A beta reader can be an invaluable aid in the genesis of a publishable manuscript. They give honest feedback from a reader perspective and help you preemptively address criticism you would have likely received from an agent/publisher/reading public.
Finding a beta reader can be a challenge, but once you’ve found one, how should you proceed?
I want to offer some ideas about how best to prepare your expectations, your manuscript, and your readers for the process of beta reading.
Some Guiding Principles
Beta reading is not Alpha reading
Once you complete your first draft of a work, it’s not quite ready to go. Work through the kinks first. Beta = the second letter of the Greek alphabet. So a beta version is generally viewed as the second complete draft (even though in practice, it’s often the third or fourth draft people send out). The idea of a beta reader is they can open your eyes to what you’re not seeing, not just confirm what you already know.
Beta reading is not developmental editing
A developmental editor will have a conscious awareness of writing craft that most of the reading public does not possess. You should not expect a beta reader to go as in depth or even provide suggestions on how to improve. A beta reader is there to give impressions about the book.
Give and receive
The ethos of beta reading dictates that you should give back what you receive. Typically, this means that people exchange manuscripts. But this can be tricky. You may read a lot of memoirs and thus might be good beta reader for a memoirist. But if your own manuscript is a YA fantasy novel, the memoirist in question might be completely unprepared to comment on your novel. You want to find beta readers who are within the target audience for your book.
So you have a few options:
- Find an exchange with someone writing in your genre.
- Find beta readers not looking for direct reciprocation; instead, seek out others for whom you can beta read. Pay it forward, not back.
- Pay for a beta read. There are some services that provide beta readers for a fee.
Imperfect manuscripts are expected, but keep in mind that avid readers find grammar and usage errors distracting. Beta readers know that they’re looking at big picture stuff. They will understand that the manuscript has not been copyedited or proofread. But if your sentence-level craft is consistently a mess, it will get in the way of their impressions of the whole. It’s like trying to assess a complex musical score being played by a beginner musician.
Unless you’re paying for a beta read, your reader is doing you a favor. Approach them with gratitude always. If they do a bad job, oh well. Disregard it and move on.
Make it easy
Prepare everything so that the reader has to do almost nothing in the way of organizing, formatting, or otherwise readying your manuscript. And offer them some simple guidance on what you’re expecting.
Do not overwhelm readers
Be wary of weighing them down with too many questions or asking them to do the job of a developmental editor. Don’t expect comments at the line level or break-downs of scenes.
Prepping Your Manuscript
Ask your beta reader how they would like to read your manuscript. Don’t assume that they would prefer a Word doc or a Google doc.
Since you’re not asking for line-level comments, it may be easiest for the beta reader to have a pdf or an epub version. With those formats, they may be able to transfer the book to an e-reader of some sort to make it portable.
Most programs export to pdf easily. If you want to export to an epub format, take a look at this site or this one.
Consider adding some info to the file name so that it’s clear that this copy is for this specific beta reader (e.g. The Simpletons Beta Copy for Addie Feb 2023).
If you’re using Google Docs, make sure you’re sharing a copy, not the original manuscript.
You don’t need to add all sorts of front matter and back matter to the manuscript. The beta reader does not need to see acknowledgements or copyright claims. (Handing over a manuscript loaded with copyright claims is not only legally unnecessary; it might suggest a grating lack of trust for the reader.) Don’t watermark the pages.
Prepping Your Reader
When you send your manuscript, it may be a good idea to ask your reader to focus on some very simple things. I’ll give some examples, but the idea here is to keep the list of questions very reader-centric. Don’t ask about character development, dialogue, pacing, structure, etc. Those are things writers and editors think about. Readers think about whether the character is interesting, whether the story is captivating. So reader-centric questions are about what they like, what was bothering them, what was boring, etc.
Even if your beta reader is an editor or writer, you’ll help them take off the writer hat and put on the reader hat through just a handful of questions.
One writer I know asks readers to address four things:
- Were you bored? Mark any place where you found your mind drifting away from the story.
- Were you captivated? If you loved something, let me know so I don’t edit it out.
- Were you confused? Mark those spots.
- After you finish, let me know if there were any events in the story that seemed unnecessary or any promise I seemed not to deliver on.
The Spun Yarn, a service that connects writers with paid-for beta reading, poses these four questions at various points throughout the manuscript:
- What’s your impression?
- What do you like?
- What’s bothering you?
- Do you have any unanswered questions?
I like the idea of building in check-ins throughout the book to help you track the reader’s impressions over time. You can even mark those points in your manuscript with something like “If you wouldn’t mind, can you pause right here and consider these four questions for the book up until this point?” and then proceed to list the questions you’d like them to consider.
The Spun Yarn asks those four above questions at every 25% mark of the book and then asks for these overall impressions after the reader finishes the entire book:
- What were your favorite aspects of the book?
- What do you believe are the author’s greatest strengths?
- Which areas of the book could use the most improvement?
- What do you believe might be the author’s biggest blind spots?
Finally, when you find beta readers, show gratitude, humility, and sensitivity. Try to be aware of the tone of your communication. You’re not a CEO asking an employee to complete a task for you. You’re a fallible writer asking for a favor.
I’m hoping this is advice you do not need, but I’ve heard of some writers who treat their beta readers like underlings, especially when sending follow-up emails about completing the beta read.
An example of the kind of tone you might consider taking:
Hey beta readers, Thanks so much for agreeing . . . . I truly appreciate . . . . I’m very interested in hearing what your impressions are of the novel as you read. I truly value your honest feedback, and I count myself lucky to get any impressions at all, but to make this easy for you, I’ve included just a few questions for you to consider. If it’s not too much trouble, can you pause your reading and answer the four questions at page 77, 150, 224, and the end? I’ve then included four final assessment questions for you to consider. I would be forever grateful to you if you could get this back to me in six weeks, but if that’s not enough time, or if at any point something comes up that will interfere with your completing the beta read, please let me know so I can find some other beta readers. I hope you enjoy the book, but I want your honest assessment, so don’t shy away from letting me know what you feel the story’s shortcomings are. [Grovel some more and be effusive with thanks.]
If you have heard other valuable advice for preparing for a beta read, let me know in the comments or email me. I’ll add valuable suggestions to this article.
Thank you, Tim. As always, comprehensive advice.
Great tips. Thanks, Tim. I like the general questions you suggest giving to a beta reader that steer the reader away from focusing on character development and line editing. Just general impressions. Very helpful. I’ve had several beta readers and these are the kinds of things I asked them.