Beta Readers 101: Everything You Need to Know

beta readers
Image created by Wanda Thibodeaux on Canva

Any time you want to make something better, feedback is critical. That’s why, for writers, beta readers are worth their weight in gold.

What’s a beta reader?

Beta readers are people who agree to read and critique your draft before publication. Sometimes, they formalize their critique with written notes and comments. Other times, it’s all in conversation. Either way, beta readers offer your first clue about how your book or other text is coming off to your readers. They highlight what the strengths of the draft are and what areas you could tweak for improvement. It’s not unusual for writers to send a draft to their beta readers multiple times.

Where can I find betas?

You can find beta readers in plenty of places, such as by joining writer’s groups at your local library, hitting up your friends and family, or connecting with mentors in your professional network. There are also online communities on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Freelance or agency editors also can beta read for you.

Do I have to pay my beta readers?

Some betas are willing to read for free, simply because they love good content. They value making connections within the writing industry. But many people feel that, because beta readers truly do perform a service, you always should compensate them. Still others will find a middle ground, bartering services or beta reading for each other. The key is that you and your betas should feel like the reading arrangement is fair before you start.

Will betas give me the same quality of service as an editor?

Many informal betas are profoundly well-read or have written themselves for years. They have a real passion for helping others make the most of their ideas. And lots of beta readers also serve as professional editors full time.

But betas and editors have different responsibilities. Betas are meant to help you work out kinks and get a draft in basic shape for the more extensive editorial process. Editors certainly can help shape drafts, but their primary job is to take your manuscript and get it publish-ready. They’re more concerned with elements like grammar, clarity, and formatting. So beta readers come before editors.

How many betas should I have?

There’s no minimum or maximum number of betas to have. But make sure that, even as you aim for your target reading group (e.g., middle-aged men who are married and like Game of Thrones), you have some diversity in your beta group. This diversity will help you catch biases that could be logistically or culturally problematic. Jeanine Cummings’ American Dirt is an example of a book that could have benefited from a more diverse beta readership. Many readers criticized it not only for its depiction of Mexico and immigrants, but also as an example of the limited paths to publication for people of color.

When should I connect with beta readers?

Beta readers can work with you at any point in the writing process. Even a single paragraph can be enough for a quick critique. They often can help you make good decisions if you’re at a writing crossroads, and they can ask questions that spark new details or paths for the draft. If you’ve already got a complete draft, it’s easy to feel more invested. But try not to get too attached to what you’ve written. Take what the betas say into full consideration. You definitely should have done some degree of beta reading before you send a draft off to an agent or publisher.

No matter what type of writing you’re doing, beta readers can be a secret weapon for polishing your concepts on the page. They also give you great practice in collaborating on a basic level. Even if you work only with a small, trusted handful, hand your manuscript off as often as you can.