You may have heard the term “Beta Reader” floating around in writerly circles. It seems like just about everyone either has a team of beta readers diligently poring over their latest book manuscript, or they’re acting as a reader for someone else. If you’re not sure what all the fuss is about, don’t worry—we’re here to answer all your beta reader questions.
Let’s look at what a beta reader is and why becoming one can make a huge difference in your writing.
A beta reader is the first line of defense between a first draft and the cold, hard world. As a beta reader, your job would be to help an author identify any major strengths, weaknesses, plot holes, inconsistencies, or anachronisms that distract from their book. It can be difficult for a writer to catch everything, because they’ve spent months or years staring at their story until they went cross eyed. That’s why they need you.
The best beta reader will always be someone who loves reading. Besides that, they can represent a whole range of people. Some might be experienced writers with degrees in literature and an extensive knowledge of story craft; others might be people who have never written a word, but are always first in line for new book releases. Some might have an intimate knowledge of the story’s genre or culture, while others may be experiencing it for the first time. It’s always helpful for a writer to get a range of different opinions from readers of all walks of life.
Do beta readers get paid?
In general, beta readers don’t get paid for their service. Beta reading is done voluntarily or as an exchange. Many writers will trade their time with other writers; you’ll review their work and offer your opinion, and in exchange, they’ll do the same for yours.
The exception might be if you have particular knowledge of a niche industry or an underrepresented culture. It can be helpful for writers to find beta readers with a specific experience relevant to their book. For example, if you spent time working as a criminal defense lawyer, you might be a good beta reader for an author who’s writing a book about one. That way you can tell them if they’ve made any errors in their protagonist’s procedures, knowledge, or responsibilities or if anything else feels particularly unrealistic.
If your background is that of a minority ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion, you can also market yourself as a sensitivity reader. These are people who provide feedback on an author’s work that focuses on characters from these minorities, when the author isn’t a part of that culture or community themselves. In this case a sensitivity reader will tell them if a certain point is unintentionally offensive, inaccurate, or out of date.
For these roles it’s not unreasonable to ask for a small honorarium for your time. Usually, however, beta reading is a voluntary service from one book lover to another.
Why should you become a beta reader?
So if you’re not going to be making bank from reading other author’s manuscripts, what’s the benefit to becoming a beta reader? Let’s look at a few of the advantages that it can offer.
1. Improve your own writing
The number one reason to become a beta reader is that you’ll see a marked improvement in your own work. Giving feedback on another’s work will teach you how to read like a writer, to examine the story mechanics of another writer’s work. and understand why certain scenes work better than others. You’ll learn to identify when a character arc feels unsatisfying, when there isn’t enough tension to carry an ending successfully, and how literary devices are used most effectively. Then you’ll be able to bring this enriched understanding into your own craft.
And although your job is not to fix the writer’s work—we’ll talk more about the beta reader’s responsibilities below—you’ll start developing an inner sense for the sort of solutions you might apply to your own work.
2. Make new connections
Offering your services as a reader is a great way to get to know other people in your literary community. By engaging actively with other writers, you’ll find yourself feeling more creative and motivated to take on your own projects. You can learn a lot not just from other writers’ work, but in their process and the way they approach their craft.
Plus, these relationships will come in handy when you look for first readers for your own finished draft. Writers are a loyal lot, and they’ll remember that you helped them when they needed it.
3. Find inspiration
When you beta read for another writer, you’ll suddenly find yourself with an outpouring of new ideas. This doesn’t mean snagging another writer’s stories for yourself (they worked hard for those!), but they can spark perspectives that lead to something new. You may notice a small detail in the book that gets you thinking about where it might lead in a different circumstance, or come across a little-known fact that makes you want to learn more.
We learn something new from everything we read, and beta reading is no exception. Reading for other writers will broaden your horizons and show you new paths to follow as you look for inspiration to create stories of your own.
What are your responsibilities as a beta reader?
So now that we know why beta reading is helpful for any emerging writer, let’s take a closer look at what’s involved in the role, and how to be a great beta reader for the writer who’s trusted you with their work.
1. Establish expectations
Communication is a big deal when it comes to beta reading. When you become a beta reader for someone, ask them what sort of feedback they’re looking for. Simply telling them you liked it or you didn’t isn’t helpful for either of you.
The writer may have already prepared questions or guidelines for their beta readers, in which case you should follow these as closely as you can. If not, ask them if they have any major concerns about their story (such as pacing or character development), who their target readers are going to be, and what they’re hoping to get from the experience. This will give you a sense of how to approach their book and how best to formulate your responses.
2. Be honest and constructive
Honesty is huge for any writer, but so is actionable feedback. If something isn’t working in their plot, be up front and offer constructive criticism. However, don’t fall into the trap of tearing their work apart just because it’s a first novel still in its formative stages. Beta reading is a balancing act between being gentle with the writer (we are sensitive artists, after all), and giving them honest feedback on major issues that they can use to improve their work.
Many beta readers find it’s easier to write their responses down than have a face-to-face conversation. This doesn’t mean that a note or email gives you a license for cruelty; it means that you can take the time to carefully consider your responses, detailing aspects of their narrative that didn’t work for you in a mindful and compassionate way.
3. Use “I” statements
When you’re offering feedback, try to avoid blanket statements that express opinion as fact—for example, “this setting was underdeveloped,” “this relationship happened too fast,” “this moment was completely out of character.” Instead, use your responses to express your own unique experience—“I had trouble visualizing this setting,” “I didn’t find this relationship believable,” “this point didn’t feel natural to me from what I knew about these characters.”
Very likely, the writer will be getting feedback from at least a few other beta readers. They’ll then compare those responses to see where readers shared the same experiences to reveal strengths or weaknesses in the narrative. By using “I” statements in your feedback, you’re offering your own valuable experience with the story without taking ownership of it.
4. Submit feedback on time
When a writer asks you to be a beta reader, they will probably give you a deadline. Please do your very best to respect it, and if you can’t—if your workload gets to be too much, if life gets in the way, if you forget and leave it to the last minute—please, for the love of cookies, tell them. It’s okay to say, “I’m sorry, but I’m dealing with more than I expected right now and I won’t be able to get my responses to you by your deadline.” They’ll appreciate your honesty and won’t harass you with increasingly desperate phone calls wondering if you’ve fled the country.
If you’re acting as a first reader for a writer, they’ve made a big decision in trusting you with their raw work. To forget about it, or to toss it unceremoniously down your list of priorities, is to show them that the work they’re offering the world doesn’t matter. As a beta reader, you’re not entering into a binding contract, but you do owe them your honesty and respect.
5. Remember whose story it is
When you’re reviewing another’s work, it can be very tempting to “fix” the writer’s book for them. You may develop a clear idea of where you, as a reader, would like to see the story go. Because you’re actively involved in the writer’s creative process in this way, it’s very easy to start slipping into the role of co-creative mind instead of support network.
It can be difficult to step back from this role after you’ve become invested in the plot. However, you need to remind yourself that this isn’t your book baby, and although you can help the writer on their journey, you don’t get a final voice in the direction they choose. Be careful not to confuse beta readers with a professional editor; what you are doing in the beta reading process is giving them tools to work with—not rewriting their work the way you think it should be.
How to become a beta reader
Ready to take the next step on your journey? Here are three ways to become a beta reader.
1. Join our free Beta Reader Directory
Here at Scribophile we have a Beta Reader Directory that you can be listed in for free. You’ll tell us a little about the kinds of books you like to read, and the kinds of books you don’t like to read, and authors from all over the world can query you to ask you to beta read novels that might interest you.
Being part of our Beta Reader Directory is a great way to let authors come to you with books that they think you’ll enjoy, and that you can help make better. Best of all, it’s free!
2. Join an online writers community
Hands down, the best way to get experience as a beta reader is by joining a community of writers. Online groups and communities bring writers together from all over the world, and they expose you to a range of genres, lifestyles, perspectives, and skill sets. The people in these groups are often experienced writers who are happy to help you improve your work—they won’t be shy about giving you helpful feedback, like your family members and friends might be.
Many online communities have a writing group or stream specifically geared towards connecting beta readers with writers. If you want to get in some practice evaluating different types of stories from all different people, this is a great place to start. By joining a writers group, you’ll have access to people who can act as critique partners for your work, too.
3. Take a writing class
Another way to connect with other writers is by taking a course in your area. Even if you don’t want to shell out a year to do a creative writing MFA, many colleges and universities offer part time or evening continuing education courses. You can also find writers centers that specialist in resources and classes for emerging writers in several major cities.
Alternatively, you can look for courses that are offered online in real time through platforms like Zoom. These are a little different from in person classes, but they’re still a great way to get to know other writers. Since you’ll all be at around the same skill level, you can suggest beta reading trades to review and give feedback on each other’s work.
4. Reach out to writers you love
It never hurts to reach out to an author whose work you admire via social media or a contact page and offer your services as a beta reader. Indie authors who aren’t quite as well known yet will be more likely to invite new people on board as beta readers, and they’ll probably love the idea of hearing a new perspective. Many established authors already have a dedicated and trusted circle of writer friends, but you won’t lose anything by trying. They may surprise you, and you could even end up reading an early draft of a future cult classic!
To reach out to an author, the rules are simple: be respectful, but don’t go on for eight pages. Here’s an example:
Hi [your favorite author],
I loved reading your most recent book, [their last book you read]. I’m wondering if you need any beta readers for upcoming projects. I’m a huge fan of [their genre] and I’m always looking for ways to learn and grow as a writer. Let me know if this is something that interests you, and take care.
Becoming a beta reader helps you grow as a writer
Acting as a great beta reader for another writer can be challenging, but it is a hugely rewarding part of the writing process that will make a real difference in the quality of your work over time. Not only does beta reading help you develop your own skills and inner ear for language, it will help you create new connections and relationships with other creatives that last a lifetime.