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The Ultimate Guide to Working with Beta Readers

by | Apr 22, 2021

Is there a better feeling in the world than writing “The End” in your manuscript? It’s a moment to be celebrated: you’ve done it. You’ve written and completed an entire book. Not everyone can say they have.

But you’re not finished. No, not even after you wrap up your self-edits.

It’s time to pass your manuscript off to beta readers — volunteers who provide feedback on your book. If you’re thinking about skipping this stage and just hitting “Publish,” you might want to reconsider.

The ultimate guide to working with beta readers

In this guide, we’ll explain what a beta reader is, and why you need beta readers to make your work-in-progress stronger.

What is a beta reader? (And why do you need one?)

Software companies release beta, or test, versions of their programs to work out kinks and bugs before releasing to the general public. Businesses offer beta versions of their courses so they can tweak the content to ensure it serves the needs of their students.

Authors need beta readers to understand how people read their book and, like software companies and businesses, to identify confusing or irrelevant spots. Every author has weaknesses. You do too — but you’re blind to them.

Beta readers won’t be. And soliciting feedback from beta readers is your chance to address the weak spots of your manuscript before you publish and share it with the world.

Who do you want as a beta reader?

As easy as it is to get them to help, best friends, significant others and family members are the worst beta readers. They know and love you, so they’re predisposed to loving whatever you write — no matter how good it is. While you might enjoy their glowing comments on your work, it won’t be the feedback you need to improve your manuscript.

Here’s who you want to enlist:

  • An acquaintance or a friend of a friend. People close to you can muddle through confusing sections or sentences to guess what you meant. That won’t give you useful feedback. Pick someone who doesn’t know you well enough to figure out your meaning.
  • A member of your target audience. If your book doesn’t resonate with your readers, you’re not going to sell copies.
  • Someone who’s not afraid to be honest. You need positive and constructive feedback.
  • Someone who’s reliable. This seems obvious, but people can overcommit. Be conscientious of your betas’ time and priorities.

You need more than one beta reader. There’s no set number, but three to five is a good start. If you’re bootstrapping your book, find even more betas: good beta readers can mean forgoing the cost of a developmental editor.

You might send your first beta reader draft to two or three people. Then you’ll implement their feedback and send the next draft out to the following group two or three people. Do this a few times depending on how much work the book needs.

The reason we don’t recommend sending out your manuscript to all your beta readers at once is because even after the first batch of feedback comes through, there might still be kinks to catch.

Also, let’s say you rearrange scenes, add an epilogue or rewrite some parts of the book. You’ll want to get feedback on the new version, too.

After you have an idea of who you want, it’s time to find them. Look at your network. Reach out to people already in your community who fit the criteria. Consider posting in writing groups or on your social media channels. You can even hire betas on Fiverr, or join Facebook or Goodreads groups. Don’t be afraid to ask. Many people will be honored you want their help.

Why should you always work with new beta readers?

As beta readers become more familiar and comfortable with your writing, it can be difficult for them to see the flaws.

Try to add a few new people to your team each time, preferably one or two who have never read your work before so you get fresh eyes on your work. You can connect with new people by asking your current beta readers for suggestions. They probably know a friend or two who’s willing to help out.

For people you stop working with in the beta reader stage, consider moving them to your Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) team. They’ll still get a free copy of your book, but it will be closer to finished, and won’t need the same in-depth feedback. Instead, your ARC readers will help you gather reviews for release day.

The beta reading stage can be long and sometimes difficult if you don’t already have a team in place. That said, it’s definitely worth it, and your beta readers can do wonders for your story.

How do you prepare your manuscript for a beta reader?

Even though betas help you edit, that doesn’t mean you can skip the self-editing step. Your betas can only raise the quality of your manuscript, not perfect it. That means you need to hit all types of editing (developmental, copy and proofreading) before handing it off to them.

As you edit, create a “needs-to-be-fixed” list. It might be something like “add character” or “move section to a different chapter” or “add description to opening scene.” Ask your betas to pay close attention to these items because they’ll be able to determine whether you’re on the right track — or not.

When you get ready to hand your manuscript over, ask your betas which format they prefer. Microsoft Word lends itself best to receiving feedback because it’s easy to add and delete comments, and most people have access to the program. Even if you prefer not to write in Word, converting to .doc from Scrivener or Google docs is simple. Some readers may prefer a hard copy, especially if your manuscript is long. Make it easy for them — they are donating their time to help you.

If you send Word documents, create and save a document for each person. Give it a specific name, like ManucriptNameBetaReader’sName.doc. You can merge these documents into one, but when you start incorporating edits and throwing everything together, it’s easy to accidentally delete a comment you need. If you preserve the originals with comments individually as well, you’ll be able to recover any lost feedback.

What do you want from your beta readers?

Feedback, yes. But don’t be vague: give your betas clear instructions about what feedback you need.

Remember that “needs-to-be-fixed” list you created during self-edits? Use that to guide what you need from your betas. Here’s a basic formula for instructions:

  • Have betas comment with their thoughts or take notes as they read, even if it’s to say, “Ooh, I like this” or to make predictions about what will happen next. This shows you how people read your book. It also helps you pinpoint where changes need to be made and gives you a feel for how they reacted while reading.
  • Specify what kind of feedback you’re looking for. My betas looked for:
    • Areas they felt were missing something or weren’t developed enough
    • Sections or scenes superfluous to the story
    • Any part of the story, dialogue, or narrative they didn’t understand or found confusing
    • The flow and pace of the chapters
  • Ask them to focus on certain aspects of your book. My manuscript had weak worldbuilding, so I had them pay close attention to it.
  • Tell them to supply “whys,” not “shoulds.” “I’m confused here because…” or “I don’t like this because…” will be more helpful than “You should do…” statements.
  • Set a due date. But build in cushion — if you want it back in three weeks, tell them you need it in two.

Another idea is to send your beta readers a list of questions. Since beta readers aren’t professionals, they don’t always know what to look for in your manuscript. Ask them questions to help guide their experience.

Those who have beta read before — either for you or another author — will have a good idea, but if they’re new to beta reading, asking smart questions helps to give them some guidance.

Some generic questions you might ask include:

  • Did the opening scene capture your attention? Why or why not?
  • Did you notice any inconsistencies in setting, timeline or characters? If so, where?
  • Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you?
  • Was the ending satisfying and believable?

If you have specific concerns about your story, be sure to ask about that, too.

I suggest keeping your list of questions short (about 15 or less). Too many questions might turn some people off.

Remember, your readers are doing this for free. I never require anyone to answer my questions or take notes, but making the suggestion helps guide them and improves the type of feedback you receive.

How do you deal with feedback from a beta reader (without freaking out)?

It’s both exhilarating and terrifying to share something you’ve poured effort into. What if they hate it? The trick to dealing with feedback without freaking out is your mindset. Here’s what you need to remember:

  • Your goal is to make your book better, and you can’t do that without constructive criticism.
  • Your betas are nice people who want to help you write a better book, not tear you down.
  • Having something to fix doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer or that your book isn’t worth publishing.
  • You don’t have to accept every piece of advice you get.
  • You can do it.

Dealing with beta feedback is where many writers give up. Don’t be one of them. Sorting through feedback — especially if it’s conflicting advice — gets overwhelming quickly. I had more than 500 beta comments on my novel. Cue the panic!

When you feel that panic and overwhelm — and you will — stop and take a deep breath. Remember: this isn’t about you; it’s about your book. They’re not the same. Pull your ego out of the equation and focus on writing the best book possible.

And if that means deleting 7,000 words from the end of your book and rewriting it, gird your fingers and hit the delete key. That’s what happened to me, and look: I survived.

Image: Beta Feedback

How do you implement beta reader feedback?

Once you’ve beaten the inevitable freakout, you have to evaluate each piece of feedback to decide what to revise. Think critically about what your betas said and how it fits into what your book, characters or plot needs to accomplish.

If your book is about how you started your business, for example, and your beta says, “I want to know about your childhood,” but your childhood has nothing to do with the beginning of your business, you can ignore the comment. Yes, ignore. As the author, you have the power to accept or reject feedback.

Because I asked my betas to comment as they read, I created a new Word document with all 531 comments. New documents are important: If you decide your original wording is better, you want to be able to revert back. Tracking changes and creating new files makes this easy.

But before I changed anything in my manuscript, I went through each comment and made one decision: keep or delete.

Comment #1: “I like the disjointedness of the beginning.” Delete.

Comment #5: “You’ve used ‘eyes’ three times in two sentences.” Keep.

Comment #7: “The others didn’t notice the door?” Comment #8: “She’s been there how long, and she’s just now going through the door?” Keep. Keep.

Comment #13: “At what point does frostbite become an issue?” Though this is a good question, only one beta pointed it out, and she’s never experienced cold weather. Delete.

Once I’d gone through the entire document and deleted comments, the remaining ones became my new “needs-to-be-fixed” list. These items can range from tasks like copyediting (comment #5) to adding information (comments #7 and #8) to rewriting entire chapters (the last 7,000 words).

Don’t take feedback at face value — dig deeper. Notice how two comments expressed disbelief at the door. That’s a red flag. But it’s not just about answering their questions — it’s about understanding the missing story elements.

From their comments, I knew I had to flesh out the setting (why the door is hard to notice) and how the setting affects my characters (why one girl would wait to go through the door and why the others didn’t notice it). Confusion means you’re missing something, and it’s up to you to figure out what it is and how to fix it.

When you implement feedback, get in touch with your author gut. Your instincts will tell you what needs to be fixed and what’s fine as is. Listen to it. Not sure what a beta meant by a particular comment? Don’t be afraid to follow up with them to ask for clarification.

Once you’ve incorporated your beta feedback, you’re one step closer to hitting “Publish.” Congratulations — and best of luck with the final stages of the process!

Don’t forget to thank your beta readers

Finally, remember to thank your beta readers. Unless you paid them, your betas volunteered their time and effort to help you produce a better, stronger manuscript, so make sure to show your appreciation. 

I’ve found that all the beta readers I’ve worked with have been more than happy to simply receive a book for free, even if that means they have to leave feedback on it. Most are surprised and excited when I tell them they’ll also be receiving a print copy of the book when it’s finalized.

You don’t have to send out print books, but do make sure your beta readers feel appreciated for the time they put into helping you. If your betas are writers as well, you could even offer to be a beta for their future writing projects.

Have you worked with beta readers — or been one?

This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.

Photo via Impact Photography / Shutterstock