Beta Readers – Your Best Frenemies

You’ve finished your book, congratulations! Or have you?

Have you put your manuscript through Grammarly? Then through an editor? Ah, you have! Good for you!

You’re still not done, though. Now you need to let your beta readers at it.

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Beta’s: Feisty but Necessary

What are beta readers? They are NOT editors. Editors are trained in story, grammar, and (gasp!) spelling. Your beta reader, or first reader, is just as valuable because they aren’t trained. They are ideally regular readers, which means they have an intuitive grasp of story, which can tell you more than an editor can.

Beta readers are not paid. Let’s get that out of the way up front. These should be readers who are friends or acquaintances. They should love your genre. Here is what they should NOT be:

  • Editors (or if they are, make sure you have several who are not).
  • Afraid to hurt your feelings.
  • Too busy to read your book (that’s one reason why you give it to several beta readers, because life gets in the way of even well-meaning readers).
  • Outside your genre audience. A mystery reader may not be aware of sci-fi conventions.
  • They probably shouldn’t know what “conventions” means.

Your purpose in handing your pre-published book to beta readers is to find the parts that don’t work for a reader.

  • What areas are slow?
  • What areas lack enough information?
  • What rings false?
  • What doesn’t feel consistent for a given character?
  • Is it a quick read or do you have to slog through it?
  • Is the ending satisfying?
  • How would they describe your characters? Do they mesh with what you’re trying for?

William Goldman, a fabulous writer, has a single aphorism: “Nobody knows what works.”

Your beta readers are the ones who can tell you if it does. Or doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, you need to fix it.

Movie executives know the power of beta readers, or pre-screenings in their medium. They’ll run a movie across a crowd of non-paying people and then poll them, question them, and milk them of every scrap of useful information. If anything doesn’t work, they’ll change it. It may cost millions to change, but they change it.

If they’ll pay anything, you can put in the hours to correct areas of issue.

Let the beta readers know in general what you want to know. Is the story satisfying? Where isn’t it? What works, what doesn’t? Which characters do you like (why?) and hate (why?).

Then assure them they can tell you anything and it won’t hurt it will help (it’s okay to lie to beta readers. It will hurt, but it WILL help).