What Are Beta Readers?

Sophie Playle

Beta readers are the people who’ll make your manuscript tighter, better and generally more appealing. The best thing? They’ll usually do it for free.

The idea of beta reading comes from the engineering concept of beta testing, also known as field testing. Beta testing involves subjecting a product to a trial by real-world users to find out where it can be improved. That’s pretty much how beta reading works for books, too.

This is the first in a three-part series where I’ll explain what beta readers can do for you, and how to get the best from your beta readers (once you’ve found them).

So pull up a comfy chair, and prepare to meet your beta readers.

What exactly does a beta reader do?

Each writer has their own way of working with beta readers, but the general idea is very straightforward. You send your manuscript out to your readers, and they tell you what they enjoyed and what they didn’t – and why.

Beta readers are especially good at giving feedback on ‘big picture’ issues (like characterisation) and at spotting inconsistencies in your story world.

If you’re writing about subjects outside your expertise, it’s helpful to look for beta readers with the knowledge and experience to tell you whether your depiction is good enough. For example, perhaps your main character’s best friend is a tiger, and you know someone who works in the big cat section of a zoo … They might be able to help you tweak the mannerisms of your feline character.

Most beta readers will even point out typos and spelling mistakes, which can help you spruce up your manuscript before you hire a copy-editor or proofreader later down the line.

What beta readers aren’t

Be aware that beta readers aren’t professionals. They have their own place in shaping your manuscript, which is quite distinct from the role played by an editor.

The whole point of beta readers is that they’re a cross-section of the kind of people who’ll eventually buy your finished book. Therefore they can provide you with an insight into how a larger readership might receive your novel.

Professional editors, on the other hand, have been trained to either pinpoint a multitude of big-picture issues in your novel (development editing/manuscript critiquing) or make sure your prose is correct, consistent, flows well and follows publishing conventions (line editing/copy-editing).

Remember, though, working with beta readers isn’t cheating, nor is it about ‘writing by committee’. You don’t even have to act on what your beta readers tell you.

It’s all about field testing, remember?

Who you SHOULDN’T ask to beta read your novel

Your family, your friends or your writing buddies. Well, you can, but even if they fall into your target readership, the opinions of your friends and family are bound to be coloured by their feelings for you.

I know that some authors like to use beta readers who are also writers, but I don’t think that’s such a good idea. Every writer I’ve ever met has their own idea of what literature should be and do, and very few of these ideas coincide.

A reader who isn’t a writer is less likely to let philosophical or technical issues influence their experience of your work.

For me, the ‘unwriterly’ perspective is worth its weight in gold, and is exactly what I look for in a beta reader.

Who should use beta readers?

Any writer seriously interested in maximising the quality of their manuscript should at least consider using beta readers.

If you’re reluctant, I understand. It’s tough to open yourself to criticism by a bunch of strangers. And if you haven’t been through the beta reading process before, it can be hard to see where the true value lies.

But think of it this way: it’s a really good idea to have any problems pointed out while there’s still plenty of time to put them right.

You won’t spot them because you’re way too close to your work, even if you think you’re not. Especially if you think you’re not!

When should you use beta readers?

Beta testing is not something done in the early stages of product development. It’s used to make an already good product as problem-free as possible.

The same principle applies to working with beta readers.

The right time to consult beta readers is after you’ve done as much as you can to improve your manuscript, and before you send it to a professional editor.

Correct any problems noted by your beta readers and you’ll pave the way for your editor to do their very best work (which in turn means your book will also be the best it can be).

Working with beta readers

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that beta readers have a lot to offer you and your novel.

In short, the beta reading stage is an important part of preparing your manuscript to send to a professional editor.

Take a look at the next post in this series, in which I tell you how to make contact with beta readers and choose the right readers for your book. In the final instalment, I go into the fine detail of working with your reading team.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more: liminalpages.com

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