the time to read the book. This can be fellow authors, but remember they often have deadlines, too, so don’t be annoyed if someone you approach can’t read for you at this time.
Instead, look for beta readers who might be a reader of your book if it was already in print. They might be drawn from a fan base of earlier books if this isn’t your first book, as they would be familiar with some of your characters in a series. You can use social media connections for groups of readers to identify people who are interested in beta reading. While voluntary, each of these people will be thanked in your Acknowledgments page, and it’s good practice to send them a signed copy of the book when it’s in print.
The number of beta readers is up to you, but at least three gives you a difference of opinion. I typically have five for a book.
Once you have everyone’s feedback, read through them before attempting edits. One opinion alone needs to be evaluated. For instance, a reader who dislikes profanity may have an issue with a character who uses it— this actually cost me a star on an Amazon review from 5 to 4 for ‘profanity,’ yet when I went back over the book, one character used profanity four times. I had to shrug that off. If a beta reader had mentioned that, I wouldn’t have changed it because it fit the way that character spoke.
But if three of my five beta readers point out the same place they see a lag in the storyline, that’s something I’m going to pay attention to and definitely revise.
Writers: do you use beta readers?
Readers: Have you ever been a beta reader or would you like to be one?
I wouldn’t dream of sending my manuscript into the world without at least 5 beta readers as well. However, I do try to use other authors exclusively. I find they know how to read critically and how to articulate the problem areas. Also, authors are trained in critiquing! We’ve all either been in workshops or critique groups. So, yes, this limits me, but, on the other hand, it’s invaluable.
And of course, I make myself available for beta reads as well, and, barring deadlines, try to do a thorough and timely job. It’s all a learning opportunity because it teaches me to read even more critically and then apply the same methods to my own edits.
I agree that fellow authors give a better critique, Emilya. It’s sometimes tough to find enough!
Yes, I need beta readers! I have two that I count on with every book, but I think I need another one or two as well. I’d love to find someone actually in the UK. Next project!
Connie, I may have someone for you in the UK—I’ll email you!
Good discussion, Marni. I use beta readers as well but finding readers able to step back from the story is not easy. I also could use a couple more for my romances and my mysteries.
I have a small group of beta readers who do a fabulous job. I can’t imagine publishing without their input, and I’m always surprised by writers who don’t use them.
As always, Marni, your post is valuable and spot on.