I’m looking for some very special people–beta readers. These are people who, out of the kindness of their heart and their love of reading, will read a manuscript in process without pay and give you feedback. They are an essential part of the writing process.
There comes a point with any large writing process where you need to step back and have some fresh eyes on your work. That’s where beta readers come in. I reached that point last week with my current writing project. After going over my first draft repeatedly, moving chapters around, revising, adding, and editing, it was time for me to have someone not so close to the work look at what I had written and let me know what they thought.
I ask my beta readers to read over what I have written, ignoring the many small errors, and look for any glaring omissions, plot holes, problems with character development. They are not development editors, although they do look at the big picture, just not to the extent that a development editor does. They are also not copy editors dealing with mechanical errors.
Below are 7 tips on what I look for when recruiting a beta-reader.
- Do they fit my target audience? For the most part, I write for middle-aged women. That’s my target audience. This doesn’t mean I rule out anyone who doesn’t fit that category. I have male readers who have enjoyed my books. One of my best beta readers is my 29 year old daughter. She helps make sure my younger characters are believable, not “mini-me.” So, while I don’t restrict my beta readers to my target audience, I do take this into account. If they fit my target audience and do not like what I have written, I figure I have a problem that I need to address.
- Are they familiar with my genre? If you write romance, then look for beta readers who love to read romance and will be able to let you know if your writing fits the standards for that genre. If you have a beta reader who only likes sci-fi or mystery and you’re a romance writer, unless you are writing a sci-fi romance or mystery romance, they will most likely not like your book and not be able to give you the feedback you need.
- Do they have the time and commitment to read my book? Many individuals may be interested in reading your work-in-progress, but not all of them have the time. Your manuscript may sit in their computer for months untouched. You need beta-readers who can read your book in a timely fashion and get back to you, ideally within two weeks or a month. I’ve had beta readers who never responded after being sent a manuscript. I simply take them off of my go to list of beta readers.
- Will they be objective? Your mother may love everything you write. Let her give you five star reviews on Amazon, but don’t enlist her help as a beta reader. You need readers who aren’t afraid to tell you what works and doesn’t work. Sure, they don’t need to beat you over the head with your mistakes, but you don’t want any “yes” women or men among your beta readers. You need readers who make helpful suggestions and critique your work while still being kind. And you in turn need to be willing to hear what they have to say without getting defensive, an important skill for writers.
- Are they able to see the big picture or do they get bogged down in details? The nature of a beta reader is that they read your manuscript before it is copy-edited. If you are going to pay for copy-editing, which I hope you are since it is essential, you don’t want to have any major changes after your book has been copy edited, requiring a second edit. The purpose of the beta read is to help you catch those big problems before sending your manuscript to a copy editor. Some readers, though, find grammatical errors and other mistakes so annoying that it keeps them from being able to focus on the overall book. If that is the case, you may want that person to help with proof-reading your book–another important task in the road to publication–rather than as a beta reader.
- Are they able to appreciate your unique way of using words and make suggestions without rewriting in their own words? This is critical in editing. A good editor brings out the best in your writing, always leaving your unique style. A beta reader is not an editor but still they can fall into this pitfall. They can start to treat your writing as their own. Sometimes a beta reader can be a frustrated writer who gets so caught up in the story that they want to turn it into their own. When this happens, I take what is helpful, and disregard the rest.
- Do they know how to give helpful feedback? Some beta readers may simply say they liked your book. While this is helpful, what I am really looking for are specific comments about what they liked or disliked that I can then address.
These are characteristic of my ideal beta reader. The reality is that I may not get all in every one. That’s okay. I do the best with what I have. After all, this is an unpaid position. I’m grateful for all feedback I can get at this early stage in the publishing process. Still it’s helpful to have these questions in mind. You may initially go broad in seeking out anyone willing to help in this capacity until you get the group you want.
With this in mind, I could use some more beta-readers so I don’t burn out the ones I have. If you would be interested, let me know.
What has been your experience with beta readers? Are there other tips to help writers find beta-readers? What do you consider the ideal number of beta-readers? I would love to hear from you!