Beta Readers: What are they and why we need them
I’m asked every week about beta readers. Do authors need them? Why? Are you losing sales by offering your manuscript to others first? Will they change your story? HOLD ON! Slow down, and let’s take a look.
Beta readers are readers who read your manuscript for more than just its enjoyment value. Betas read your work with a critical eye, looking for pace, characterization, spelling and grammar errors, and general flow of the story.
Are beta readers editors?
No, beta readers are not editors. They will typically catch easy-to-spot errors, but it is not their job to be the editor of your work. You should hire a professional, experienced editor (structural and developmental) and copy editor/proofreader.
Why do we need beta readers?
As authors, we already know the backstory of every character, the settings we want to convey. We know where they our characters are heading, the trouble they will endure, and even what they are thinking—the problem is that because we know these things, we are not really reading the story. We are reading the story as we already know it to be, and many times, what we know, leads us to write a less fleshed out story. Beta readers can pick up on inconsistencies and pieces of the story that were left out (because they existed only in our heads and never made it to the story). Beta readers can tell us if our characters are likable, relatable, and interesting. They can show us how the actions and/or dialogue may be misinterpreted by readers. Beta readers help our stories become the best they can be before hitting the shelves.
Isn’t that what editors do?
Yes and no. Structural and developmental editors are looking for pace, characterizations, and flow of the story, from an editorial standpoint. Professional and experienced editors are trained to look for story structure, which readers are not. Editors, for example, will look for goals of your protagonist and the speed at which they progress, differentiations between characters’ dialogue and mannerisms. Editors evaluate the changes that your characters move through in the book, consistent point of view, and pace of the story in a way that most beta readers cannot. Copy editors and proofreaders are looking for grammatical errors and typos—a job that is not sufficiently handled by beta readers. Think of beta readers as your pre-publishing audience, and editors as the ones who take your book from a great read to a polished novel.
What should I look for in a beta reader?
Many authors ask their best friends and family members to be beta readers. That can be helpful, if your friends and family members can give you honest, even to the point of harsh, criticism without worrying about your reaction. However, I also suggest that you find authors whose work you respect and find to be well written. On the World Literary Cafe there is a Beta Reader and Critique Groups forum where you can connect with others and find beta readers, or look for sites like Critique Circle. Take your time. Finding strong beta readers who enjoy your genre and understand the basics of strong writing can take time.
When do we hire beta readers?
Some beta readers receive manuscripts chapter by chapter, while others wait to read until the manuscripts are complete and have already been edited. The way you work with your beta reader will depend on what your goal is while working with them. Working with beta readers before structural editing may not be wise, as your story can change dramatically during the structural editing process.
Never rush to the publication line or skip steps to achieve your goal. If it takes your beta readers an extra two weeks to read your book and provide detailed feedback, then let them have it. You are under no obligation to change your story to fit their suggestions, but chances are, they will give you at least a few suggestions that you will find valuable to make your story the best it can be.