Readers for Writers: Beta Readers, the Superheroes of Your Writing Team

boy-superhero-flying-around-books-black-whiteIf adding “Published Author” after your name is one of your goals for 2014, you’re probably itching to polish the NaNoWriMo manuscript or a WIP that is marinating on your hard drive  and send it out into the world.

But don’t just run a final spellcheck and pronounce your work ready for publication.

If you are serious about publishing, your first readers should be beta readers.

And just what is a beta reader?

Think of beta readers as superhero partner/readers for your WIP. Correctly employed, your superheroes can save you time and money. How? I’m glad you asked!

Ideally, you want to assemble a team of beta readers. By getting focused, constructive criticism from multiple viewpoints, you’ll be able to identify (and you’ll have the opportunity to address) potential problems with your manuscript before you spend money on professional editing. Then, when you do hire an editor, you’ll get more bang for your buck. (Learn more at Three Things You Shouldn’t Hire an Editor to Do.)

Each one of your superheroes will have a different strength, and no one beta reader will offer the same level of advice in every area. (That’s why you’ll get the most comprehensive feedback from a team.) Some will be generalists, some will be detail-oriented, but they’ll each see your story in a new way, because

Beta readers approach your manuscript from a fresh point of view.

Here are the types of beta readers who make perfect team members:

  • The Workhorse: a reader who is very familiar with your genre—perhaps a reviewer of books in your genre who can let you know if the story is entertaining, has a good flow and interesting characters, and where you dropped the ball if something isn’t working.
  • The Expert: a writer with an intimate knowledge of both the type of story you’ve written and the craft of storytelling. This reader/writer can be invaluable when it comes to constructive criticism about the way you’ve told your story and can offer useful suggestions for other things to try.
  • The Professor: this is the stickler for grammar. Of course, you’ve already run spell-check and grammar-check programs, but this type of proofreading step will save you time and money when you’re ready to hire a professional editor. (For more money-saving self-editing tips, check out How to Save Money on Professional Editing by Preparing Your Manuscript.)
  • The Bookworm: a reader who is representative of your average reader, perhaps a reviewer, maybe just an avid reader, but someone who can let you know about the experience of reading your book. Do your opening pages create a desire to keep reading? Does the action slow down in the middle of the story? Are the characters fully fleshed out?

Now, how does this team do its magic? The short answer is: That’s up to you.

You decide what guidance, if any, your beta readers get. Do you want to ask your readers to look for specific things, or do you want to let them read the work and give their natural reactions? If you are concerned about a specific issue, by all means ask your superheroes to zero in on that part of your manuscript. If you prefer to just cut them loose and see what they come up with, you can do that, too. (Hint: most beta readers appreciate some guidance, so feel free to create a list of things that are important to you.) Through trial and error, you’ll learn who provides the type of valuable critique you’re looking for . . . and who doesn’t.

What is the most valuable skill beta readers possess? It’s the ability to be honest with you.

This point cannot be overstated. Critiquing a manuscript isn’t a popularity contest, so surrounding yourself with people who will tell you how wonderful your story is and what a great writer you are won’t help you. (Your spouse, parent, or BFF probably won’t be as objective as you need a beta reader to be, either.)

I’m not suggesting you take every suggestion to heart and revise your manuscript by committee, but do give careful consideration to each suggestion, and then reject those that really don’t work for you. If three of your four beta readers make the same observation about your tendency to overuse adverbs, for example, you’ll be wise to go through your manuscript one more time to see how many adverbs you can remove.

Your beta readers’ input allows you to go back and do minor (or even major) revising before you spend your hard-earned money on professional editing . . . which means your editor’s time can be spent on helping you polish the remaining rough edges instead of trying to explain why your character’s motivation doesn’t make sense or your middle chapters lack action.

And now I’d like to offer a few words of advice to beta readers and the authors they critique:

First, to beta readers:

If you’re asked to be a beta reader, approach the manuscript like a teacher: point out what works for you and what doesn’t, and explain why you feel that way. The writer trusts you to understand that this is a draft, and she’s looking for constructive criticism. She might not incorporate all your suggestions, but merely the fact that you’ve pointed something out and had a great explanation will make you an invaluable member of a team . . . and there might be chocolate chip cookies involved, although I can’t promise anything.

Next, to the authors

Your beta readers are not professional editors or writing coaches, so don’t expect them to do the heavy lifting. Do be clear about your expectations and your timeframe, and remember that they are unpaid volunteers and are making time to read and critique your manuscript. If their advice proves helpful, they can be invaluable to your writing career, but even if you reject some suggestions, thank them profusely for their time, both in person and in writing in your acknowledgments. And, if possible, offer to pay them back by being a beta reader for their manuscripts in exchange.

In my experience as an editor, one of the most common mistakes writers make is believing their work is ready to publish when more revising and editing are necessary. This often leads to higher editing bills because your editor will have to make edits that beta readers might have pointed out to you at no charge! So start now to line up a group of beta readers who are willing to give you their honest assessment about every aspect of your story.

Have you used beta readers? I’d love to know how their comments helped you with your next round of revisions. Have you ever used beta readers at multiple stages of revising your manuscript? If you’ve been a beta reader for another writer, did you find the experience helped you with your own writing?

Beta readers offer an opportunity to take your writing to the next level. And when you are ready to hire a copyeditor, I hope you’ll take me up on my offer to provide you with a free sample edit to show you how I can help you say it the way you mean it.

Happy Writing,

Candace

 

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Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help, and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be. Learn more here.

For more great writing and publishing information, check out  Change It Up Editing and Writing Services on Facebook, where I share interesting articles and links about writing and publishing.

Image courtesy of  MyCuteGraphics.com

A similar version of this post originally appeared August 2, 2013 at By, JHMae

28 thoughts on “Readers for Writers: Beta Readers, the Superheroes of Your Writing Team”

  1. Terrific advice. This goes for anyone querying as well. I know I started the querying process and only after several “helpful” rejections did I realize I need MORE editing. I think it’s hard to find those categories of beta readers, though I’m working on it. Just when I think it’s ready, I get more useful feedback. I also find that if a majority of my beta readers are finding the same problem/issue, no matter how much I love it, I need to take a look and re-edit or cut!

    I especially love your beta reader categories, I’m going to try to find one of each of those! Thank you again Candace.

    1. It’s so hard to kill off those little darlings, isn’t it? But that’s one BIG reason why beta readers are so helpful–they’ll often find the problems in your story early on so you don’t have to revision for the zillionth time AFTER submitting. Lucky you to get constructive criticism that helped you realize what wasn’t working about your manuscript. I hope you’re able to find the superheroes you’re looking for, Tam; sometimes they are like good babysitters: no one wants to risk losing good ones by sharing too liberally!

  2. Great post Candace. I have learned that the author’s list of questions for the beta readers should be given AFTER they’ve read the manuscript. This way you are not flagging something before the reader has begun. I think the writer will get more of a natural/organic reaction to the story/writing. If the questions are given after, it’s important to get some writers (both writers of the genre and writers of other genres) to read, so technical issues will be noticed even without a list upfront. Finding the right group of beta readers is the hardest part, and once you find them you better keep them – chocolate chip cookies works wonders!

    1. You made a great point, Eva (well, two, actually–chocolate chip cookies DO work wonders!). Finding the right group is the hardest part, and chances are you’ll go through a few before you find the gems.

      I’m curious–when you first give your manuscript to your beta readers, did you just set them loose to see what they’ll come up with? Do you find you get better feedback about plot, flow, character development, and other structural issues from writers or nonwriters?

      1. I don’t really “set them loose.” I encourage any type of general notes they want to provide but I guide their feedback with a list of questions given to them once they’ve finished reading. I think another reason I give the questions afterward is because I write suspense. Some of my questions would reveal the end, so I don’t want to tip my hat before the last punch in the stomach (sorry). I did get one comment from several of the “writer” beta readers which I didn’t get from the “reader” beta readers, but I can’t tell you what that is right now, Candace. All in due time! I’ll definitely tell you once you’ve read the manuscript. The comment directed a major change which I’m eager to discuss with you. But the curious thing is, when I went back to the “reader” beta readers to discuss this issue they unanimously and definitively disagreed with the “writer” readers. Talk about a conundrum! After I came out of the depressive state this caused, I believe I came up with a solution which appeases both groups. However, I know it’s impossible to please everyone! (which I continually brace myself for…)

        More to your question about whose advice is better- I don’t think one or the other will prove to be better. But I do know, for me, the readers advice is very important, as they have visceral reactions which I think are invaluable. They know what they want to read or experience, and what they don’t. It’s up to us as writers to figure out the mechanics of that – and that’s where the “writer” betas are so helpful.

    1. Thanks, Jill, and if I could make one suggestions to every writer for 2014, that would be to use at least one beta reader before hiring an editor. I love Eric’s example–readers don’t always interpret what we write the way we meant it.

  3. Hi, Candace! I’ve been mulling over your excellent email from the other day (will respond soon!), and this blog post was a fantastic follow up! I do have a question about this in particular.

    What size of a beta team would you suggest? I’ve had over 30 people in my personal circle who have expressed interest in reading at least, so I’m wondering how you would recommend narrowing down a small, consolidated team to beta: 4 people that you mentioned above, or a slightly larger group of maybe 10 careful readers?

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Lorie! This is a great question without a hard-and-fast answer. I think who you have reading is more important than the actual number of readers; two people who can zero in on specific things that give you useable feedback are more valuable than ten people who all tell you they love the way you write or that you shouldn’t use so many exclamation marks. One reason to look for different types of readers (different superheroes) is to get feedback from different perspectives. For example, if all your readers are women who read and write romance novels, can you be sure the male protagonist in your dystopian thriller has authentic dialogue? Ten careful and focused readers sounds like feedback nirvana, though, and will certainly give you plenty of food for thought!

  4. Oh hell yes. Beta readers are essential. I like to use professional or at least proven and experienced writers, because they know how to tell you what works and what doesn’t in a focused, informed way.

    And never argue with a beta reader. A BR friend of mine told me that, after reading one of my stories, a line a male character said to impress and compliment a female character was actually rude and insulting and that she wouldn’t take it as a compliment. I almost said, “Duh. I know it was rude. That’s why she laughed at him.” But then I realized that my beta reader is a terrific writer and thinker. If she didn’t glean that the female character’s laughter was derisive, then nobody else would either. In other words, read between the lines when you get criticism. It might not be the criticism you think it is. “This line of dialog doesn’t make sense” may not mean your dialog is bad, it might mean that you didn’t lay the right context for it to make sense.

    If someone gives you ding-bat advice, simply thank the person and make a mental note not to ask him next time.

    1. What a great example, Eric. As an editor, I’m very sensitive to the fact that writers carefully craft their work, and it’s difficult to say “That isn’t working.” But as writers, we need focused and thoughtful evaluations of our work, and you are so lucky to have the quality of beta reader you describe.

      Knowing when to smile and nod and then walk away is valuable skill for a writer.

  5. I had 8 beta readers for my second novel WORLD OF THE BEASTS (which I’m still working on, by the way), and I’ve had so many people ask me, “Why so many beta readers?” and “They’re all different kinds of people. Why would you do that? Don’t you want just one type of reader to look over it?”

    I always tell them that you HAVE to have the different opinions to get a well-round view on your book. There will be things you, the writer, doesn’t see that someone else can point out. There will be parts that some readers will interpret differently than others, even among beta readers. It doesn’t hurt to have suggestions to consider.

    1. You are so fortunate to have that many beta readers, Kaitlyn, and how wise you are to seek a variety of input. And you’re right, it doesn’t hurt to have suggestions to consider, and the decision to accept or ignore those suggestions is always yours. Thanks for stopping by and adding to the discussion!

  6. Two writer friends asked me this year to beta read their manuscripts, and I was honored to be a part of such an important step in the process. For both writers, I returned several pages of general feedback and my overall impressions after reading the full manuscript. I also included comments throughout the text as I read, marking down my thoughts whenever it seemed a comment (positive or negative) was warranted. It was such a great experience. Reading their work taught me a lot about writing. I’m not sure what type of beta reader I’d be, most likely The Bookworm. I guess I’d have to ask them.

    1. You sound like the perfect beta reader, Gwen! Writers can offer the type of feedback that nonwriters often struggle to articulate, which can be incredibly helpful for revising and editing your own work. I’d love to know if your friends gave you any guidelines or just asked you for your opinion; Eva’s comment that “The author’s list of questions for the beta readers should be given AFTER they’ve read the manuscript for more of a natural/organic reaction to the story/writing” got me wondering if that’s a better approach than asking your beta readers to look for certain things as they read.

      1. Hi Candace,
        In both cases, neither author gave me guidelines. Maybe this is because we’re all writers and we know what kinds of things to look for. But I also think each wanted natural reactions. When I beta read for someone, I leave comments spontaneously throughout the manuscript. Even if it’s a question that’s answered later in the manuscript, or something I don’t understand that’s explained eventually, I don’t go back to edit my comment, because I figure this is useful feedback that reflects how a “real” reader might react the story. Then the author can decide if she needs to address these gray areas. I appreciate the same kind of feedback when I exchange work with critique partners. And you’re right – reading someone else’s early draft is a powerful learning tool for a writer.

  7. Candace, thank you. I’m trying out a writing group for the first time and have very mixed feelings, both as critiquer and critiquee. Lots of discomfort– I’m learning to respond constructively to work I don’t enjoy reading and hoping to receive useful feedback on my work. I don’t yet know if this is the right mix of readers and writers for me, but I know it’s the right time.

    1. I’m with you about the discomfort level, Julie. I’ve found most critique groups have a great variety of genres and writing experience, which can be helpful for general comments, but can also be frustrating. If you find a few members whose comments are really valuable to you, you might consider a smaller spinoff group; I know of several small critique groups that came from a larger group. And if the group you’ve joined doesn’t work out, don’t give up–there are many good writers looking for critique partners both on- and off-line.

  8. Great article, Candace. It’s so important to get those different styles of people to look at our manuscripts, if we possibly can. My own beta readers have added so much value to my manuscripts. Sometimes they say such different things, you’d think the were reading completely different books!… but then after I’ve mulled it all over for a while, I see the intersections of ideas that have come from different brains.

  9. After reading this, I want to get started on my book and get some beta readers to read the manuscript for me. I am very open to the fact that my first book will not be perfect. I have been hesitant in writing a book because I don’t feel confident that my flow of the story will be smooth enough, or if I have missed a point, or if I had made a scene complicated than it was before.

    I am this close to joining a beta reader group so that I can get my work edited and help someone else edit their writing as well. I’m off to the third post, I am really glad I followed your blog.

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