Oh, no … You didn’t just ask your spouse, your mom, or your best friend to read your book and tell you what they think, did you? Every author needs test readers—impartial, unbiased test readers. As much as your squad may want to help, beta reading is one area where friends and family don’t qualify.
Here’s the thing: Your family and friends will agree to read your book because you wrote it. They’re not agreeing to read it because they love to read or because your book is the hottest bestseller they’ve been dying to dive into. They’re doing you a favor. They may not enjoy the kind of book you’ve written—heck, they may not even like to read.
And so they’ll dutifully flop around inside the pages you send, hoping to tumble into a plot hole, which they’ll miss because they’d rather be Netflixing, so they’ll end up skimming the story and trying to spot typos instead.
What your story really needs is deep reading by people who love to read and know what’s hot in your genre.
When to use beta readers
The first readers who read your story when you’re done writing are your alpha readers. Those are the trusted advisors who’ll tell you whether the ball’s anywhere near the ballpark.
Beta reading can happen before or after developmental (story) editing, but don’t wait until you’re done revising at the story level. You need time and the flexibility of mind to make take beta readers up on their ideas—otherwise, what’s the point of seeking more feedback?
Don’t embark on beta reading once you’ve already paid for line editing, copy editing, or proofreading. Once you’ve hit those stages, you’re into polishing your novel, and it’s past the time for story feedback. Reader feedback at that point means ARCs (advance reader copies), which help catch last-minute errors and provide early review copies for reviewers.
Where to find beta readers
The best place to find beta readers is literally everywhere.
The best place to find beta readers is literally everywhere. Remember, you’re not asking for attaboys from your friends; you’re asking for feedback from people who like to read books like yours. Introverts, you’re going to have to saddle up and talk about books with everyone you know. Hint: it’s easier if you’re familiar with what’s hot so you can hold up your end of the conversation.
Don’t look for beta readers in your writing group. Those people are invested in supporting your efforts, and they’re already familiar with your story. They’re not objective.
If you write for children or teens, don’t approach kids directly. Instead, talk with parents, teachers, and librarians to find contacts.
To find your own beta readers, investigate:
How many beta readers to use
It takes at least three beta readers in order to tell if more than one reader raises the same issue. If only one reader brings up an issue, it’s probably personal opinion; if multiple readers bring up the same area, you may have a revision on your hands.
But that doesn’t mean more is always merrier. If you choose too many beta readers, you’re likely to get too much conflicting feedback. Aim for a handful or so of beta readers, and choose them wisely.
How much to read at a time
Many beta readers will be open to reading a single chapter.
Because beta readers aren’t for the most part editorial professionals (although “professional beta reading” is a growing trend), they’re ideal for providing story-level feedback. Reading your whole book is the core beta reading test.
But an entire book is a lot to ask someone to read. Many beta readers who can’t commit to a whole book will be open to reading a single chapter. Ask if they would be willing to spend about an hour reading a few pages and answering some questions. Easy!
Your opening chapter is obviously one of most important parts of your book. Make sure you get enough beta readers on file that you can get fresh eyes on several revisions, if necessary.
Managing your beta reading team
What to ask your beta readers
The key to useful beta reading is asking the right questions. If you have any lingering questions about certain aspects of the story, this is the time to come right out and ask questions to get readers thinking about those areas.
Limit the number of questions you ask to avoid overwhelming your volunteers. A handful of questions is good, but try not to go over ten.
Consider questions like these:
- What did the title make you think the book would be about?
- Did you find it fairly simple to figure out at the beginning whose story this is and when and where it’s taking place? If not, what made that difficult?
- Did the story hold your attention from the beginning? Why or why not?
- Which character did you most relate to and why?
- What was the most interesting part of the setting for you?
- How would you summarize what this book is about?
- Was there at point at which you stopped feeling driven to keep turning pages to find out what happens next? When was that, and why do you think it happened?
- Did you find it difficult to keep track of who was who?
- Were there any parts that frustrated, annoyed, or confused you? Why?
- Did you notice any discrepancies in the timeline, locations, characters, or facts of the story?
- Did you notice any obvious spelling or grammar errors?
- Did you read the whole story? Why or why not?
- Was the ending satisfying? Why or why not?
- Would you read another book in this series?
Evaluate your feedback
Sometimes, the tone of your readers’ feedback is more telling than the content of their comments. Read between the lines. Look for enthusiasm, either for the success of the story or for the potential that it holds. Cautiously crafted comments or a disengaged tone are both signs your story probably didn’t connect.
What to send
The manuscript you send to beta readers obviously won’t be a completely polished book, but respect readers’ time by making it as clean as you can. Run through basic self-editing steps first, including spellcheck.
It’s nice to give beta readers a choice of file formats. The best options are Microsoft Word files or PDFs. Name your file clearly, including the title, your name, and something that indicates this is not the final product: The Big Story_Lisa Poisso_Beta Draft. If someone prefers to read your manuscript on their Kindle, they can email the Word document directly to their Kindle using the email address found on the Manage Your Devices page of their Amazon account.
Don’t forget to say thank you.
Include the questionnaire you’ve drawn up to cover the kind of feedback you’re after. Provide a clear deadline that tells them how late you can accept their feedback.
Don’t forget to say thank you. Most beta readers test-read because they’re bookworms and because they love being part of the creative process. You don’t have to pay or reward your beta readers, but a complimentary review copy makes a nice thank-you. Don’t add beta readers to your mailing list, though, without asking them first. These are your volunteers, not your customers.
Final word: The grain of salt
Beta reading is designed to provide feedback, not direction.
How do you know the feedback you’re getting isn’t all hot air? I tell my clients to build time into their production process for a checkpoint with me after they’ve consolidated their beta feedback. Beta readers with more enthusiasm than knowledge about story structure and writing have been known to lead authors down the wrong path. Bad beta advice can encourage you to cement over bad writing, lazy plotting, and wandering point of view all in the name of “I liked it.”
Beta reading is designed to provide feedback, not direction. Does that feedback make sense for your story? That’s for you—hopefully, with the help of your editor—to work out.
A Writing Group That Works Author Judy Fogarty talk about the ways to make sure your writing group is helping your writing, not ineffectually picking it to bits.
Where to Find Writing Critique Partners and Groups With this much to choose from, it’s safe to say there’s a writing partner or group out there for every author.
Not sure you’re ready to commit to a professional edit? Try a more affordable flat-rate critique instead.