7 Reasons Good Writers Need Beta Readers

When you hear the word “beta,” what comes to mind?

A variety of uses are made of the word “beta,” and it’s not always what you think:

In today’s world, built primarily on technology, a beta may be an individual or company testing a proposed software, a new type of computer, a high-tech phone system, or any number of other devices.

Taking second place is often where beta finds itself, especially in the Greek alphabet where beta is the second letter, β. Then there is the capitalized form of Beta  representing the second brightest star in a constellation or in chemistry where it means the second in any series of compounds in an atom.

Kampffisch aka betta splendens

Via Wikimedia; attributed to Fotografiert von Marcel Burkhard alias cele4

And, of course, there is the beta fish, sometimes spelled betta, an often savage and warrior-like fish sold in pet stores. Our son raised some of these in his teens, and their beauty does not make up for their rude personalities.

But what if we add the word “reader” to the word “beta” to invoke the name of one of the most important members of your writing team?

You may be asking the definition of that name or label, a job description of this new team member, and other questions. Hopefully, the tips below will answer your questions.

But first, the definition of a beta reader:

A beta reader reviews a writer’s manuscript elements such as plot development, character descriptions and motivations, general readability, grammar, and logical inconsistencies. The writer may ask the beta reader to do all these things or limit the read to certain specific elements.
Note that beta reading is the step coming before the pre-publication edit done by someone with excellent professional editing skills.

 

With that definition in mind, what should a writer expect a beta reader to do?

Below are the 7 tips mentioned in the post title and promised earlier. These are taken from beta reading requests I have responded to, and they are what I would expect a beta reader to do for me:

Present in a considerate, tactful and diplomatic manner recommendations and feedback. This is an area where the reader should not be too direct or action-oriented in choosing words in preparing his opinions. A good beta reader makes suggestions, not directions, instructions or complaints. Recommendations or comments sent back to a writer should not produce negative reactions on the part of the writer.

Make personal observations as “asides,” if appropriate. These comments are helpful only if the writer understands they are not a part of your recommendations/feedback and are your personal reactions and feelings. Let’s say a particular character behaves in such a way you feel sorry for him. Tell the writer about the empathetic response you feel toward this character and why. Perhaps the writer did not intend the character to come across in this way. The reader’s personal reaction highlights this issue and in making this comment, the reader has alerted the writer so changes may be made. Or perhaps a certain scene wasn’t working for you. Passing this along with a good explanation will be helpful to the writer in reviewing that scene.

Perform a second reading and focus on specifics requested by the writer, making notes along the way. Recently, a writer requested “thorough” read, i.e. reviewing the elements above (see definition), and additionally based on my comments back to her, she queried me about some changes she was considering. Another writer pointed out she wasn’t looking for copy edits or proofing and provided a concise list of what she did want me to do. Each writer will have a particular process for moving the book toward publication. Each one will present a beta reader with different needs and requests.

Read the manuscript through for fun. That’s right — I said FUN! During this reading,  a beta reader should get lost in the story or in the purpose if reading a nonfiction book. After all, this allows the reader to report back accurately on how the book may or may not be received by the reading public. Here, the reader captures a general feel for the story line and characters while looking for any issues that disturb the reader’s ability to follow the story. Example: A character makes a sudden appearance on page 125 and is mentioned as having done a particular thing. Yet, the reader doesn’t recall having met that character in the earlier 124 pages.

Tell the writer when a particular character resonates with the reader or if a scene is especially moving. We all need to know when something is working well, and it costs us nothing to share the goodness along with the potential criticisms and errors that might be found and included in a reader’s response back to a writer. A good beta reader begins and ends his opinions with some of these good points and positives.

Point out issues not included in writer’s requests, when suitable.  If the reader notices an issue not included in the writer’s requested actions, it is permissible to it in the feedback. Example: Perhaps POV wasn’t included in the list. Suddenly, the writer is switching back and forth between first and third person. Or it takes too long at the beginning of the book to sense any action.

Here come’s the test of a good beta reader — the ability to be as tactful and diplomatic as anyone serving as the U.S. Ambassador to a foreign country. The reader is respectful in explaining what he discovered and why it is included it in the feedback provided. And this is the perfect segue into the next point.

And then, sit on recommendations, comments and/or feedback for at least two days before sending to the writer. This allows the reader time to step away and then re-read the work product. The reader can then assess her reactions if it were her work being read and commented on: Does anything raise negativity? Is anything too harsh? Are comments clear and to the point? How would I feel reading these comments about my work?

betareadersThe beta reader and writer relationship is different from almost any other writing relationship and where it comes in the process of a writing project and how it performs depends on what the writer wants from the beta reader and what the reader is capable of offering. As in any working relationship, this is negotiable between the parties.

What I have offered today is based on my own opinions and beta reading process seeded in what I would expect from a beta reader if it were my book being read and what I want to give to writers who seek me out as a beta reader.

Inherent in the relationship between beta reader and the author are seen the reasons every good writer needs to engage one or more beta readers.

Let’s close this post with a couple of quotes on beta readers:

Basically, the more eyes the book goes through before publication, the fewer issues you will have later; and hopefully,
the better the reviews are.”

~ Joanna Penn, Writer, Speaker and Blogger

“Beta readers provide us differing viewpoints and show us flaws in our own work that we were incapable of seeing ourselves.”
Chuck Sambuchino, Writer and Editor

(Quotes from WOW! Women on Writing)

 

If you have had any experiences using beta readers, how has it worked for you and your beta reader? Did you offer a list? Did you receive what you expected, or perhaps not? Anything you can share will help those reading this post.

  • Very good description of beta readers here Sherrey. I’ve shared across the usual channels. 🙂

    • You are the best, Debby! Thanks for following along with me.

  • Joan z. Rough

    I found my Beta readers extremely helpful in their encouragement and enjoyed working with them. Beta readers are not editors though and I believe in having both!

    • Joan, your comment is encouraging. And indeed we have to engage both beta readers and editors. So many people to help us get our baby on its way!

  • Luanne

    These are ideas that should stimulate a lot of thought and discussion. I can’t imagine finding someone to read my MS three times. That would be ideal, but who is that ideal beta reader? Please send her over 😉. I love the one about keeping the personal to asides.

    • Luanne, I had to giggle at your request, “Please send her over.” Would if I could, but I actually did that for someone as a beta reader. At first I thought it was a bit over the top, but after the third read I could see the reasoning behind her request. It was a complex story and her characters were also somewhat complex. Yes, keep those personals as asides!

  • Great post, Sherrey. I haven’t used beta readers yet, but plan to do so soon. I think they are a must for Indie writers.

    • Joan, I agree that beta readers are a must for Indie writers. I’m drawing close to that point in time and I suppose that spawned this post. Glad you found it helpful.