So you know when you flip to the “Acknowledgments” section of a book, and you see a string of other authors’ names down the page with heartwarmingly vague platitudes like “Couldn’t have done it without you!” and “My undying gratitude”? Have you ever wondered what it is all these people actually did for the writer? There’s a good chance that a lot of them were beta readers.
You might be surprised to learn that all writers use beta readers in the writing process, whether they’re just emerging with their debut novel or they’re industry veterans who’ve been around the publishing block. A beta reader is an essential, game-changing part of the journey from first draft to paperback, and we’re going to tell you everything you need to know about finding beta readers of your own.
What is a beta reader?
A beta reader is a front-line focus group for your book. Once you have a draft of your novel that’s not an embarrassment, you’ll want to get opinions from potential readers to identify where the strengths and weaknesses are in your story. Those readers are your beta readers.
Your beta readers will usually be a range of people, including family and friends. Some of them might be writers too, or familiar with the writing craft, while others may not know anything about the mechanics of literature. The only thing they need to have in common is that they all love to read.
What’s the difference between an alpha reader and a beta reader?
The difference between alpha reader vs. beta reader is that your alpha readers are the very first people to ever set eyes on your manuscript, when it’s still in the developmental stage. They’ll usually be someone who knows a little about the craft of writing, and who can help identify glaring plot holes and inconsistencies in your story.
You can hire a developmental editor to be your alpha reader, which is reliable but can quickly get very expensive. You can also reach out to any author friends you might have, established book reviewers, or people who have studied literature and know the ins and outs of a good story. They’ll help you carve your rough draft into a polished manuscript.
Beta readers are the next step after your alpha readers are done with your manuscript. They’re meant to be stand-ins for your general readership. They’ll tell you what sort of reactions to expect when your book is out in the world. By using beta readers to review your story before submitting it for publication, you can smooth out any issues with pacing, characterization, worldbuilding, or cultural sensitivity.
What’s the difference between an editor and a beta reader?
The difference between an editor vs. a beta reader is that an editor is responsible for the mechanics of your story. While a beta reader can give you feedback as a reader about what works for them and what doesn’t, an editor will give you the tools to fix it. This might include line-level details like grammar, sentence structure, and narrative voice, as well as big-picture details like story arcs and character development.
An editor is valuable because of their professional experience in understanding and manipulating the layers of story. A beta reader is valuable as a kind of general member of your audience, and their experience as a human being who loves to read.
How many beta readers do you need?
To start with, aim for no less than three and no more than thirteen. Why thirteen? Because an odd number means that if your beta readers and critics are split down the middle on an issue, someone will be able to break the tie.
You may want to work with larger groups later, but when you’re in the early stages, large numbers of beta readers can get a bit overwhelming.
It’s a good idea to work with a range of readers with differing opinions, because every reader is different. What one person gains from reading your story may not be the same as what another person experiences. Some readers might go in with preconceived genre expectations, while others may be embarking on your story’s genre for the first time. Some may be native to the country in which your story is set, while others may have come from other places and have an awareness of certain cultural differences. The goal when accumulating beta readers is to give you a decent sample of what your overall readership will look like.
Keep in mind that some of your beta readers will agree to help, and then get distracted by the day-to-day currents of life. Therefore, overstock more readers than you think you’ll need so you’re not scrambling around after people when the deadline comes.
Are beta readers expensive?
In general, your beta readers won’t charge anything at all—except maybe a plate of homemade cookies or a favour when moving day comes. Often your beta readers will be people in your life who want to support your craft, such as friends or family, or other writers who may ask you to beta read for them in exchange.
Occasionally, though, you might want to seek out a beta reader with a specific knowledge base. In this case it might be worth hiring someone to look over your manuscript. They can charge anywhere from $10 to about $100 through sites like Fiverr and Upwork.
Where can you find beta readers?
So now that we know the basics of what beta readers are and why they’re important, where can you find them? Here are a few roads to keep in mind.
1. Ask friends and family
Your loved ones are your first line of defense between you and the cold, hard world. They can be a fantastic resource for finding beta readers, but you’ll need them to walk a delicate balancing act between being supportive and being straightforward.
Be clear to them that while their boundless adoration is flattering, it’s not entirely helpful at this stage in the writing process. You’ll need your beta readers to be honest about the highs and lows of your story, so make sure your family members are willing to tell it to you like it is.
2. Join a writing community
There are a ton of creative writing communities available both online and in most cities. Interacting with other writers is a great way to stay engaged with your art, challenge yourself, and learn more every day.
You can offer to trade beta reading services with other writers who have a current work in progress. They’ll read your book and give you their feedback as beta readers, and you can give your own feedback on theirs. Plus, becoming a beta reader for another writer friend is a good way to learn how to think critically about your own writing.
3. Consider outsourcing
Normally, you shouldn’t have to pay for a beta reader. However, there may be instances where you want to get a reliable and informed second opinion on certain aspects of your story. For example, if you’ve written a sultry medical drama, but your only exposure to medical procedure is Google and old episodes of House, it’s helpful to reach out to someone actively engaged in medical work. That way they can say, “No, we would never do this,” or, “No, we would actually do it this way.”
You might also consider hiring beta readers for aspects of cultural sensitivity (these are called sensitivity readers) or historical accuracy in historical fiction.
4 ways writing communities can help when your story is ready for a beta read
Joining a writing community, either in person or online, is a great way to find beta readers and improve every aspect of your craft. Here are a few great reasons to engage with a writing community in the wider world.
1. They connect you to beta readers
When you join a writing community, you can connect with tons of people who will review your work and give you helpful feedback. These groups are a great way to get valuable first impressions on your story from people who love reading books just like yours. They’ll be able to tell you what works and what doesn’t work for them, based on their understanding of the writing craft and of other books they’ve read that have elements in common with your work.
2. They teach you to read like a writer
In return, your beta readers will ask you to help review their work, too. This is actually great practice for developing your skills and understanding of story structure. By reviewing and critiquing other writers’ works in progress, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of how story elements fit together—and then you can apply that understanding to your own work, too.
3. They know what you’re going through
Being a writer can be incredibly rewarding, but it can be hair-tearingly frustrating and lonely at times, too. As supportive as your loved ones might be, the only people who will really truly Get It are… other writers. They know the struggle of trying to manifest a great idea onto a blank page, and of releasing your newborn work of genius into the world. Even though writing is a solitary art, writing communities will show you that you’re not alone.
4. They encourage accountability
When you’re writing on your own, it’s easy to let your art slip by the wayside when life gets in the way, or your inspiration runs out, or continuing just becomes too hard. Not so much in a writing community—they help keep you on track by supporting you as you set goals for yourself and actively engage with the work of your fellow writers.
How to get the most from your beta readers
Once you have your group of beta readers at the ready, you’ll want to make sure you get the most benefit out of the beta reading experience. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
1. Choose beta readers who know your subject, but also beta readers who don’t
If you’re writing about a subject or world that isn’t common knowledge for everyone—for instance, a little-known industry or an underrepresented country—it’s helpful to have varying perspectives from the beta readers and critics who review your story.
For example, you may be writing a book about a teenage girl who grows up in Bangladesh and dreams of moving to America. In this case, it would be a good idea to have at least one beta reader who’s familiar with that area and culture, who can point out any errors you may have made. But it’s also helpful to get an opinion from someone who has never been to Bangladesh before, so they can tell you if anything is unclear or confusing. Ideally, you’ll want your story to be accessible and enjoyable for a wide range of people.
You may also want to invite beta readers who are familiar with your story’s genre—for example, high fantasy—and people who haven’t read very many books like yours. This gives you perspectives from people who will bring comparisons to other work they know, as well as ones from people who are bringing a fresh eye to your world.
2. Establish deadlines
When you begin sending your work out to beta readers, decide on a soft deadline and a hard deadline. Four weeks and six weeks is usually a good benchmark. Your soft deadline is the one you tell them: “I’ll need to have all the feedback together by the end of June, does that work for you?”
Your hard deadline is the one you give yourself. Acknowledge that some of these beta readers are probably not going to get back to you, because they have lives too. Make your peace with that now. When your four-week deadline comes up, you can send them a gentle reminder that you need their feedback returned so you can start working on your edits. If you don’t hear from them by the time your hard deadline rolls around, consider the beta reading session closed and work with what you have.
This will save you a lot of stress running after people, and feeling guilty for making them feel guilty, and making excuses to accidentally-on-purpose swing by their house on your way home, and wondering why the curtains close so suddenly when you get there. When you reach your hard deadline, move on to the next step.
3. Embrace all feedback as sacred
Here’s a funny yet essential thing to remember about working with beta readers: the customer is always right.
Does that mean that a beta reader always knows what’s best for your story? No. But when they’re telling you what they felt or experienced in a certain moment of your story, it’s important to try and remember that what they’re expressing isn’t an opinion; it’s an objective fact. That is what they experienced. If your beta reader says, “I found this part unrealistic,” they found it unrealistic. Fact. It’s up to you as the writer to gratefully acknowledge that information and decide what you want to do with it moving forward.
You don’t have to agree with or use every suggestion that you receive. You should, however, try to accept that they have told you something true, and that other readers in the world might share this same truth as well.
4. Step back from your beta reading session
No matter what stage of your writing career you’re at, receiving feedback can be an emotional experience. You may feel pride, anger, joy, shame, fear, disillusionment, or all of these things at the same time. It’s messy, but not uncommon. This is why you need to take a big step back before deciding which suggestions to implement and how they’ll affect your work.
After you look over your responses from your beta readers, set aside both the feedback and your story for a little while. A couple days at least, ideally about a week. This gives you a chance to reflect on your beta readers’ notes with a cool, objective gaze, admit where valid points have been made, and recognize which suggestions aren’t right for you without falling back on your pride.
Questions to ask your beta readers
Now let’s look at some of the questions you can ask your beta readers to get the fullest picture possible of the strengths and weaknesses of your story.
Try not to lead your beta reader into a response with a question—for example, “Were you surprised that General Bakstabb turned out to be the villain in the end?” Instead, try to pose open-ended questions that will get them to share their own unique experiences: “Were there any moments that particularly surprised you?”
Here are a few questions you might ask about the overall shape of your story:
What do you think the central theme was?
Were there any moments that confused you?
Was the narrative easy to follow?
How did you find the pacing? Did anything feel too rushed or too slow?
How do you feel about the ending?
You’ll also want to look at feedback about your characters (which, as we all know, is the root of all story).
Who was your favorite character, and why?
Does the character development feel natural?
Were the characters realistic and well-developed?
Were there any moments that seemed out of character?
Try to encourage your beta readers to think creatively about your story, too. Here’s a fun bonus question to get them thinking:
- If you were writing a fanfic of this world, whose story would you explore?
This makes them engage with your story world, and gives you hints as to which characters and settings felt the most dynamic and compelling.
In genre fiction, you might want to ask your beta readers a few questions about the shape of your story within your chosen genre. For example:
Did you guess who the killer was before the end? If so, when?
Does the fantasy world feel real to you? Does anything need clarifying?
Does the romance between the two main characters feel organic?
Did you find the time period historically accurate? Were there any distracting anachronisms?
Since every story is unique, you may come up with questions that specifically pertain to your book. Brainstorm any areas that you were unsure of or that you found challenging to write, and add questions to address those moments. Remember to keep them open-ended as much as possible.
One super helpful trick is to compile all your questions into a simple worksheet, and then give it out or email it to all your beta readers. This does two great things for your beta reading process: 1.) It keeps all the feedback fairly uniform, so you can compare reactions across the board to each aspect of your story, and 2.) Talking to a piece of paper instead of your face encourages people to be more honest, and to think deeper about their responses. Win-win.
Trust beta readers to bring out the best in your story
In the end, remember that your story is your own; the only person who gets to decide what feels right for it is you. But if you take the time to acknowledge that peer feedback is a gift, and that outside opinions can bring a fresh perspective and catch mistakes that you were too close to see, you’ll find that your writing becomes stronger and your story becomes more powerful.