It is rare to find a writer who has never doubted that their work will be appreciated, understood, or credible to their audience. While those fears can be assuaged with the help of a developmental and literary editor, the best way to really get inside a reader’s head is to send your work to readers!
Beta readers are people who read your work and offer feedback, often before you send your final manuscript to be published. Often, it’s best to send them a second draft written with the help of your editor, so that you can assess how those edits are coming across.
Beta readers offer you constructive criticism from the perspective of the audience. After reading your manuscript, a beta reader can offer their insights – what they liked, what deserves to be improved and what they missed. Because you can’t truly be objective about your own writing, and getting your work into readers’ hands early can also steer you in a better direction with your story’s development, writing style and important line edits, there are two key writing stages where it’s best to have feedback from beta readers:
Especially if this is your first time getting published, you might want to involve beta readers early on in the writing process – when you have finished the first few chapters of your work, for instance. Beta readers can offer important feedback about pacing of the plot, choices about speech and behavior and whether it suits the characters, the atmosphere and vibe of your writing, and whether they are connecting with or relating to the narrator and the protagonist. These descriptors can give you a better idea of the strengths and weaknesses in your manuscript head on, and avoid having to make more major revisions later on in your writing.
Most writers use beta readers when they have gone through at least one preliminary edit. This way, readers are seeing something closer to a final version of your manuscript, without the distractions of poor sentence structure, redundant passages and simple typos. This allows readers to really hone in on the quality and content of your work, and give you a clearer idea of how your narrative is being received by an audience.
So who makes good beta readers? First and foremost, you will want people to agree to read your work out of sincere love for the written word, and who see it as a great privilege and honor to contribute to a work that will eventually be distributed to the general public.
Before sending the manuscript to your beta readers, make sure they meet the following requirements and can commit to the following:
Beta readers must be book people – people who devour books, are well-versed in different genres, and are keeping up with the latest literature. Choose beta readers who have extensive knowledge in the genre of your book, or may be fans of the genre. Their fondness for the genre will make them more committed to reading your manuscript. More importantly, they will be able to give you a more expert opinion based on their familiarity with other literature in that category.
Make sure the reader has the time to invest in reading the manuscript and writing a comprehensive review of it within your timeframe. It might also be pertinent to have beta readers sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement, an official statement that prohibits them from sharing your manuscript file, and that they are expected to maintain confidentiality regarding the plot line until the book is published.
It is the responsibility of the reader to give constructive criticism and be as specific as possible. While general compliments are welcome, they’re not helpful to your writing process. To avoid getting merely well-wishes and generic praise, it helps to prepare specific questions for your beta readers to answer in advance.
- Are the motivations of the protagonist clear and understandable?
- Does the conflict established in the novel justify the characters’ motivations to resolve it?
- Does each character (and narrator) have a clear, distinct voice that is consistent throughout?
- Are the conversations had between characters interesting and important to the book?
- Does the pacing of the book help establish and advance the plot?
- To what extent have you been able to identify (if at all) with the protagonist and the supporting characters?
- Which character had the most impact on you?
- Do the chapters and different sections of the book feel cohesive in their storytelling?
- How successful are the descriptive elements of the book in establishing the ambience, inner life of the characters, conflicts, etc?
- Was the world-building of the book enjoyable to read?
- Did the end of the book satisfy/excite/surprise you?
- Rating of your experience reading the book from 1 to 10: Would you recommend the book to others?
It’s also important to encourage them to share their opinion on what aspects of the book need room for improvement, and what weaknesses they have encountered in the writing of the narrative.
Many writers’ first instinct is to share a manuscript draft with parents, siblings, friends and spouses. While their involvement and input in your creative process is welcome, they often won’t offer you objective enough feedback. Give clear priority to beta readers who are not part of your inner circle. This will allow for your beta readers to give authentic criticism openly, without fear of offending you.
Upon receiving varied opinions from beta readers about your manuscript, you will have to exercise discretion when choosing what recommendations to incorporate in your next edit. Unlike your editors, whose advice is supported by years of professional knowledge and experience, beta readers share personal feelings that rely on their subjective interpretation of what is considered a “good book.” There will be times you find that the beta readers and your editor are unanimous about certain elements that should be changed, removed or expanded. But it is best to take your readers’ individual criticisms with a grain of salt – because in the end, you can’t please everyone, and it shouldn’t be at the expense of your creative and literary integrity. Share your beta readers’ input with your editors and defer to them on the bigger changes you’ll need to make to your manuscript. This way, you can strike a balance between each of your readers’ subjective experiences and your own self-expression as a writer.