What are Beta Readers and How do you Use Them?

What is a Beta Reader

You may not be familiar with the term “beta reader.” But, if you’re writing a book, there’s a strong chance you’ve already used one, or are planning to. Beta readers are simply people who read a draft of your manuscript and offer feedback. They are different from hiring a professional editor — an already vital component in the novel-crafting process. Beta readers can, however, offer the same fresh perspective and insightful feedback that moves your draft forward.

Especially as writing can be a solitary endeavor, having extra pairs of eyes to offer criticism is important to your novel’s success. Quality beta readers can tell you if your story resonates on a deeper emotional level, if characters feel real, or if passages feel sluggish. A good beta reader can even help your book fit into a specific genre or stand out in the market.

There are many ways to look for an ideal beta reader, whether through your local writing group or online forums. A good book editor can even connect you. However, there’s more to finding the right match than one might think. Read on for specific factors to consider.

3 things to prioritize in ideal beta readers:

1. Writing and publishing experience.

Just because someone loves to read does not mean they will be a helpful beta reader. Even if someone in your friendship circle is a passionate bibliophile with a full library, it’s best to find someone with deeper writing — or better, publishing — experience. While many people love books, not every reader can write, or grasps the deeper mechanics comprising good writing.

Finding beta readers with a strong writing background also increases the chances they’ll offer you valuable, specific feedback about your story’s structure, metaphors, themes, and character relationships. The best-case scenario is to find beta readers who are published authors themselves, especially ones who have worked intensely with professional editors or writing coaches. This is because these beta readers know exactly what it’s like to be in your shoes. They have a clearer picture of what kind of feedback would help you best, more so than a casual reader. (Keep in mind, however, that published authors may have limited time; factor this into your timeline when editing.)

2.Knowledge about your genre.

Finding a beta reader who has a particular expertise in your genre can be incredibly helpful. Each genre has myriad interwoven themes, tropes, or elements that the market has come to expect. A beta reader who is well-versed in the zeitgeist of your genre can help you conform to – or successfully break — these rules. While it’s not a deal breaker if one of your beta readers writes fantasy while you are penning a young-adult thriller, thinking about genre can lead to a richer editing experience.

One of my author clients, who published a police-procedural thriller and has a background in law enforcement, often acts as a consultant to other authors of her genre. I’ve witnessed her feedback surprise and enlighten authors. Because of her expertise, she’s able to go much deeper with her criticism. She can help authors capture more realistic emotions behind a certain case or situation, or help authors accurately depict how to use a weapon. Having this kind of beta reader can elevate a manuscript to a much more vivid read.

3. Specific, accurate feedback.

This is perhaps the most important attribute of a quality beta reader. The whole point of inviting outside perspectives is to find information you need to improve your book. It’s not an opportunity for someone to shower you with blanket praise. Seek out a reader who is serious about helping you improve. If you know from past experiences that a potential beta reader might not take time to be specific — and instead might hit you with vague feedback like “It was good” or “I liked it” — opt for someone else. Prioritize finding people who can be very clear-cut and comprehensive with their comments. You want to walk away feeling wholly equipped to improve your manuscript.

You can also be clear with your beta readers on what you’re looking for. If one of your readers is gifted with dialog, ask him or her to pay particular attention to your dialog passages. If an editor has told you that you have lackluster descriptions, ask a beta reader to devote extra time to feedback in that area.

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