Any time you want to make something better, getting some feedback is critical. Writing is no exception, which is where beta readers come in.
What’s a beta reader?
Beta readers are simply people who agree to read and “test” your draft before publication and tell you what they think. Sometimes, they can 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 you are truly coming off to your readers, what the strengths of the draft are and what areas you could tweak for improvement. And 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 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?
There’s some debate about whether to compensate beta readers. Some betas are willing to read for free, simply because they absolutely love good content and because they value making connections within the writing industry. But some 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, you and your betas both should feel like the reading arrangement is fair before you start.
Will betas give me the same quality of service as an editor?
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that informal beta readers can’t do a terrific job compared to editors. Many informal betas are profoundly well read or have written themselves for years, and they have a real passion for helping others make the most of their ideas. They can let themselves be more concerned with the emotional impact of your writing and whether you’re letting readers have a good time. Even so, an editor might be able to spend more time on the draft one-on-one with you than an informal beta, and you might find that they can be more objective compared to readers you’re close to. Some writers like to go through beta reading to make sure the tone or flavor of the piece is on target, and then let the editor worry more about the technical side. That said, most editors still want to work on pieces that stir them and make them think, so there’s no hard and fast rule.
In any case, having multiple betas can be advantageous in that you’re going to get a larger number of viewpoints and suggestions. It’s a good idea to 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 so you can catch biases that could be logistically or culturally problematic. Jeanine Cummings’ American Dirt is a recent example of a book that could have benefited from a more diverse beta readership. It has been criticized not only for its depiction of Mexico and immigrants, but 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 of 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 it’s important not to get to attached to what you’ve written, and to take what the betas say into full consideration. You definitely should have done some degree of beta reading before you send a draft off in a query 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.