• Ivy L. James

All About Beta Readers

Updated: Jan 29

I'm currently in the Beta Reader Phase of one of my WIPs, so my world revolves around these people who have my newborn baby in their hands. I send a chapter, I wait, I treasure the feedback like Gollum, I send another chapter, I wait...


Here's what you and I will be discussing:

  • What is a beta reader?

  • How do you find beta readers?

  • Who makes the best beta readers?

  • What should you ask beta readers when they read your story?

  • What to do when you get beta reader feedback

  • How to be a good beta reader


What is a beta reader?

A beta reader is someone who reads your story in its draft stage. They provide feedback on what works and what can be improved.


Typically, beta reading happens before the story is professionally edited.


How do you find beta readers?

Welcome to the internet!


You can post on social media that you're looking for beta readers. Include a quick description of your story and any content warnings, and you're good to go.


You can ask any friends or family who like to read. With people you know personally, make sure they understand that you are actually looking for critique, not just compliments.


You can also find professional beta readers on sites like Fiverr, but for the most part, you'll get along A-okay with the people who help you out for free.


Who makes the best beta readers?

Look for people who like to read, specifically people who read books in your genre. The closer you can get to your target audience, the better.


If you're writing a fluffy contemporary romance, and Beta Reader Stella prefers loveless horror novels, her input likely won't reflect the opinions of the readers you're aiming your story toward.


Be careful with writers and editors. They can be helpful, but they also inherently bring in their own style and their ideas of how they would do it. Use their experience, and appreciate their input. Don't take their word as God-breathed.


What should you ask beta readers when they read your story?

When beta reading happens before the major edits, your questions and the feedback will focus more on big-picture issues. On a grand scale, what works? What doesn't work? What ideas need to be fleshed out more? This isn't the best time for nitpicky grammar and spelling edits, since the content will likely change anyway.


The specific questions you ask will vary a bit on what you're sending. Are you sending the beta readers a short story? A chapter of a book? The entire book at once?


For my novel WIP, I send each chapter individually and ask these questions each time:

  1. Did you enjoy the chapter? Why or why not?

  2. What was your favorite aspect of the chapter (character, line, scene, image, concept, etc.)?

  3. If you could change one thing, what would it be?

  4. Do you see any weaknesses?

  5. Do you have any other thoughts?

  6. Do you want to read the next chapter?

I always check in with that last question. I don't want to assume.


If your story relies heavily on symbolism, you may want to ask your readers to summarize the story/chapter as they understand it. This will help you confirm that they actually picked up what you were putting down.


If you have big plot twists in your story, you may want to ask if your readers have any predictions. This will tell you if you're being too obvious or, conversely, if you need to play up the foreshadowing a little more.


Some beta readers will bow out during the process. You're allowed to ask them why, and in fact, you should. If they want to DNF your story, why is that?

Is it that they don't have enough time, or was the story not engaging? Did you forget to mention a content warning that's a deal-breaker for them? What happened (or didn't happen) during their reading that made them not want to finish?


It may just not be a good fit, or there may be a major issue with characters or plot. Ask them.


What to do when you get beta reader feedback

Save the feedback. This seems obvious, but just in case. You won't get anything out of the betas' input if you don't have it.


Organize the feedback in a sensible way. Personally, I have a Google Doc for each chapter's feedback, and a section per question. For example, in the Chapter 1 Feedback file, under the heading "What was your favorite aspect?," I keep everyone's answers to that question for chapter 1.


Look for patterns in the feedback. One or two people is an opinion; three or more is a pattern. A pattern doesn't necessarily mean that the input is correct, but it does show that a lot of people are seeing the same thing.


Take overly specific "corrections" with a grain of salt. If someone gives you an exact rewrite of your sentence or story and tells you that THAT'S the correct way to do it, they're probably wrong. And also kind of a jerk.


Decide if you want to integrate a given piece of feedback. Maybe Beta Reader Bobby didn't like your dinner scene. Ideally he explained why it didn't work for him. Do you agree with his assessment? Do you want to modify the scene? Remove it entirely? Leave it as is? You aren't obligated to follow through on every suggestion, but it's worth pondering in your heart.


How to be a good beta reader

If you're the beta reader in this scenario, this section is for you.


Don't suck up. The purpose of betas is to point out what works, yes, but also to help the author learn what can be improved. You're helping them make this story the best it can be! If all you do is compliment them and never point out any issues, you're not really helping them. Be honest, even when that means giving negative feedback.


Be specific. Saying "It was fine" or "The main character was annoying" isn't particularly helpful. Give specific examples with your comments. Commentary like "I didn't understand why the main character did X" or "I loved the subtleties of the Y scene" is much more useful.


Point out the good AND the bad. This isn't just to massage the author's ego. Yes, it helps them feel like there's something worth salvaging, but it also helps them know what does work. No one wants the author to accidentally delete the good bits on the way to eradicate the bad bits.


Be encouraging. You're here to help the author, not make them feel like their writing is utter garbage. We writers are sensitive folks. If you're going to be pointing out a lot of flaws, try out the "shit sandwich" method—something nice, the bad stuff, and then something else nice.


TL;DR

Here's a summary of what we discussed today:

  • A beta reader reads your story in its draft stage and provides feedback on what works and what doesn't.

  • You can find beta readers online or in real life.

  • Beta readers should be as close to your target audience as possible. Look for people who enjoy reading in your story's genre.

  • Decide how you'll send your story (chapter by chapter vs. all at once) and what feedback is relevant. Adapt your questions accordingly.

  • Ask big-picture questions. (Did you enjoy it? What was your favorite part? What would you change? Can you summarize what happened? Do you have any predictions?)

  • If a beta reader decides not to complete the process, ask for the reason.

  • Save all the feedback, organize it, consider any patterns, and take overly specific corrections with a grain of salt.

  • If you're a beta reader, remember to be honest, be specific, point out the good AND the bad, and be encouraging.

Now go forth and enjoy the beta reader process!


I believe in you!


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