If you’ve joined any online writing groups, you’ve probably heard of beta reading already. If not, that’s fine. In this article, I’ll talk about what beta reading is, how it’s different from other forms of manuscript revision, where to find readers, and how to interpret feedback in a positive way.
What Is It?
First things first, for those of you who don’t know what beta reading is, let’s break it down into its base components. Beta, also known as the second letter of the Greek alphabet, is a word that usually refers to an unfinished project, the “beta version”, and reading obviously refers to when someone reads. Therefore, a beta reader is a person who reads your manuscript before it has been completed. They are the “test audience” so to speak. These people typically provide the service for free, though there are some people out there who are “professional beta readers” and will charge a small fee for their services.
They are your first audience, and as such, a beta reader’s job is to give you, the author, their opinion of the book as someone who reads books. They’re not an editor. While they may point out spelling mistakes to you, that’s not their job. Often, they’ll tell you what worked for them, what didn’t work, whether they liked the characters, and so on. There are many questions you can ask beta readers to answer. You can’t really expect them to fill out a huge survey, but it never hurts to ask them to keep certain aspects in mind while reading. I’ve created a list of questions for the author to consider; you can read them over and decide what areas you’d like to ask your beta readers about.
Beta readers are different from other preliminary readers, and it’s important to know the difference so that you don’t annoy them. For example, a beta reader won’t like reading a document full of holes or spelling errors. They read the first draft, sure, but it has to be complete and reasonably readable. The people who read those incomplete stories are called alpha readers, and, as the name implies, they come before betas. They are less popular and less well-known because they aren’t often used. These readers are the ones who help you write the story when you get stuck. They’re most often friends, but they can also be strangers who allow you to brainstorm with them. [Beta readers are also different from editors and ARC (advance review copy) readers, but since they are harder to confuse with beta readers, I won’t explain them in detail here.]
Where to Find Beta Readers?
Finding beta readers is a daunting task for writers, especially if you’re worried about sending your incomplete writing out into the world. I’d tell you not to worry, but you can’t control how you feel, so I’ll instead tell you that beta readers are usually offering their services for free because they want to help writers. Most of them really love being a part of the process, and it doesn’t hurt that they get a free book to read out of the deal. They’re here to help, so you don’t need to worry about them telling you that your book sucks. Those are far and few between. Now, where to look for them?
Friends and family are fine to start, to help you gain confidence in sharing your work, but they aren’t the best beta readers. They are unlikely to give you honest feedback because they want to spare your feelings. They also know you and how to decode what you mean, even if the same thing is confusing to anyone else. The best beta readers are strangers who read in your genre. They are your intended audience.
You can find these people online in beta reading groups (I know for a fact that there are at least five different ones on Facebook right now). You may also want to join a local writing group to meet people in person, though it’s less likely for them to be your intended audience.
How to Interpret Feedback?
Most of your feedback will be well-meaning critique, but I can’t guarantee that someone will say something that hurts your feelings. Don’t take it personally. Beta readers offer their opinions as a way of improving your writing. That doesn’t mean that they think you’re a terrible writer, and that also doesn’t mean that you have to listen to everything they say. In other words, take it with a grain of salt. In the end, you’re the author. If they suggest something that you think won’t work in the story, look at why they suggested it, and fix the areas where they may have gotten confused. If they suggest something that you don’t understand or don’t know how to fix, ask them to clarify or even help you fix the issue. Invested beta readers will be fully willing to help; not all beta readers are willing to do that extra work, so keep that in mind.
Finally—and most importantly—remember to be kind to your beta readers! They are offering you their time and their opinions, so thank them. Be courteous. Let them know how much you appreciate their efforts. You can even ask them if you can add their name to the acknowledgements of the book (don’t add their name without their permission). Maintaining a good relationship with your beta readers will allow you to reach out to them for future books. They are more likely to beta read for you again if the previous experiences were enjoyable and gratifying.
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