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How Authors Use Beta Readers: Who, When, Why—and Does It Help?

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If you’ve ever struggled with a manuscript, unsure if you’re on the right track, you’ve probably heard the term beta reader.

Although some people do offer beta reading for a fee (a word about that below), the term beta reader usually refers to an unpaid non-professional who gives feedback prior to a book’s publication. 

Unlike critique partners, there’s no requirement to exchange manuscripts with a beta reader; and unlike editors, there’s no expectation that beta readers will have advice about how to fix whatever weaknesses they find. They’re civilians, proxies for our future readers. Typically, they’re people we know, if not personally, then through a friend or writing community. We trust them enough to test our books on them and (presumably) listen to what they have to say.

Use of beta readers is widespread, but surprisingly little has been written about how writers actually use them and how they help—or if they do. I got curious, so I set out to fill the gap. Although I first reported these “research findings” a few years ago, they remain just as relevant today.  And if they don’t, I hope you’ll say so in your comments and let us know what I missed or what may have changed!

A word of background:  I posted my question on five different Facebook groups for writers, asking whether, who, when, why, and how people used beta readers. After parsing close to 100 responses into topics and themes, I ended up with nearly 200 distinct “bits” of information.

Here’s what I learned from my fellow authors. Not what advice-giving blogs tell them they ought to do, but what they actually do.

WHO:  Most people use a variety of beta readers, both writers and non-writers.

Responses fell into three distinct camps.

Readers only, please! Some people only used readers, never fellow writers, because they felt that readers were more authentic, representative, and jargon-free. They liked readers with “a sharp mind and attention to detail,” preferably from their target audience, who were familiar with and liked their genre. Some preferred non-friends who had no expectations, vested interest, or reason to soften their response for the sake of the friendship. “I’ve had plenty of betas who ‘yes’ me to death and while nice for the ego, it’s not what you need.”

At times, specialty readers were sought, either because they were experts in an area relevant to the book’s setting or plot (e.g., legal or mental health issues, a particular time or place) or because they could serve as “sensitivity readers” for content outside the author’s experience.

Readers can also be found, for a small fee, through enterprises such as The Spun Yarn that vet and train their beta readers, match an author with three appropriate readers, and monitor the process. This can be a good “middle option,” since there is structure, accountability, and confidentiality, since identities are masked.  Be aware, however, that these readers are not trained professionals. Even if they agree about a weakness in the manuscript, they aren’t in a position to tell you what to do about it.

Writers only, please! Other people were equally adamant that they preferred to use fellow writers, whom they considered better equipped to spot and articulate specific plot, pacing, and character issues. “Civilian readers don’t catch snafus like we do.”

On the other hand, they were well aware of the pitfalls of using other writers—in particular, the challenge for a writer of being able to switch gears and simply “read as a reader.” “We writers have a tendency to want to change it to how we would write it ourselves.” Interestingly, this is very much what I found, back when I was an academic and doing research on therapists who returned to “the client chair.” Most had a difficult time surrendering to the patient role, even for an hour.

Both, please! More often, people preferred a variety of beta readers, both writers and non-writers. That could include family members, trusted critique partners, representatives of the target audience, and “intelligent friends.”

“You need a good variety to get a full understanding of the good and bad in your writing.” One person used one-third supporters/cheerleaders, one-third tough critics, and one-third “wild cards” whose opinion she couldn’t predict. “I like to ask different sets of people: some that are my target audience and some who can help edit and deal with higher level critiques.”

WHEN: What matters isn’t just who, but when. Different kinds of beta readers are useful at different points in the process.

Rather than thinking of beta readers as a single group, or of beta reading as a single event taking place at a single point in the process, many people use different kinds of readers at different stages, and for different reasons. They liked to have one kind of reader to review an early draft, but wanted a different kind of reader for a revision and a third kind for a polished manuscript.

These three “points in time”—early draft, revision stage, and final version—weren’t rigidly defined, of course. Nevertheless, people were consistent in stating that different types of beta readers were useful at different stages.

Fellow writers were seen as most helpful for early drafts, ongoing critique, and feedback when one was stuck, at a crossroad, or “when I have done everything I can with a draft but don’t know how to go further and need assistance with recognizing craft issues.” Drawing on a common lexicon, fellow writers could explain, more specifically, what was lacking or wrong—as long as they didn’t cross the line into “this is how I would have done it.”

Non-writers, on the other hand, were considered more helpful, later, when the book was done, “as a test audience, almost as quality assurance,” but not for material that still required considerable work. Respondents emphasized that it was up to the writer to make the manuscript as polished as possible before showing it to non-writers, who “don’t want to read something that’s not been edited or is hard to follow.”

ADVANTAGES. Using beta readers is worthwhile, if not essential.

Those who responded to my inquiry felt that beta readers were a necessary part of the writing process. “They are a huge part of my process since the longer I work on a manuscript, the more susceptible I am to blind spots.” Obviously, there may be other writers who didn’t share that view —the ones who did not respond to my post, because they had no interest in beta readers. That’s how it is with any survey.

In some cases, people used beta readers because they couldn’t afford a paid professional. Betas were seen as an alternative way to get an independent, impartial view of their work. For other people, beta readers complemented the feedback they received from paid editors, preceding or following their input; that is, they used—and valued—both. “Betas can tell you how the average reader will respond to your book, and editors can make your book marketable.”

Getting the most benefit from a beta reader was a key concern. To avoid both generic praise and generic criticism, some people felt it was important to give readers a list of specific questions about structure, clarity, continuity, and character development. “The questions are the key to focusing the comments—otherwise you run the danger of vague praise or people thinking they’re line editors.”

On the other hand, some preferred to leave things open-ended, letting readers report what they actually, felt without being limited or primed—the way people will focus only on the color of a flower, ignoring its shape and scent, if you tell them that’s what you’re interested in.

DISADVANTAGES. Using beta readers has its pitfalls and limitations.

People noted that problems can stem from an over-abundance of feedback—a trap that’s easy to fall into when feedback is free. “It’s way too easy to ask ten people for comments, and then implement all their comments and lose what I intended for the story.” Confusion and loss of focus will make the manuscript worse, rather than better. “If you get too many chefs in the kitchen, it can change the recipe, which is almost never the best solution.”

Because feedback from beta readers doesn’t reflect knowledge of writing craft, it may lack the specificity necessary for it to be “actionable.” As one person put it, “reverse engineering” is needed to translate a beta reader’s reaction into what, exactly, went wrong and what to do about it, requiring so many extra steps that it left him wishing he’d hired a professional—or never asked. In his view, willingness to provide useful feedback and the ability to do so aren’t the same thing.

As with all forms of feedback, quality will vary. “My experience is that you can find beta readers that are spectacular and some that are useless. And it is the same for professional editors. It depends on who you can find, not on whether you pay them or not, or whether they’re writers or not.”

Ultimately, of course, writers must decide what to do with the feedback they receive. People tended to feel free to accept or reject what beta readers told them. If a number of people pointed out the same weakness—especially if they included both writers and non-writers—or if the comments resonated strongly, the feedback was more likely to be taken seriously.

TAKEAWAYS.  What can we learn from these responses?

  • Know—and communicate— what you want from a beta reader. That may be different at different points in the writing process, or with different books.
  • Seek diversity of background and viewpoint, depending on your aim. Sometimes you’ll want a heterogeneous group of readers, and sometimes you’ll want someone specific. Sometimes you want a generic “target audience,” and sometimes you want help with a specific problem. Figure it out anew each time—before you look for beta readers.
  • Be open and non-defensive, but don’t try to please everyone.  After all, there is no “perfect book” that every single reader will love!

Over to you now! Have you ever used or been a beta reader?  What struck you about that experience? Is there something you would like to add to the points in this essay?

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