Beta Readers: Who, What, Where, Why & How

Beta Reader ImageFor some reason, the term beta reader confuses a lot of writers. They are not sure what they are, or why they need them. Even experienced writers often don’t know how to use these readers effectively to improve their work.

For a well-constructed book, beta readers are the last stop before the proof editor. And for a poorly-constructed manuscript, they are the last safeguard against wasting time and money editing or pitching a manuscript that’s not ready.

Beta readers are not:
– close friends and/or family.
– proofreaders or editors.
– writers, although they can be in the right situation.
– members of your critique group.

Beta readers are: people who will read your manuscript and give you honest feedback, even if that information stings your pride. That’s why friends and family often make rotten betas. They don’t want to jeopardize their relationship with you by admitting your book is awful! You need someone who cares more about the story than they do about your feelings.

Before looking for a beta reader:
If you want to get the most out of a beta reader, polish your manuscript to a pristine condition first. The only exception to this rule is if you and your beta have agreed to a modification. Some betas will agree to read a partial, or even early draft. But that is something to clear with them in advance.

Who makes the best betas?
There are lots of qualities that make a good beta reader. First and foremost, they are people who love to read. And they should love to read in your genre. It’s hard for a person who only reads thrillers to say if your romance manuscript is fabulous. Also if they know your genre they can help catch overused or missing tropes. They will also tell you if the story reminds them too much of some other popular book or character. This is valuable data for any genre writer.

Second, find people who are in your book’s market demographic. If you write children’s books your betas should be children and their parents. All the adult readers in the world telling you the book is fantastic are pretty much worthless. If you don’t know any kids, reach out to librarians and teachers. They know what kids like to read.

Third, it helps if you can find beta readers with analytical minds, and can think logically about the big picture. Good betas can find plot flaws and problems other readers might miss. Critique partners are often too close to the story to see these issues.

Fourth, they are reliable; you can count on them to read the story cover to cover. Or they are people who tell you why they couldn’t finish your manuscript.

Lastly, betas with great memories for details are able to catch those tiny story slip-ups we all make, like when a character wearing a watch asks for the time. Detailed-oriented readers are worth their weight in gold when it comes to betas.

How to find betas.
– You will need at least 3 readers, and finding them is not always easy.
– Almost anyone is a potential source for a referral, but friends of family and friends are a good place to start.
– Talk to other writers in your genre and see if they have any betas to recommend.
– You can also try online writer groups. Many forums have threads for writers looking for beta readers. Goodreads has a user group where authors can make connections by pitching their book to potential readers. This step is tricky; a beta shouldn’t know too much about your plot in advance.

Don’t send your work to strangers!
– I would like to believe everyone in the world is honest, but it’s not realistic.
– Don’t work with betas or reader services that expect to be paid. There are plenty of scams out there; don’t get sucked into one.
– Interview your prospective betas and get to know them.
– Ask them about their favorite books and authors.
– Learn what experience they have as a reader.
– If they have read for another author, see if that author found the reader’s feedback helpful.
– Find out how much time the reader needs to finish your project.
– Figure out what format works best for them and try to be accommodating.
– Start out slowly. You may want to send an untested beta only one or two chapters. See if you and the beta are a good fit before you commit to sending them your full manuscript. This step should also help you decide if the other person is reliable.

Beta readers are doing you a huge favor, so act accordingly.
– They took time from their lives to read your work. Listen to what they say with respect.
– Request the kind of feedback you want, but always remember your manners. Say please, and thank you every time!
– Reward their support. Offer to send them a signed copy when the project is published. Or offer to read some of their work and give them feedback.
– Make an effort to treat talented beta readers with special care. They are a great writer’s secret weapon.

Betas are meant to represent the neutral reader. They are a fresh pair of eyes to read and report back with their honest opinions. That’s pretty much all betas are expected to do. Some betas can do more, and that’s very helpful to an author, but you shouldn’t expect a beta to do anything extra. If you want to make your story better, get some knowledgeable betas and listen careful to what they have to say. This does not mean change everything they didn’t like. It means think about everything the mention objectively and make changes to tighten up as needed. If you just want someone to tell you the book is destined for greatness, have your mom read it.

If you have experience with beta readers, please share your insight in the comments.

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, an educator and historical consultant. She writes dark young adult fiction, with diverse characters. She's currently querying a novel, and working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813) or on Twitter @robinrwrites. However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

35 thoughts on “Beta Readers: Who, What, Where, Why & How”

  1. Lots of GREAT advice here. I disagree only with the advice not to use a paid beta reader. I understand the concerns and that there are many scams out there. However, I think if a writer does their homework well or starts out slowly (as you suggest), a paid beta reader can give valuable input that a writer might miss.

    I am a teen guy and have done some gigs as a beta reader for YA authors. I welcome any questions.

  2. Hi Robin, you touched on this briefly at the end, but one of the things that people often forget is to request the type of feedback they want. It doesn’t do either party any favours if the expectations are not clear. I’ve heard stories where people didn’t get the types of things they needed from a beta reader, and sometimes it was because they didn’t ask for them up front. I think your point about interviewing is great – expectations could be covered there.

    1. I agree, it’s important to let the beta reader know what you expect from them. And the interview process should help with that. However, the phasing of what you say to the reader needs to be neutral. You don’t want to lead the beta reader in any way. For example if you ask the reader to tell you if they find your book is too scary, you have just influence them to find the book scary. Yes, they know your concerns, but they are not going to give you a unbiased read. It’s a fine line.

  3. I was going to ask why you felt writers shouldn’t beta, but then saw a comment earlier in the thread. Makes sense, in that case! But I usually beta only for people that I don’t know all that well, and vice versa. 🙂 Great list. Sharing!

    1. Hi Alex,
      Sorry, I almost missed this one.
      I think some writers are not good at shutting off the writer part of their brains. They see every story in terms of how “they” would write it and not in terms of the other writer’s vision. I’ve seen this happen a lot even with critique partners, some writers can push their viewpoint as the “right” way. The whole thing can be highly damaging to the original author’s voice and style. If a writer can’t shut off the impulse to rewrite the other author’s work I don’t think they should be a beta readers. But that is just my opinion. To each his own.

  4. I’m available for beta reading. My interests lean towards medical narrative, romance, and gothic. I’m not a fan of sci fi, YA or fantasy in general. Your readers can see examples of my writing at http://www.whatsfordinnerdoc.com and can send me a message through the website or Twitter @traceydelaplainmd
    It sounds like fun and I’ll do anything to avoid finishing my WIP. *sigh
    Tracey

  5. Hi – This is very interesting. I’ve often considered becoming a beta reader because it seems that some incomplete or erroneous detail in a book will bug me even though few reviewers tend to bring it up. Good article. 🙂
    @dino0726 from 
    FictionZeal – Impartial, Straightforward Fiction Book Reviews

    1. Hi Diane, I think you would make a great beta reader. You really do pay attention to the little details in your book reviews. : ) The only down side is you wouldn’t be able to talk about the book on your blog. That must be so hard for book bloggers, to read some wonderful and need to stay quiet about it for months (or even years) because the book isn’t out yet.

  6. Hi Robin,
    Enjoy all of your articles, but had to comment on this one.
    So far I’ve self published two romance novels and a YA paranormal novel I would LOVE to find beta readers, having had to rely on friends and relatives with mixed results. They are all avid readers but didn’t always like the romance genre. So I advertised for betas, and one of the bloggers that I occasionally “messaged” with volunteered herself. She was (seemed) very excited to do it, saying that she would probably finish in a week. In a week, I didn’t hear anything. In two weeks, I contacted her and asked if there was a problem. She said no, but that she had gotten busy, but was really enjoying my book.
    I never heard from her again.
    After contacting her several times, I gave up.
    So I’m a bit hesitant to try again. I realize other betas aren’t like this, but still…
    My next project is another romance. I’d like to try again to find a beta reader, and I’ll try some of the sources you listed in your article.
    Thanks again,
    Donna K. (D. L. Kelly)

    1. Hi Donna,
      I’m so glad you enjoy the blog. And it’s an extra treat that you’re commenting on my post. : )
      Finding good betas is never going to be easy. You just have to do your best to weed out the flakes and hope you end up with someone who takes the task seriously. It’s a shame your last beta reader let you down, but I think you should try again. There are some wonderful people in the world, you just need to make the right connection. Good luck! I hope you find someone fantastic!

  7. This is a great post with lots of good advice. I’ve used beta readers – some I have known personally and some others who were complete strangers, with varying results. I had seven the last time and four were good. I’m doing it again shortly – will probably give my readers a Barnes and Noble gift card. I plan to ask a couple of the readers from last time!

    1. The gift card is an excellent idea! Thanks for sharing that tip. I think most authors will try to hold on to a good beta reader, they’re that hard to come by. : ) I have someone who has been reading for me for years and I wouldn’t trade her for anyone!

  8. You know, I just wrote a nice, long comment to this post – and then my computer decided not to cooperate with me. *shakes her fist*

    Anyway, this is an awesome post, Robin. 🙂 I haven’t asked for beta-reader feedback yet, though I’ve already been on the other side and been a BR for two other writers. My turn to be on the writer’s side should *hopefully* come next year, but it all depends on when the WIP is ready.

    What’s weird is that I may have already found potential BRs for this story. Through blogging and social media, I’ve befriended writers and book bloggers who are interested in the kind of story I’m writing (i.e., genre and target audience). Of course, who ends up being an actual BR will depend on who has time when the story’s ready, but those two avenues (blogging, social media) are possible ways of finding BRs if you find people who can be reliable and respectfully honest.

    Also, since I’m writing a YA fantasy, someone suggested that I contact my local high school’s English department and see if any students would be interested in critiquing my manuscript for extra credit. I’m willing to give it a try – and other YA or children’s writers might want to think about doing the same, too.

    I also agree with your point about family and friends not being reliable BRs. That said, diamonds in the rough do exist. I have two friends who also are writers / musicians / songwriters – basically, very creative people. We have “creative sessions” once a month where the host cooks dinner, the guest brings dessert, and we catch up on life in general as well as share whatever creative projects we’ve worked on recently. These two friends have been refreshingly objective about the writings I’ve shared with them so far; they tell me what works and what doesn’t, from small mistakes to glaring issues or omissions. Because of the feedback they’ve given me in the past, and the fact that they both enjoy fantasy literature, I think they could potentially be good BRs for the WIP. It takes a lot of bravery to tell a friend, “Hey, this could be better” – but if a friend can set aside their emotional connection to you as a friend and tell you what you need to hear about your writing in a truly constructive manner, then I don’t see why not. But like you said, it requires a very specific person and a very specific relationship to make it work.

    1. Hi Sara,
      Sorry about your first comment. I hope it was just a temporary computer glitch and nothing major. Back up your files just in case. I would hate to see you lose any of your work from a bad hard drive.

      I think most writers have taking a turn or two as beta reader, I sure have! But it’s often hard to find betas from your close circle of writing contacts because we all talk about our work. This is fine for critique partners, which is what your good musician friends sound like to me. But it is not good for beta readers. Beta readers need to know almost nothing about the project to do the job correctly.

      I suspect any readers of your blog would make horrible beta readers for you. You’ve simply posted too much information about your project. I can recall all sorts things. Like the interviews you’ve done with your characters. And how you have explained your world building, the social hierarchy, the roles of women, the way the culture frowns on wing injuries, to name just a few. These topics make for good blog posts, but they are not good for creating neutral beta readers.

      You will be much better off talking to teachers. Or finding friends with agreeable teens and tweens when the time comes. You can have my son if you want him. : ) He’s a great fantasy reader and other writer friends have found him a very helpful beta.

    1. I think you need to be smart about who you hand your work too. That’s why I recommended talking to other authors and friends first. However, some people have no resources. These authors will need to depend on social media to make beta reader connections. These writers should use common sense and caution to find good readers they can trust. : )

    1. Hi Sarina,
      I’m so glad my post is making you consider getting some betas. : ) It’s a smart step for any author. And I think you’ll be happy with the way it helps tighten up the final version of your manuscript.

  9. Great article. I love the point about beta readers are not good friends. I think in rare cases they can be, but only if it’s a friend that you can be brutally honest with each other. I am fortunate to have a couple of those.

    If anyone is entertaining the idea of being a beta reader for non-fiction work, I am still looking for one or two more. 🙂

    Thanks for the really great info!

    1. Hi Shawn,
      Betas and writer friends can work, but it takes a very specific kind of person and a relationship that can take the strain. I’m glad you’ve found a few people who can do that for you.

  10. I thought my story was ready. I sent it out to beta readers and learned that it was not. Your post is very accurate. It is a very valuable step in the process of writing. Use it wisely.

    1. Hi Marti,
      I’m so glad you had good betas and they helped you avoid disaster. It’s amazing how your critique partners can get too close to the story and start to miss things. You need those fresh reader eyes. : )

    1. Hi Ann!
      I just checked out your new flash fiction piece, Summer Memory. I really enjoyed it. And I could relate, I’m a total morning person. : ) Loved the moose photo. Thanks for stopping by today.

  11. I always enjoy reading about beta readers, and would love to try myself at being a beta reader. When I was a kid, even before I could read, I wanted to work in publishing but in a position that resembles mostly to what a beta reader does.
    Great article!

    1. Hi Solveig,
      You should look for a internship with an agent. That is pretty darn close to being a full-time beta reading job. : )

      1. Mm, that might actually be a good idea. Just here I cannot intern anywhere without being a university student. Well I would like to work with an English speaking agent anyways.

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