If you are a writer, it’s probably safe to assume you have heard of beta readers or have even been working with beta readers for years.
But are you really harnessing the full potential of your beta reader team to help you perfect your manuscript and take your writing to the next level?
I put together 12 do’s and don’ts for working with beta readers. These tips are intended to help new authors who have never worked with beta readers before as well as more experienced writers to help them navigate the relationship with their betas and make sure it stays productive and enjoyable.
What are beta readers?
Before I go into the do’s and don’ts of working with beta readers, let’s take a look at what beta readers are—and what they aren’t to help set realistic expectations.
Beta readers are readers who read an early version of a book before it’s published. Usually, they get the manuscript before it goes to the editor, allowing the author to fix major issues so the editor can focus on making an already good manuscript great.
Beta readers are not editors; they don’t need to be able to offer solutions for how to fix a manuscript’s weaknesses. They provide feedback from a reader’s point of view and give writers an idea of how the story will resonate with its target audience.
Unlike editors and sensitivity readers, beta readers aren’t paid. They give feedback in exchange for a chance to read the book before publication.
12 essential tips for authors working with beta readers
Here are my top 12 tips on how to work with your beta reader team. I’ve tried to put them in chronological order, starting with advice on how to pick the right beta readers.
Choose the right beta readers
Your beta readers should be part of your target audience. Look for someone who’s an avid reader in your genre and subgenre, likes reading about the age group your characters are in (e.g., young adult, women over 50, etc.), and enjoys the spice level and tropes that are in your book. In other words, beta readers should be people who might have otherwise bought the book.
You also want your beta readers to be able to provide you with honest, objective feedback, which is why friends and family members are often not a good choice.
If you are a new or new-ish author, you might also want to look for experienced, vetted beta readers. Don’t be afraid to ask for references, and then check in with authors they have previously worked with to make sure the experience was a positive one.
Give enough information about the story
To ensure your beta reader is a good match for your book, give your potential beta reader a good idea what your books is about. Some of the information you should give them includes its genre, subgenre, tropes, a short description/blurb, length, and any trigger warnings.
You might also want to mention what stage of the writing/revising process the manuscript is in. Are you sending them a first draft, or is this a polished, almost-ready-for-publication manuscript?
Have more than one beta reader
Instead of working with just one beta reader, put together an entire beta reader team. Getting feedback from more than one beta reader allows you to compare opinions and see if there’s a pattern to their feedback. If just one beta reader points out a perceived issue, while no one else mentions it, that might be a subjective opinion you can safely ignore. However, if two or three people say the same thing, you should probably fix whatever they pointed out.
Having several beta readers will also provide you a broader range of feedback, especially if you choose a diverse group of people. Everyone brings a different skillset, different things they pay attention to, and a different background to the beta reading process. My personal beta reader team consists of half a dozen people from five different countries. Some are writers; others are readers. Some focus on the big picture such as characters and plot; others are detail-oriented and will point out typos and inconsistencies. Plus I always add a couple of beta readers for each manuscript who work in the same profession as the main character or live in the same city, so they beta read for those specific aspects.
If you are just starting out as a writer, don’t overdo it by working with too many beta readers at the same time. I’d say three is a good number to start with. For more experienced authors, 3-6 beta readers might work best.
Communicate your expectations
Before you send your manuscript to beta readers, talk to them and set clear expectations about what kind of feedback you need—and what you don’t want. Are you looking for feedback on big-picture things such as plot and characters? Or do you need feedback on a specific scene? Do you want them to also point out typos and grammar mistakes?
If you communicate your needs ahead of time, you can avoid a frustrating experience for both your beta readers and yourself.
Explain your preferred beta reading process
Before the beta reading starts, communicate about the way you will work together. What kind of word-processing software will you use? Do you expect your beta readers to work in MS Word, Google docs, or something else?
How do you prefer to receive feedback—within the manuscript, using “track changes” and the comments feature, via email, or in a Zoom call? Most authors and beta readers I know work with MS Word’s track changes and comments feature, plus additional feedback in an email. Some authors also send their beta readers a structured questionnaire to help guide them. I’ll post examples for these questions at a later point.
You might also want to discuss whether you’ll send your beta reader each chapter as you finish writing it, a chunk of chapters, or the entire manuscript all at once.
Set realistic deadlines
Let your beta readers know when you need their feedback.
How much time you give your beta readers will usually depend on how long the manuscript is and what shape it’s in. Some authors give their beta readers about a month for a novel, while others need a faster turnaround. Ask your beta readers what you can realistically expect.
Don’t send your beta readers a rough first draft
Respect your beta readers’ time by cleaning up the manuscript to the best of your ability before sending it. Make sure you proofread thoroughly. That ensures that your beta readers can read the story more or less the same way your paying audience later will, without getting distracted by a myriad of typos.
Expect constructive criticism and a lot of hard work
Be prepared to receive constructive criticism. What you want in a beta reader is someone who will help you improve the manuscript by pointing out what isn’t working, not a cheerleader who heaps praise on you and tells you not to change a thing because it’s already perfect.
Of course, you also don’t want beta readers who will leave you feeling as if you are a talentless hack writing shitty stories.
Avoid hasty reactions
Try to look at the feedback you receive with an open mind. Don’t get defensive and start arguing with your beta readers. While it’s natural to feel protective of your story and your characters, avoid knee-jerk reactions. That’s often just a sign that you feel overwhelmed and don’t know how to fix whatever issue your beta reader pointed out.
Take your time processing your beta readers’ feedback. Don’t outright reject it while you are upset. If I disagree with a beta reader’s suggestion, I put the comment in a separate file and look at it again later.
Have the confidence to reject suggestions
Please know that you don’t have to make each and every suggested change. If you don’t agree with a suggestion or it doesn’t fit your vision of the story, wait for feedback from your other beta readers. If no one else points out the same thing, it might be just a subjective opinion that you can safely dismiss.
Even if two beta readers give you the same feedback, the final decision is always yours. But you owe it to your beta readers to give their feedback careful consideration before you reject it.
Remember that beta readers aren’t editors
Don’t expect your beta readers to provide solutions for how to fix any and all issues they point out. Even if they do suggest solutions, you’ll find that they often won’t work.
That doesn’t mean you should dismiss their feedback. While betas don’t always get the solution right, they are often right when they point out something isn’t working.
Try to figure out the underlying problem that prompted the suggestion and then find another solution for it. For example, if your beta reader says “Your opening scene could do with some action; maybe add a car chase,” that’s an indication that your first scene is boring. Adding a car chase to your romance novel might not be the best solution, so find other ways to pick up the pacing and make the opening more compelling.
Show your appreciation
Your beta readers invested a lot of time and effort into helping you with your story. Make sure to thank your beta readers and mention them in the acknowledgments of your book.
End toxic beta reader relationships
I know I said there would be 12 tips, but I decided to include a bonus tip because it’s an important one:
If the working relationship with one of your beta readers turns toxic and endangers your mental health or your confidence in your writing skills, stop working with them.
I have personally never had it happen, but I know several writers who nearly stopped writing because of a bad experience with an overly harsh beta reader. If you feel as if you took a beating and want to give up writing forever after you read a beta’s feedback, it’s obviously not a healthy working relationship.
More about beta reading
Stay tuned for more posts about beta reading and working with beta readers! If you have any specific questions you’d like me to answer, please let me know in the comments.