One questions I often ask new writers hiring me as an editor is, Did you use any beta readers before bringing your manuscript to me? If their response is a deer-in-the-headlights, What is a beta reader? my inner red flag goes up. Usually that’s a signal that the manuscript has been conceived, written, reviewed and revised by one, single, solitary person: the writer—and it shows.
Experienced writers consider beta readers a crucial and necessary step in fine-tuning and testing their book before it goes to publishing.
How do writers use beta readers?
Most writers need solid, reliable feedback from their target audience to help them work out the kinks in their manuscript. In fiction, for example, beta readers can be helpful in pointing out things like pacing of scenes and overall storyline, gaps or missing pieces of information in the timeline, areas that feel too wordy or detailed. They can also help determine if a writer has sufficiently fleshed out the world the characters inhabit: is it descriptive enough? Does it feel like a real place? And they can point out any character inconsistencies or lack of development.
In non-fiction books, especially where an author is an expert in a particular field, beta readers can be helpful in testing out whether the book requires slower or faster pacing, or if certain sections need more or less information. Beta readers can also point out places where the author makes assumptions about what readers know, or whether sufficient examples or reasons are given for a premise; or if adequate, clear steps are laid out when explaining a process or system.
Some writers find it helpful to give beta readers a set of questions or concerns to look for, so the feedback they get back is narrowed down.
Again, this can be a trial-and-error process as you learn how to navigate through five to ten different sets of opinions to determine what changes, if any, need to be made to the story. Here it’s good to note, also, that a handful of beta readers is usually the goal. You don’t want to have too many people weighing in, but enough to get a few diverse voices speaking into the book.
When are beta readers most useful?
Some authors like to bring in beta readers at the first draft stage, before the author has done extensive revising, and while the structure and form are still malleable, not set in stone. At this stage, they’re looking for feedback about whether the book is working as a whole, in a big-picture, general sense. Other writers want the help of beta readers after they’ve finished the book and have done several revisions on their own. Typically, the most obvious wrinkles and problems have been addressed at this point, and the author is looking for specific feedback (which she may communicate to the betas), and wants to know if there are any areas that have slipped through her cracks.
Where do you find beta readers?
Most authors seek out beta readers from their friend, family or online communities. It’s often a trial-and-error process to find readers who fit the criteria: book lovers who are also good at giving thoughtful feedback. While most don’t ask to be paid, there are some services that connect writers with readers who want to be compensated for their time. What’s important is that your beta readers extend beyond the circle of just immediate family and friends—to avoid getting generic or mostly positive feedback.
You’re looking for someone who has a critical eye for detail, and who isn’t afraid to point out problems in the manuscript.
Why beta readers and an editor?
I like to think of a beta reader as that friend who borrows your car and upon returning it, tells you about a weird noise it’s making - a noise you hadn’t noticed or had been ignoring. It’s helpful information, as now you know you need to get it fixed. But your friend probably isn’t trained to open the hood and diagnose—never mind fix—the problem with your car. You need a mechanic for that. Editors are like mechanics, they’re language specialists who are experienced at diagnosing places in your manuscript that aren’t running smoothly, and fine-tuning or fixing them.
Using beta readers in place of an editor is not a good idea; but having both is ideal. With betas you're getting diverse and valuable feedback to help you make final adjustments to your manuscript before investing in a professional editor.