Updated: Dec 21, 2021
Today (the 26th of April) I read the comments from my beta readers. Of four readers who I asked to read my book, 2 made comments (the others made none). Of the two that made comments, only one finished the book. Both, however, left me some good critiques and one beta reader, in particular, left not only helpful critiques but kind comments that struck deep making me feel so good about my writing and my book (and, at times, making me laugh).
It is my hope that you all find beta readers like this.
But what is a beta reader? Why should you have one? How do you find one? And what should you be asking of your beta readers?
Having finally concluded my time with most of my beta readers for "The Criminal," I think I can finally answer some of these questions.
What is a "beta reader"?
A beta reader is essentially the first reader of your manuscript. Beta is the second letter in the Greek alphabet and I suspect that "beta" readers are named this way because you, as the writer, are the first reader (the alpha reader if you will) of the manuscript and they are the second.
Wikipedia defines a beta reader as "a test reader of an unreleased work of literature or other writing (similar to beta testing in software), who gives feedback from the point of view of an average reader to the author." I underline "average reader here because I find that this is one of the most important elements of beta readers.
Beta readers are not editors. They are not agents. They are not there to give you feedback from the point of view of a writer, an agent, an editor, a manager, or anyone else in the literary realm. They are your audience.
Why have a "beta reader"?
Given that beta readers are your audience, their main job is to give you a feel for what your audience will think of your manuscript. This means the positives like "I love this character," "This is such a good line!" and "This sentence is POWERFUL!" But it also includes the negatives like "I am confused here," "Didn't your character have a different color hair in the previous scene?" and "I don't understand why the character is acting this way."
It may sound like having beta readers could be a potentially painful experience but both the positive and negative comments your beta readers leave will help you to improve your manuscript so that when you submit it to agents, they don't find the mistakes that your beta readers could have pointed out to you. And, on the other side, so that you do not accidentally remove those lines your beta readers tell you are "so POWERFUL!"
Beyond the corrections that you can ensure you make thanks to help from beta readers, beta readers can also give you a good idea of where you are at in your book writing journey.
When I wrote my first draft of The Criminal, I asked a few people to beta read it. None got very far into the book and my mother essentially told me (in a very kind way) to go back to the drawing board—to edit it more. Beta readers can give you a good idea when your book needs a lot more editing and when it is starting to sound good. They can tell you whether they are catching on or whether they are bored and they can tell you, ultimately, whether or not they liked the book.
Above all else, beta readers can inspire you to push forward. There were a lot of comments I read today that improved my mood tenfold. Reading my friend's first thoughts on the book made me grin from ear to ear most of the time and even the fact that she finished it (that's a first) gave me a boost of confidence in my writing. Going back to that knowledge and to those comments later on in my journey when I am struggling, will really help me.
Where are the "beta readers"?
Beta readers are all around you if you look hard enough. Once you have decided that you want beta readers, all you have to do is look for some.
While there are plenty of online sites that offer beta reading (some for free and some for a cost), I do not suggest going that route. Not only would it be a waste of money since you likely can find someone near you, but it can be much easier to stay in contact and receive feedback from those you are closer with. Plus, if you know the person that you allow to beta read your book, you know they won't run off with your manuscript!
Personally, I choose to allow 5 people to read my manuscript. My youngest sister began to read the manuscript while it was still missing the past timeline and four (close) friends received their own personal document with a copy of the manuscript when the writing was complete. Many writers choose to have fewer beta readers than this however I wasn't sure how many would read any (never mind all) of the book so I asked four.
I also don't suggest asking writers. Writers will have a tendency to overcorrect your work, practically as though they are trying to make it their own. Try to choose people who read consistently and tend to read within the genre that you're writing for. If you can, also pick people who are within the age group (and/or gender) that you are aiming at. Your goal is to get a good idea of what your average reader will think of your book, not what an outlier will think.
If you don't have family or friends willing to read your manuscript, ask around. There are billions of people in the world and a huge portion of them read books. Given that, there is likely a huge portion willing to read your book. Offer a teacher, boss, librarian, or nurse coffee if they'll read the first few chapters of your book. If they don't get hooked, you need to fix it anyway.
What should be asked of a "beta reader"?
What you need from your beta reader will be different than what needed of my beta readers. That is a fact. Each beta reader experience will be different but that doesn't change the fact that going in and coming out, it is good to ask your beta readers a few questions to make the most of the experience.
As I went into my beta reader experience, giving my beta readers the documents with the manuscripts on them, I attached a letter to the front of each of the documents. I wanted to ensure the readers had a good idea of what I was asking of them before they started to read. I had a few pointers for their comments and a few notes I wanted to be sure they new (like when I would be looking back over their comments).
One of the biggest things I asked of them was to avoid marking every little spelling or grammar mistake. I edited my document at the same time as my beta readers read their documents so most of the spelling and grammar was caught while I did that. What wasn't caught then, will hopefully be caught when my mother reads through next. While this was my experience, it is not everyone's experience. Many don't pass their manuscripts onto their beta readers until they have completed their own edits.
Other pointers I gave them beforehand included the following:
Look out for inconsistencies (places where one chapter/sentence doesn't line up with another.) These include things like a sword being dropped into a chasm and then being used in the next chapter.
Look out for phrases and sentences that make for good quotes ("Broken isn't the same as unfixable" - Iko or "Soon we must all choose between what is right and what is easy" -Albus Dumbledore). If the book has none of these, I need to work on adding some.
I also asked some questions when my friend notified me that she had finished the book. I wanted to make the most of the resource. It is an incredibly valuable resource for a writer to have a reader who has finished and enjoyed their book. To not make good use of that resource is a waste of time, money, and talent.
I found the Writing Cooperative when searching for some good questions to send to my beta reader when they had finished reading the book and decided on the following questions (the first of which had been on my mind for quite some time).
How did you find the chapter length? Were they too long? Too short? Did you have to put the book down constantly while reading a chapter or read two instead of one?
Did you relate to the characters? Did you find their dialogue and actions believable? Did you like their names?
Did the story capture you from the start? Was there any place it lagged (if so, where and why)? Did you like the ending and supposing the next book was already published (which obviously it’s not) would it make you want to read the next one?
The answers that followed were both encouraging and helpful. In fact, my beta reader informed me I had too many names starting with C or H, and with that realization, I changed five (minor) character names.
I want to thank my friends and family who have been so incredibly supportive of my writing and especially want to thank my friend Claire who's words of encouragement and helpful advice have really taken my book one step closer to completion.