They go by many names, but they all serve the same function:
- They read your book pre-publication
- They catch all your glaring errors before you embarrass yourself in front of the whole world
- They read your book for free, just for the pleasure of a complimentary copy and the thrill of helping a writer in their creative process. (Kinda like being an extra in a movie.)
But are they a replacement for editors? Do they need to be experts at the writer’s craft? How many should you have? Where can you find them? And what on earth should you do if you don’t agree with them?!
I Can’t Afford an Editor. Can I Just Use Beta Readers?
Actually, yeah, that’s a legitimate excuse. Especially if you’re just starting out. I put out my first title (Journaling to Become a Better Writer) with just beta readers, and based on the response to the book, they did a great job. I haven’t had any nasty reviews or emails citing me for spelling errors, incomprehensible paragraphs, or (God forbid) boring chapters. (Thanks, beta readers!)
Now, if you can afford an editor, hire one. A professional editor will scan your words like a hawk – not like a casual reader.
Can you use both beta readers and a professional editor?
Absolutely! Have the betas go over your manuscript first. They’ll catch so many mistakes (for free!), you’ll be able to optimize the time and money you spend with your editor.
Reading as a Reader, Reading as a Writer
Both! The writers are there to help with stuff like grammar and punctuation errors, sagging plots, inconsistent characterization, and whatever else your manuscript may cough up.
But we writers can get so caught up in “writing rules” that we often overlook whether or not the story simply works. That’s why it’s great to have a few readers who are just readers. They don’t know why a story works; just whether or not it does!
How Many Beta Readers Do I Need?
At least three.
If only one reader flags you on something, it may just be their opinion. If two people flag you, you’d better have a second look. But if all three call you on something, fix your manuscript pronto!
Can you have more than three? Absolutely! Some authors with massive mailing lists can round up scores or even hundreds of beta readers from their fan base. No comma will be out of place after a review like that!
Note: Not all beta readers who sign up will deliver. Count on a percentage of your pledged readers to drop out. That’s why it’s great to have more than three.
Is It Okay if I Ask My Mom/Husband/Aunt to Beta Read?
- They might not give you their honest opinion
- Their honest opinion might be painful
- You might feel pressured by their opinions
- Even if they support you as an author, they might not “get” your style of writing
Now, having said all that, if you trust and value the opinions of anyone in your close inner circle, invite them to beta read. But definitely have a few unbiased members on your team, too!
How Do I Work with My Beta Readers?
First, give them a time limit. That way, they’re under a little bit of pressure to actually read your book, instead of promising to “get around to it.” I recommend a month. (Just like the library!)
Should you give them some pointers, or just let them read?
I tend to just let them read. I don’t like to taint their expectations. But if you’re concerned about a particular aspect of your manuscript, it may be helpful to ask upfront for your readers to pay special attention to the part you’re worried about. But I’d still keep it fairly vague. “Tell me what you think of my heroine,” (vague) instead of, “Is my heroine too bossy?” (specific).
After your beta readers are done with the manuscript, that’s the time to ask specific questions. “Did Chapter 3 feel out of place with the tone of the rest of the book?” “Do I use the word heavenly too much?” And yes, “Is my heroine too bossy?”
Where Can I Find Beta Readers?
- Writer’s groups
- Your mailing list (if you have one)
- Your followers on Facebook, Twitter, etc.
- People you contacted for research
- Anyone you bump into who seems remotely interested
What if I Don’t Agree with My Beta Readers?
I refer you to the note above: If three or more readers flag you on something, pay attention! But what if your heart is really against it?
First, brainstorm a little. Maybe you don’t have to make your bossy heroine any less sassy. How about adding some likable traits to her character? Or exploring her backstory for sympathetic reasons for her bossiness? That’s called having your cake and eating it, too.
What if you still can’t bring yourself to change your holy manuscript?
Change it anyway. You might like the new version better than you thought. Writers get very close to their work, and may become too attached to make changes, even if those changes are for the better.
Okay, but what if your beta readers are simply wrong, and you just can’t bring yourself to make the changes they suggested, and it’s not because you think your manuscript is untouchable?
Then don’t. It’s your book, not theirs. Always listen to advice, but don’t always take it. Only you know what’s in your heart.
Beta readers are gold to an author. Make sure you thank them in your acknowledgments! What is your advice on beta readers?