The Importance and Limitations of Beta Readers

So you’re feeling good about your current draft. It’s shiny, you’ve corrected the most glaring goofs, and you’re ready to move forward. But before you make any big decisions, consider farming out to beta readers. A great beta reader can give you an early preview of how your intended audience might react to and evaluate your work. They can highlight plot holes, flag confusing passages, or offer opinions on your characters. Importantly, they’ll also tell you whether or not your story’s good. If you’re planning on self-publishing, beta readers are extra important. You can drop thousands of dollars on a brilliant editor, but if your core story is weak, you’ll end up with an expertly crafted manuscript no one wants to read. 

How do I find a qualified beta reader?

A beta reader’s credentials need only include a love of reading. (It is, however, helpful if your reader is familiar with books or tropes from your genre.) You can source willing readers from social media, Goodreads, writers’ forums, Scribophile, Wattpad, e-mail lists, workshops, or critique groups. And while there’s nothing wrong with sourcing from friends and family, remember they may be less willing to critically engage with your work. Think about it: do you want to tell your best friend (or your Uncle) that their work is terrible? Be wise.

Keep in mind that while you may have great luck exchanging work with another writer, you stand to gain more by sending your draft to multiple people. Why?

  • Someone will bail. You’ll probably find this out right when you’re expecting to receive feedback. Don’t get mad—the reality is you’re asking people to do you a favor, one for which they’re not getting compensated.[i] If you have more than a scant handful of readers, you’re more likely to end up with at least a few folks who follow up.
  • Statistical relevance (sort of). If a preponderance of people find something problematic in your work, whether it’s a character, a chapter, or the way you use a word, it’s worth looking into. It’s easier to write off one person’s opinion, but lots of similar feedback may prompt you to address the root issue.
  • Diversity. It’s not just about the number of people to whom you send your work—it’s about the type of people. Forgo the echo chamber and seek individuals with backgrounds that differ from yours. An underrepresented reader (e.g., a woman, someone differently abled, or a person of color) may give you nuanced feedback you didn’t know you needed.
  • Uh-Oh Sensor. This piggybacks on “Diversity.” If any of your readers point out cultural appropriation or something racist, misogynistic, transphobic, or equally offensive, do not discount their input. Do not get defensive. Do not lambaste them for being too sensitive. If one reader catches a whiff of a problem, chances are good someone else will, too. We all make mistakes, even if we’re not trying to be hurtful. 

“But,” you might say, “what about plagiarism? What if my beta reader steals my ideas?” It’s possible, though unlikely. (Presumably, you know these people.) You can add a copyright page at the beginning of your manuscript, if it’ll make you feel better. However, if you’re truly worried about copy thievery, consider drafting a brief nondisclosure agreement or copyright acknowledgment for the reader to sign electronically.[ii] Balance casting a wide net with choosing your readers judiciously.

If I have beta readers, I don’t need an editor.

Wrong. While beta readers will provide you with valuable feedback, most aren’t professionally trained as editors, copyeditors, or proofreaders. It’s not your beta readers’ job to hunt down typos or provide chapter-level, paragraph-level, or sentence-level revisions. They will, however, tell you if your story is—or isn’t—working, and help you nail down the narrative. Your editor’s job is helping shape the language supporting that narrative, and keeping it free from distracting or damaging errors. (The exception of course, is when you hire a developmental editor, who is invested in helping you shape the story from beginning to end.) Both beta readers and editors perform valuable functions: If your story is fundamentally flawed, a copyeditor won’t be able to save it; if your core idea is fabulous, but the writing is terrible, you’re not going to have an audience.

How do I get feedback that will really help me?

Some writers avoid beta readers because they don’t receive helpful feedback.[iii] You’re responsible for directing responses. To get better feedback, try including a simple questionnaire with your work. The questions should guide—not lead—your readers, and should ask them to think critically about what did or didn’t work without suggesting an answer. Don’t ask your readers to look for things you think might be problematic. If you’re worried about too many “yes” or “no” responses, add direction (e.g., please elaborate, cite examples, why?, or mark the manuscript). You can download a sample sheet of questions here.

Want to make it easier for your readers? Ask them to respond using a rating system (e.g., one to five, strongly disagree to greatly disagree, least interesting to most interesting, etc.), and format the questionnaire using Google Forms or SurveyMonkey. You’ll lose some of the personal commentary in the process, but you’ll gain collated results that give you general idea of what is or isn’t working.

What do I do with the feedback?

Read it! Evaluate the feedback with an open heart and mind, and make revisions accordingly. Remember: Critical feedback isn’t a negative reflection of your person, and it will only help you become a better writer. Be gracious, and remind yourself that your initial idea may not match your generated object—and that’s okay.

Alright. What do I send?

Ready? Here’s what you should send your beta readers in the initial packet.

  • A polished draft. You don’t need to send a perfectly copyedited draft, but it shouldn’t be something you dashed off without self-editing.
  • Multiple file formats. Did your readers indicate a file preference? Ask! Your readers may prefer a PDF over a Word document—or something else entirely. Make it convenient for them, and make sure you label each file clearly with your title, name, and the stage of revision (e.g., Explosion Kapow_Jane Smith_Draft 2). If you expect your readers to add in-line comments, send a locked Word document. You can turn on editing restrictions by going to Review, Restrict Editing, checking the “Allow only this type of editing in the document” box, and selecting “Tracked Changes” from the drop-down menu. (Then click “Yes, Start Enforcing Protection.”)
  • A feedback questionnaire (or at least a little direction). Send the questionnaire with your chapter or manuscript! This encourages your readers to keep specific questions in mind as they’re reading, and may help you avoid highly generalized feedback: “Yeah, I liked it,” “It was okay, I guess,” or “The characters were cool.”
  • A deadline. It’s hard setting deadlines for someone doing you a favor, but you need to know when you’ll receive feedback (or when you should stop anticipating it). Settle on a mutually acceptable deadline—say, a month out—before you send anything, and then include a reminder when you e-mail your draft.
  • A thank you. Make sure you include an acknowledgment thanking them for their time and consideration. Everyone wants to feel appreciated!

How can I thank my readers?

A little gratitude goes a long way. If your beta pool largely comprises writers, offer to read their work when it’s ready. You also can include a shout-out in your book’s acknowledgement section, or send a small token of appreciation (e.g., $5 coffee card or copy of the published book).

How do you interact with your beta readers?

 


[i] Unless, of course, they are getting compensated.

[ii] Adobe EchoSign allows you to draft five electronic contracts per month, for free.

[iii] More accurately, writers aren’t asking the right type of questions.

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