Beta Readers | How They Function (Part 1 of 2)

Today I am posting the first of two parts on beta readers covering specifically what beta readers do. In the second part, I’ll look at what they don’t do and what writers’ expectations of beta readers are. 

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When you hear the word “beta,” what comes to mind? I usually think of the Greek alphabet as beta is its second letter, β. A jog down memory lane occurs at the sound of “beta” as I was a member of The National Beta Club in high school.

Then there is the word “Beta” with a capital “B” meaning the second brightest star in a constellation. And we can move on to chemistry where it means the second in any series or one of the possible compounds in an atom.

White betta splendens By Kingloovr via Wikimedia
White betta splendens By Kingloovr via Wikimedia

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.

None of these definitions, however, explains the benefit of a beta reader to a writer.

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?

Following are several steps requested by writers for whom I have performed beta reading and what I would expect, as a writer, for a beta to do for me:

WHAT A BETA READER DOES:

  • Reads 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 mentioned on a page 121 as having done a particular thing suddenly appears, when the reader doesn’t recall having met that character in the earlier 120 pages.
  • Performs a second reading and focuses on specifics requested by the writer, making notes along the way. Recently, a writer requested what I call a “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.
  • Tells the writer when a particular character resonates with her 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.
  • Makes 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.
  • Points 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 goodbeta 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.
  • Presents 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.
  • Sits 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?

The 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.

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 with 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 article)

Part 2 of this two-part post will appear here on Tuesday, August 27th. Hope to see you back for what beta readers don’t do and what writers expect from beta readers.

28 thoughts on “Beta Readers | How They Function (Part 1 of 2)

  1. I engaged two book club groups as beta readers for my novel. Volunteers from my own book club (people who knew me) and from another book club that had read my memoir but didn’t know me personally. In addition, since I’m writing historical fiction, I’ve enlisted beta readers from among other historical fiction authors. So, I had readers who were reading “just for fun” and readers who read with an eye toward the historical detail and what readers of this genre want.
    In both cases, I gave my readers questions to spur reactions along the lines I was interested in, but that gave them freedom to comment on anything. The feedback has been invaluable.

    1. Carol, I find your comments very interesting and helpful. Not yet to the level of using beta readers and having only experienced the process from the reader side, these are common sense ideas I did not come across in any of my reading on beta readers. Thanks for sharing them!

  2. I just served as a beta reader for the first time and I’m thrilled to have handled myself according to your recommendations. The only exception for me was the last “waiting two days” suggestion. I may not have waited that length of time, but I did consider, then reconsider, after becoming so comfortable with the character (and author!).
    Great post!! Thank you.

    1. Carmen, “two days” is not cast in stone. As long as you considered and reconsidered, you did a fine job! I’m glad you’ve chosen to beta read for writers. Keep up the good work! Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Sherrey … a great summary.
    One thing I did that was helpful was to have my beta readers present their comments in a group format. It had two big advantages: 1) it kept the discussion from being one person’s point of view vs the author 2) it triggered responses from several beta readers that they hadn’t originally thought of. And I agree with Madeline that they SHOULD NOT be related to the author.

    1. Mary, glad you’re here, and with an absolutely wonderful suggestion — a group discussion. Did you use skype? Were they physically present? Or maybe a Google Hangout? I’d love to know. And I agree they SHOULD NOT be related to the author, and even close friends should be excluded (coming up in Part 2).

      1. I did mine in person, with volunteers from my book group. Skype and Google Hang Out are both feasible from a technological point of view, but I’m sure how it would work with a group that didn’t know each at all. And I also wonder how easy it would be to get a group of virtual volunteers to be beta readers on the same schedule. Certainly worth thinking about.

      2. Mary, thanks for sharing how you formulated this process. Yes, I can see the advantage of an in-person group. I’m going to have to find a critique group here in Portland. I’ve been looking but one just hasn’t clicked yet. Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. Sherrey, I appreciate your thorough and insightful description of the role of a beta reader and how to select them. The issue of who to ask is particularly challenging as we are all busy. At this point, I have opted to “trade” services and have been amazed how generous , open and even eager people have been. You were a wonderful beta reader for me , offering me substantial meaningful feedback and I stand ready to be your beta reader!

    1. Kathy, thanks for stopping by. I know you, like many of us, are very busy right now and time taken to read and comment on blogs is precious time away from your book. Yes, finding beta readers is the a big hurdle but you seem to have developed a real knack for it by “trading.” Thanks for your comments on my beta reading for you.

  5. The thing to remember is if you agree to beta a manuscript make sure you have the time to do so. Nothing is more disappointing than a beta reader who never reads it. Valuable feedback can be lost. By the same token don’t ask someone to beta read if you know they are horribly busy with their own writing or real life crises, that is my current situation

    1. Sue, we would hope people would be honest about their ability to take on a project such as beta reading, but that isn’t always the case, is it? How are you doing these days?

  6. Unless my blog becomes a book, I personally am not in need of a beta reader at this point. You really clarified the function and expectations of writers of such readers, which would probably make me a more astute reader too. As a teacher, I used to tell my students, “If I have to read a sentence twice because I don’t ‘get’ the meaning on the first reading, it probably should be revised.” A beta-reader-type comment? I imagine so.

    1. Marian, definitely a beta reader comment! Teachers would make great beta readers because they’ve spent a lot of time doing just what you describe. I should hope that someday you’ll pull together a collection of your lovely stories. I think they’d make a lovely book.

  7. Thanks, Sherrey, for clarifying what a beta reader is and does. How does a writer find readers and does the writer pay them? It seems like a lot of work to be a labor of love. It was recommendedto me to have two rounds of beta readers during my novel revision process with 3-4 readers each round. Also they shouldn’t be related to the writer. That’s a tall order.

    1. Thanks, Madeline, for your comments which add a great deal to my post. Family members and friends aren’t the best readers to have on board. And it’s hard to know how many to ask. Usually beta readers are considered volunteers and receive no pay. Kathy Pooler has set up a “trade” with her readers who are writing, which is a good way to handle the “pay for reading.” Finding readers is the trick. When working on this post I Googled beta readers and really didn’t come up with many who were looking for projects.

  8. Thanks so much Sherrey, I’ve always wanted to know what a beta reader is. What a valuable service to the writer! I look forward to next Tuesday’s post and thank you for this one – I am much clearer on this and will seek the services of such a beta reader when ready. It is true, one cannot see behind one’s own back –

    1. Hi, Susan! Now you know what a beta reader is. Isn’t it exciting? It is a valuable service. And I enjoy participating as a beta reader when time allows. It causes you to be more astute in your reading than ordinarily. I’m so glad you stopped by today!

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