Introduction: What is a beta reader?
A beta reader is a non-professional reader who reads a manuscript before the story is released to the public. I think of beta readers as “screen testers” for your novel or short story. Your story is done—or nearly done. But before you release it to the general public, you want to get an idea of how a potential reader might react. Will they like it? Does it have any major problems that need to be addressed? A beta reader can help you find any glaring issues with the story, improve your plot and characters, and even point out obvious grammar or spelling mistakes.
How is a beta reader is different from an editor, mentor, or coach?
Generally, beta readers are non-professionals. That means they aren’t trained editors or writing teachers, and they aren’t getting paid for their work. The upside to using beta readers is that they can help you make improvements in your writing before you spend your dollars hiring an editor. That way you’ll get your story as refined as you can before working with a professional. The downside is that, since beta readers aren’t trained, their feedback can be somewhat random, uneven, and even confusing. Of course, this depends on the reader. Over time, if you’re lucky, you can find beta readers that give you exactly the kind of feedback you’re looking for.
How can I find beta readers for my novel or short story?
You can ask your friends or family, although be cautioned that you may not get the most honest feedback from the people who love you most. You can also ask fellow writers who you may know through writing workshops, conferences, or Facebook groups. You can join an online writing workshop such as Critters Workshop or Zoetrope. You can also do what I did and put out a general call on social media and see who bites.
Your choice of beta readers will depend on who you want reading your story and what kind of feedback you want. If you want to find out if your story is a crowd-pleaser, by all means give out your story to whoever will read it. But if you are looking for specific feedback from your target audience, you may want to be a bit more selective.
Getting killer feedback from beta readers: A step-by-step guide
1. Put out an open call for interested beta readers on social media
Include information about the story (to attract people who might actually be interested in reading it), what kind of feedback you’re looking for, the deadline, and what you’re offering in exchange for feedback (see below). Included an estimated time commitment, and a cover image (if you have one).
2. Personally ask a few friends and writers whose opinions you trust
You’ll get much better responses if you personalize the emails instead of sending a mass request. People are more likely to give feedback if they know you’re asking them specifically because you value their input.
3. Create a feedback form in Google Forms
This makes giving feedback less intimidating, because all your beta readers have to do is answer questions. It also ensures that you get your specific questions answered. You can even ask multiple choice questions and Googleforms will make a cool pie chart!
4. Offer gifts in exchange for feedback.
A thoughtful beta read can take anywhere from 1-12 hours depending on the length of your story. People are busy! Recognize that they’re doing you a huge favor. At the very least, offer yourself as a beta reader for any of their future projects. If they aren’t fellow writers, offer a free copy of your book, or at the very least send a thank-you card.
5. Set a deadline, and made sure all the readers know when it’s was and can meet it
6. Send friendly reminders that the deadline is approaching
Do this about one week before the deadline and again three days before the deadline. A few days after the deadline, email the stragglers to ask if they need an extension or if you should scratch them off the list. Be nice! Remember, these people are doing you a favor.
7. Don’t take it personally when people flake out
You may only end up getting feedback from half of the beta readers who initially signed up. People are generally well meaning and have crazy, busy lives. Make a mental note of who came through and who didn’t so that you don’t ask the flakers to weigh in on my next project. But otherwise, refrain from getting snippy or getting your feelings hurt.
8. Send personalized thank-you emails to everyone who does submit feedback
Tell them what observations were helpful, ask clarifying questions, and let them know how and when they can expect to get the swag you offered in exchange for their help.
9. When you finish the story, give a shout out to your beta readers again
You can do this in an email, social media post, or by putting their names in the acknowledgements.
Yes, this process is methodical, thoughtful, and time-consuming. But the more thought you put into your relationship with your beta readers, the higher quality feedback you will get.
If you have any other ideas about working with beta readers, share them in the comments!
Bucket Siler is a writer, editor, zine enthusiast, and the founding editor of The Literary Architect, where she helps fiction writers perfect their craft and polish their original stories. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she has lived in New Mexico since 2006. Follow her on Tumblr or Facebook.