What is a Beta Reader (and where do I find one)?

All book have errors, people say. I don’t know if this is true, but I do know that my debut mystery, A Dream of Death, has three. *Gulp* After reading and rereading the manuscript thousands of times, I missed them. So did my wonderful editor. So did the copy editors. I’ve considered sponsoring a contest with a prize for the reader who can spot all three—and a bonus prize for anyone who can spot a fourth.

Just kidding. If there is a fourth, I’m not sure I want to know about it.

This brings up the issue of beta readers. As far as I can tell, the term beta reader comes from the software industry. The “alpha” version of a program (like a writer’s first draft) comes first, then the “beta” version—better but still not ready for production. In the publishing industry, a beta reader is an unbiased, objective person (therefore not a family member or personal friend) who reads a work of fiction before publication, looking for and marking stuff like:

* Typos

* Errors in grammar, spelling, and logic

* Continuity and time-line problems

* Plot holes

* Boring bits

* Areas of confusion

Writers use beta readers because we lack the necessary emotional distance to evaluate our own work objectively. The more familiar we are with a manuscript, the less likely we are to spot errors. Our eyes gloss over them, and our brains unconsciously correct them. After all, we know what we meant.

Ideally, beta readers should be familiar with your genre and fall within your targeted readership in terms of interest, age, and gender. Or if not, they should understand enough about the craft of writing to provide informed feedback. Beta readers are not, however, the same as developmental editors. Beta readers point out what doesn’t work for them. Developmental editors know what to do about it.

A beta reader will read your entire manuscript (usually without payment), providing a written report of his or her personal responses and often making comments within the manuscript or in the margins. How many beta readers you use is up to you, but three is a good number to start with. The responses will differ—perhaps even clash. You as the writer take the comments you agree with and make changes.

Okay—but where do writers find beta readers? “Just to the left of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” says Australian editor and publisher Belinda Pollard. In other words, finding good beta readers isn’t easy. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Attend writers’ workshops, seminars, and conferences. I met one beta reader years ago at Malice Domestic. After hearing about my novel, she handed me her card and said she’d love to read and comment.

2. Join a local writers’ group like Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, or Christian Fiction Writers. Make friends with other writers. Network. Offer to read their work first.

3. Hang out at the library. In my experience, librarians make great beta readers. Get to know your local librarians. Tell them what you’re writing. Ask for their help. Also, many libraries sponsor book clubs and reading groups where you can find others who share your tastes.

4. Join a critique group. J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis formed The Inklings, a group of fantasy writers who met at The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, England. Around the same time in Paris, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald formed “Stratford-on-Odeon,” named after Shakespeare & Company, the English-language bookshop and lending library they frequented. If one critique group doesn’t work for you, try another.

5. Participate in a manuscript swap through Sisters in Crime or another writers’ organization. Reading someone else’s work with a critical eye is a great way to learn about craft. We notice flaws more easily in the writing of others than our own.

The big idea here is feedback—informed, honest, often painful feedback. Every writer needs feedback, so stock up on Kleenex and chocolate, strap on your emotional armor, and go for it.

Have you used beta readers? Have you been a beta reader? Tell us about your experience.

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