As a writer, it’s easy to become blind to your work. I know I’ve read over my MS a hundred times and still missed the obvious. It’s your story, born from your imagination – you know the intricacies of the plot and motivations of your characters, but the reader might not. Betas are an opportunity to test drive your baby and ensure others see that vision.
What is a beta reader?
Think of it like a beta version of a game – it’s got glitches and kinks which still need worked out, but you’re looking for feedback to tell you if you’re on the right track. What’s working? What isn’t? Are there any major plot holes and are the characters believable? Relatable? Remember, they don’t need to be likeable. Some characters should be loathed.
Betas are meant to be readers. They aren’t checking for commas or spelling, although it’s a bonus if they point them out. Basically, you shouldn’t expect your betas to do the job of an editor. Editing is still essential, but that’s another article.
If you’re looking for more insight, separate from an editor, what you need is a critique partner. They review your book under a writer’s watchful gaze and are more likely to spot plot bunnies and difficulties with your characters. If you find someone you can work with, hang onto them. As time goes on, they’ll be familiar with your style, your strengths and weaknesses, and will improve your writing.
When to beta?
Unless you’re an incredibly organised planner, betas won’t be reading your first draft. If you’re looking for a critique on your early work, you need an alpha reader, preferably one who can overlook numerous typos and overtelling (we all do it). Start thinking about betas when your first major revision is complete.
Choosing your betas
You can make up the ranks of your beta readers from anywhere, but remember you’re looking for a global view of your book. You’ll have your target demographic, however, reaching out to a diverse group (age, gender, background) will give you some unexpected insights. Whoever you get, the aim is for unbiased, objective feedback. Your family will be keen to support you, but you need to ask whether they can critique impartially.
Most people will tell you to choose betas who love your genre, and I agree to a point. Fans of your genre are invaluable in identifying tired tropes and clichés, and they can offer insight into comparable books and authors. If you write fantasy, it’d be a mistake to take on a beta who hates it, but gaining the perspective of someone on the periphery can tell you a lot about your narrative. Essentially, if you want a comprehensive overview of your book, cast your net wider.
At some stage in your creative process, you may want to consider using another type of beta reader: sensitivity readers. If your book contains particular content (abuse, suicide, characters with disabilities, etc.) you most likely want to run it by sensitivity readers. In addition, this subset of readers can provide you with feedback on bias, cultural inaccuracies and stereotypes. In a culture that isn’t as diverse as it should be, I’d recommend you think about it.
How many betas should you have? Taste is subjective, and the more betas you have, the more conflicts will arise. More than one and less than ten is a safe bet. I used eight for my first book, in part because there will always be people who don’t finish and I like diversity in feedback. However, the number of beta readers will vary from person to person, depending on where you are with your manuscript and how much work it needs.
The beta process
It’s a good idea to provide your betas with thinking points. Every writer has sections of their book they’re not 100% happy with, and it’s important to determine whether the niggle is an issue. While still remembering betas are readers, highlight the areas you want them to focus on.
Outside of particular scenes, you’ll want to ask general questions. Did the book grab your attention right away? Does the story flow smoothly? Is the pace right? Are the characters relatable? Is the dialogue realistic? If your book has a large cast of characters, you may want to ask if they had a favourite and why.
If you’re writing non-fiction, you should think more along the lines of how the information is disseminated. Is it easy for a non-professional to follow? Are sections repeated or redundant? If they have no prior knowledge of the topic, is it interesting?
Some betas will follow your questions faithfully, while others will just give you their general impressions. Either way, getting feedback in the publishing world is gold dust, so always thank your readers.
Give your betas a deadline. Most people appreciate a timescale, so even if you feel awkward, I’d recommend doing this. But be flexible and try not to get stressed if not everyone meets it. You should have an absolute deadline in your own head, one you won’t necessarily share. If you keep extending it, you’ll end up doing revisions forever.
How do you use the feedback? Should you?
Your betas have shared their thoughts … now what? First, comments like ‘loved it’ and ‘hated it’ without explanation aren’t helpful. You won’t get much more from these types of readers and my advice is to move on and don’t use them again.
Not everyone is going to agree – that’s a fact – but there will be crossover and common themes. Read through the feedback and look for similar concerns (and compliments, of course). Resist the urge to argue with your betas!
If only one person highlighted a problem, use your judgement and consider that it might be a difference of opinion. No matter how many revisions your book goes through, when it’s finally out in the world, some people will hate it. That’s just the nature of any creative work.
However, if everyone is telling you the same thing, it’s time to accept there’s an issue. We all have egos, and writers like to combine that with chronic self-doubt, but there’s no sense in going through the beta process if you’re going to ignore what comes back. This is your test run, and it should be used to iron out those bumps.
That being the case, you should also give yourself some time and distance. Don’t implement everything right away and consider the implications – even a small change can ripple through your entire narrative. If you’re really stuck, ask for a second opinion from someone you trust.
Where to find betas
More than likely, you’re already a member of a few writing communities, so that should be your first port of call. However, if you’ve never spoken to anyone before or commented on a single post, you might not get offers. A big part of gaining betas is mutual trust, and that won’t happen overnight. Quid pro quo is a firm favourite, so be prepared to return the favour.
Some established online groups, like the Beta Readers and Critique Partners Facebook Group and CP Matchmaking, are dedicated to pairing authors with betas. I haven’t used them, but they seem active and have large followings. Goodreads has a number of beta groups and many of their members are hardcore readers.
Writer’s forums are also good places to pick up betas: Absolute Write and My Writer’s Circle are two such sites. In addition, Absolute Write offers information about agents, publishers and other aspects of writing, so joining is beneficial. Again, don’t wade straight in and ask for betas. Say hello and get to know people.
It is possible to pay for betas, but most writers need to save their cash and there’s no guarantee you get the feedback you need. Websites like Fiverr advertise paid betas. As an alternative to payment, you could try offering a free copy of the finished book or including a thank you in the acknowledgements. In general, I don’t agree with paying or being paid to beta, but the choice is yours.
Whoever you get and wherever you get them, I would urge a degree of caution. When I first started out, I would’ve been happy to give my writing to anyone willing to read it, if only I could get a few words of feedback. I’m more discerning now, and that’s come from time spent getting to know the industry and the people within it.
This will be no surprise, but making your way in the publishing world is slow, and it requires graft. You’ll make mistakes, with betas and other aspects, but you’ll learn who’s worth it and who’s not. Great betas will show you things you wouldn’t find on your own, spark new ideas and precipitate solutions.
PS Livingstone is the author of the Transcendent Saga trilogy and various short stories, as well as numerous articles. She is the Editor at Bard of the Isles magazine, a judge for the BIWC Prize, and a member of both the Society of Authors and the Chartered Institute of Editors and Proofreaders.