A while ago I was privileged enough to have two writing friends send me their manuscripts to read. At the time I had no idea what a Beta Reader was or how I should proceed. Instead I got bogged down in line edits and I was afraid to tell them how I felt for fear of offending them. Sadly, I ended up not sending anything back to them and I felt horrible about it. I was a BAD Beta Reader. Don’t be like me! Here is what I have learned since then about the benefits of having a GOOD beta reader and how to be one.
First let's talk about the benefits. You’ve written your novel, gone through a few drafts, and you feel pretty comfortable with your manuscript. Now you may think that it’s time to ship it off to an editor. But sending it to a few Beta Readers first can be a better option. In contrast to an editor, a Beta Reader will give you more of the big picture. If you end up making lots of changes it would be better to make those changes before you send it off to an editor. It could save you the time and money of having it edited twice. A second, third, fourth opinion is always a good plan especially with something you've put so much work into. You want to make sure it's the best it can be before an agent/publisher sees it. This is even more true for those self-publishing. With an agent or publisher you will automatically be getting more opinions as it goes through the process of publication. With self-publishing you are the only judge of your manuscripts readiness...unless you utilize your Beta Readers.
What a Beta Reader will tell you:
-If there are inconsistencies in your timeline
-If a character comes off differently than you intended
-If something wasn’t explained enough
-If something was overly explained
-If they connected (or didn’t) with the story on a personal level and how
-If the use of third person works or if it might sound better in first person
-If there are areas where the story lags
-If you set up an expectation in the beginning that didn't deliver on
-If your descriptions are evocative enough
-If vital plot points are missing
-If the research behind something is inaccurate
-If they love it so much they want to tell all their friends
...And much more
What a Beta Reader will not tell you:
-If you used too many commas
-If you spelled something wrong
-If you repeated words
-If your paragraphs are too long
-If your grammar is wrong/confusing
...Basically, a Beta Reader is not a line editor.
What makes a good Beta Reader:
A good Beta Reader will be in your audience of intended readers. If you’re writing YA, try to find teens and young women as these are the main readers of this genre. If you are writing a mystery find people who are mystery readers. It’s also good to have a reader outside of the intended audience to get an idea of whether your novel has a broader appeal. If you can find a Beta in the publishing field that would be extremely helpful as well.
A good Beta Reader is also a fellow writer and cheerleader. Someone who you can exchange work with for honest feedback. Most importantly they are thorough and prompt with their feedback.
They may not your best friend, mom, dad, or spouse. Unless, of course, you have the kinds of friends/family who are going to be completely honest with you. Do not choose Beta Readers that will be afraid to tell you the truth because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Remember you need authentic feedback so that you can make your manuscript better. Pandering is not going to help you improve. However, a good Beta Reader knows that delivering criticism mixed with compliments is a more productive method of giving feedback.
How to find a Beta Reader:
There are many ways to find Beta Readers. A mixture of these will help you find the right people. Remember not all of your Betas will work out. People have lives that sometimes interfere. Don't be surprised if you get back less manuscripts than you send out. That being said, here are some ideas for finding Beta Readers.
If you're part of a regular critique group or have a friend you exchange work with you can ask them to read your manuscript. This is a great option as you will already have a comfortable dialogue with this person. The one drawback may be that this person has already seen previous drafts. If they know what your manuscript used to be like, that might color their reaction to the updated version. You want fresh feedback.
Try online writing communities like Wattpad, Scribophile, Worthy of Publishing and Figment. These are great places to post your work and get feedback from other writers as well as readers. An additional benefit on these sites it that your work is automatically protected. Sending your work out to strangers always has its risks.
Networking. This is a simplified answer, obviously, but networking is always a great place to meet other writers. Follow other writers on Twitter. Comment on their blog posts. Go to workshops. Meet other writers and exchange manuscripts and feedback. The benefit of networking is friendship and camaraderie. Don't connect with a writer just to get them to be your Beta Reader. You risk making them feel like you're using them. Make connections, feel it out. If it feels right, then ask. Be prepared to do the same for them in return.
Friends of friends. Remember when I said not to let your BFF be your Beta? I stand by that, but your BFF's daughters friends uncle who reads a lot of middle grade fiction because he's a middle grade teacher might be interested in giving you feedback for an opportunity to read new work. Ask friends if they know anybody who reads your genre and might like to read your book and give you feedback. These people can be anywhere in the country or even the world. Think big! Also remember to ask your writer friends if they have any Beta Readers they use who might be looking for more.
Some people do charge a fee to be Beta Readers. If you find you've plumbed your resources and come up short you might want to give that a try. Or you might just prefer a professional so you know what you're getting. If you do a search for "Manuscript Critique" you will come up with lots of options. Like editors, these people are pros with websites that tell you what to expect from them and testimonials from other writers.
How to deliver your manuscript:
You can give your Beta the entire manuscript physically or email it to them. You can also give it out to them a chapter or act at a time. In the case of websites like Wattpad they work best released in installments. Just make sure to put it out on specific days so people know when to expect it. It's a good idea to talk to your Betas about when you'd like to receive your manuscript back. Make sure to give them plenty of time to read and reflect. If you aren't sure about a new Beta Reader you can always send them one or two chapters and see what happens. If it works out, then send them the rest.
What you get back:
In return you should expect at least a page but often several pages of feedback. If your Beta is a pro you'll likely get back something very organized whereas a friend of a friend might just come back with stream of consciousness impressions. Both can be equally helpful. You can even send the manuscript out with a list of questions. If you search "Beta Reader questions" you will find some great examples.
You might get back something you disagree with, or nothing at all. Don't pester your Betas, especially if they are helping you out of the kindness of their hearts. Give them space, maybe a friendly reminder or two. If you still aren't hearing from them and it's been quite a while you can ask for your manuscript back and let them know you've already moved on with your edits. Then never ask them to be a Beta Reader for you again. It might take a while to find the right people but you'll know when you have. Keep your readers to a minimum, perhaps 3-6, and if one drops out you can try a new one. You don't want to be too overwhelmed with feedback. More is not necessarily better in this case.
You will get conflicting or disagreeable feedback. It will be up to you to decide what to use and what to leave. Take note of any patterns. If multiple people tell you one of your characters is unlikable and they're supposed to be the main love interest, you might want to pay attention to that.
Katerina Dennison lives in Mount Dora, FL with her three annoyingly adorable cats, and husband. She is currently finishing the first novel in a seven book paranormal YA series Moose Cove Coven, which will be posted on Wattpad in May 2016. When she's not writing fiction she's blogging or instagraming about her favorite things; Disney, cats, veganism, photography, writing, nail polish and tarot. You can find her blogs on WordPress.