Beta reader (also referred to as betas) is not a commonly used term outside the writing community. It’s not unusual for me to answer questions from non-writer friends who have never heard the term before. Everyone understands beta testers. Software and hardware goes through beta testing to fix the bugs before taking it to market. Recipe developers use recipe testers as their betas to work out the kinks in their recipes before publishing their cookbooks. In the most basic of explanations, beta readers help identify the “bugs” in manuscripts.
- Be in the target audience or able to put themselves in the audience’s shoes and understand what is expected in the genre.
- Give constructive criticism without being critical.
- Be able to give tough feedback.
- Not have read the manuscript before.
- Focus on big issues like plot holes, character development, repetition, continuity and themes.
Beta readers who read/write in your genre know reader expectations, which are specific for each genre. I read most every genre so it’s not hard for me to beta read across genres. For writers, this may not be true for someone you choose as a beta reader. If you don’t already know, ask. For readers, if you know someone has a Mystery novel, but you only read Sci-Fi/Fantasy, let the writer know. It’s perfectly acceptable to say no because you know nothing about the genre.
I need constructive criticism and objective feedback from my readers, and I understand that I need to provide the same when I beta read for other writers. The latter is the hard part because reading (and writing) is subjective. We read stories that fit with our likes and values, and we tend to like stories that fit with our values. It’s when we read stories that go against our values or isn’t our norm that we start not liking things, so reading with an open mind can be a difficult task. I question why I don’t like something when it happens. Is it poor writing? Spelling errors? Not enough character development? Too morally bankrupt? Not my cup of tea? I honestly believe that many negative reviews writers receive are because the story just isn’t for them, but the reader doesn’t recognize that. So when a beta reader tells me they didn’t like something, I need to know why. If it’s not their cup of tea, well it doesn’t mean it’s something I need to fix. Be detailed. What didn’t you like about that sentence? How did it make you feel? Did you have to re-read that paragraph multiple times because it wasn’t clicking in your head?
Betas need to give feedback that is sometimes hard to give. Manuscripts are writers’ babies. A lot of work goes into creating what is given to the betas, and some people just aren’t comfortable with giving difficult feedback out of fear of hurting the writer’s feelings. And that’s okay. Not all voracious readers can be beta readers. I asked an avid reader I know to beta read for me. She understood the hours of work that goes into writing and didn’t feel comfortable giving me feedback. I’m not the first writer she said no to either.
It may seem counterproductive and counterintuitive to have beta readers who haven’t seen the manuscript before. It would make sense to have people who’ve read it, read it again because they know the story. And that’s precisely why they shouldn’t. To get true unbiased feedback, readers should be new to the story. They will see things those who have already read it will miss. As a beta reader, you might be wondering how others have read it before betas do. Some writers will give their friends/other writers a chapter to read for feedback while still working on the manuscript, operating like a critique partner/group. Writers also use first/alpha readers before making revisions and giving it to betas. Usually, the first/alpha reader(s) range from one to three people.
Beta readers should be focused on the bigger picture of the manuscript. Where are the plot holes? Is there growth in the protagonist? Are there words and phrases repeated too many times? Is there a conversation two characters keep having and nothing is resolved? Do the themes connect and fit with the title? Is there continuity through the story? I had a beta reader think he was going to proof the manuscript. I told him pointing out any spelling errors would be appreciated, but I need him to focus on the story as a whole. If you’re a writer, make sure you lay out your expectations/questions for your beta readers. Beta readers, ask if the writer just sends you a manuscript without instructions or questions. I tend to operate like a researcher and ask my betas to read it first before they see the questions. I want their gut reaction.
As writers, we should have a large group of beta readers reading our manuscripts. Two to four beta readers is such a small sampling that if we were to write the feedback up like research findings, we would be laughed at for our sample size and told that our results are statistically insignificant. To those of you unfamiliar with research methodology, it means no publication for researchers even if their results have validity. We may not always end up with a large group of readers, but shooting for a large group will ensure that you have more than four readers. After all, beta number twelve might catch what numbers one through eleven missed.
Whether you are a beta reader or a writer utilizing betas, keep in mind the purpose: to help fix the manuscript bugs. Writers want their egos stroked no matter how much we say we don’t care. We spent long hours getting manuscripts ready for others to read it, but we have to have the thick skin to take the feedback and sometimes not-so-constructive criticism. Betas want to read and fall in love with what we read, but it doesn’t always happen. We have to judge whether it’s us getting in the way of that or something missing in the writing. In the end, betas should be helping the writer prepare for the final polish of an editor and proofreader.
Debi Smith is a blogger, writer, recipe developer, amateur photographer, deejay & music fiend, jack-of-all-things-crafty, aromatherapy enthusiast, and sometime yoga practitioner. She earned a B.A. in Psychology and should have double majored in English with all the English classes she took. You can follow her on her blogs Hunter’s Lyonesse (health issues, gluten-free & allergy-free recipes) and Chocolate Wasteland (writing & creativity); Twitter; Facebook; and Instagram.
Image Source: Debi Smith