Your first draft is written. You’ve read it and re-read it three times or five times or ten times, and found some plot holes and inconsistencies, a stray supporting character that disappears, overuse of “that” and “so”…
Another read will result in a brain freeze or you metaphorically tearing up those pages that probably gave you carpal tunnel writing. Despite the immense joy of having written something you love, there may be times when you feel like giving up, but you also want other people to love it as much as you do and also make some money from the story that is your baby.
What can you do at this point to see your manuscript through to publishing?
One option is to let it sit for a few weeks, or a month or two and revisit it with a fresh mind. The drawback is you get too involved with the book. As an author, you have conceptualized the story, birthed the characters and the troubles they get into, played God and created whole new worlds, penned all of it down, and then garnished it with some self-editing. Your opinion of your book may by this point get biased—the best book ever written or kindling.
The alternative route—professional editing/critique—may be arguably premature and potentially leave your pockets lighter, making you unsure whether you want to spend the big bucks at this stage.
There is a not-so-secret, third option, which will only demand some time, patience, and friendliness—BETA READING.
Who are these people and where do you find them?
Beta readers are, as the name suggests, test readers. Most often they represent your target audience and read your books with the intention of enjoying the same and also providing invaluable feedback about your story.
Not all superheroes wear capes, as such, identifying beta readers, especially ones suited to you, can be a tough job. Your prime prospects are your fearless friends and family and colleagues who are inclined to read something you wrote.
But will they be objective and give a candid review of your writing?
Approaching a beloved teacher/professor may result in more objective feedback but unless you were an extra credit student participating in all essay writing competitions, winning elocutions, debating your way through school, or best friends with their kid, it is likely that the teacher will be more focused on their current students.
In that case…
Look for strangers who know your book genre well, are consistent readers of your genre, and most importantly, enjoy reading your specific genre. Beta readers are typically not professionals, most will not charge to provide feedback, they will be objective in their feedback but will be subjective readers.
Beta readers are different from alpha readers (the very first line of defense, primarily friends/family who you show your very first draft), critique partners, and they will not evaluate your manuscript from a craft perspective. Similarly, beta readers do not edit a manuscript like editors and professional critics. It is important to know that the feedback from beta readers is subjective insomuch as the advice is only from their point of view, whether they enjoyed the book, whether they found the story engaging, what worked for them, what didn’t work for them, unlike a professional who will analyze and inform using their study of the craft of writing, publishing industry trends, marketability, etc.
Then, how do beta readers add value to you, an author looking to publish their story?
Beta readers are a walking-talking mood board for your story, more so if they are consumers of your genre. The best way to go about finding your ideal beta reader is to look among your target audience. A person who enjoys reading romantic fiction may not be the best person to go to with a sci-fi story unless the sci-fi angle only supports a romance.
They will help you identify major plot gaps, unclear passages, inconsistencies, and also point out overused/cliche tropes or elements that are missing from your story. Since they represent your readership, their advice regarding the pacing of the narrative, whether the dialogue is engaging, whether you are able to keep their attention, whether the conflict the characters get into is relatable, etc., is pretty much gospel.
That said, beta readers are persons with opinions and advice that you may not agree with and are not obligated to abide by. Being the author gives you complete creative autonomy, however, try not to take the advice with a grain of salt—a mind open to constructive feedback will be able to sort between great pointers and one person’s opinion!
- They help you identify issues you may miss in your self-edits.
- They will be representative of your target audience and act as your first scale.
- Their feedback will allow you to revise minor issues before taking your work to a professional editor, saving time and cost.
- The beta readers may introduce your book (once published) in their social circles if they enjoyed it.
- You’ll make excellent reading and writing friends on your publishing journey.
How to make the best of your experience with beta readers?
- Tell them what makes you most apprehensive about your writing—plot holes, repetitive sentence structuring, inconsistencies in the prose, unrealistic characters, lack of conflict, lack of clarity, tone and voice, etc. This way the beta readers will know what to look out for.
- Ask them to pay special attention to chapter one—did it hook them? Did the tone speak for the theme? Did they feel like reading more? Were they introduced to the main character and some conflict?
- It may be a good idea to mention what you don’t want them to focus on (a) because you will take care of it yourself (b) you are going to hire a professional for some aspects (c) you don’t want them distracted from the actual story—typos, overuse of certain words, grammar (unless it is unreadable or makes passages unclear), active/passive voice, etc.
- Find a beta reader that regularly reads your genre and enjoys it.
- Remember that a beta reader is a subjective reader. Their advice will be based on what works for them and what doesn’t. Try not to let that dishearten you.
- Try not to be skeptical about their feedback. Take it all in, let it rest, and then with a clear mind, choose what makes sense to you. The feedback is not universal.
- Let the reader know when you expect the feedback. Be courteous and let them know you are reasonably flexible, but be assertive about your deadlines. It may seem rude since you are not paying the reader, but it is best to clarify expectations before starting to work with someone. You won’t waste your time and they will appreciate knowing you won’t waste theirs.
- Try not to be disheartened if they refuse your request to beta read, or leave the book halfway. Beta readers have the right to say no, remember, they are doing it as a favor.
- Of course, it may be counterproductive for you as an author to wait for someone to review your book only for them to leave it halfway. As such, it is advisable to get multiple beta readers.
- Know that there isn’t a right number of beta readers (but keep it under five) to read your book at a time. Too few (some may not finish the book, some may only give ‘I liked/didn’t like it’ feedback, some may take too long) and you might not get enough feedback to go by, and too many readers may lead to a hotch-potch of feedback/advice.
Why you may still need professional editors after your manuscript has gone through the beta reading stage?
While beta readers help identify potential issues, professional editors help fix them. An editor collaborates with an author to fine-tune the prose before the author published their book. A well-established and most followed sequence of editing is:
You may need one or more types of editing depending on the editor’s assessment and your requirements. You can read more about how to decide what kind of editing you need here.
Where Can you Find Dedicated Beta Readers?
- Personal connections—family, friends, teachers
- Work connections—colleagues, fellow authors
- Writing and reading groups—online or offline
- One of the ways writers find most fruitful is going online and reaching out to online writing and reading communities to find their match. Most beta readers you find here are looking for a new read, a free copy of your book, and sometimes an acknowledgment of their contribution to your published book. You may also find some editors who are starting out and want to dip their toes in the publishing industry by beta reading and critiquing for authors.
- If this proves unsuccessful, you can also search for paid beta readers in these groups. Most charge a nominal amount to provide near-professional feedback.
- You may also look for a quid pro quo arrangement where you exchange manuscripts with other authors for honest feedback.
- You can also reach out to local writing communities by doing a Google search. An in-person discussion may be more effective in terms of accountability, getting your doubts answered, and friendliness.
- Authors who already have a mailing list can put out feelers for beta readers through the same.
Here are some links to groups you can reach out to for beta readers:
Beta Readers and Critique Partners Facebook Group — The group is strictly moderated and allows beta readers and critique partners to provide only free of charge feedback. One good thing about the group is you will find no marketing and promotion links.
Beta Reader Writers Club — This is a fun group with about 8k members, all writers and readers. The discussions are great with writers getting real feedback on specific issues they post on the groups alongside beta reading. The moderators do not allow advertisements for paid beta reading gigs, although you might get some DMs offering paid services.
Fantasy ARC and Beta Readers — This is a side group (with about 6k members) of the Indie Fantasy Addicts and YA Fantasy Addicts group, designed to connect for ARC and beta reader purposes.
Goodreads Beta Readers Group — The group is open to all. Post Your genre. Get a group of well-read writers/readers to offer their feedback.
10 Minute Novelists — 10 Minute Novelists is an international group devoted to helping time-crunched writers develop the habit of writing, learn the craft, and build their careers in small increments of time.
In your uphill battle to publish your story, beta readers are your red bull—giving you the push to take the next step; and editors are your hiking stick—they will assist you and keep you on track, provide stability and help you envision the best version of your manuscript, and reduce strain on your mental joints when the path becomes rough.