Creating the first draft of a novel is a solo effort, but every step after you write the words “The End” doesn't have to be. Recruiting beta readers, hiring editors and proofreaders, and finding a cover designer are all collaborative actions that make our books better.
The more we obsess over our novel, rewrite, and fine-tune, the more likely we are to miss grammatical errors, plot holes, and character inconsistencies. It’s easy to create a backstory for a character in your mind and forget to mention a crucial detail early in the story that ties together how a character manages to grow and change later on.
Beta readers are the most critical group of people to touch your book. They offer a fresh perspective from someone who is part of your target demographic. They represent your readers.
Your beta readers can tell you whether your reveal is an effective surprise or just plain confusing. They’re the group of people who can weigh in on whether your rough-around-the-edges character is likable.
Beta readers are great at identifying what didn’t work, and may even offer ideas about how to fix it.
What Are Beta Readers?
Beta readers are a group of readers you recruit to read your novel after polishing the first draft. Their focus will be character consistency, plot continuity, world believability, and voicing whether certain scenes do or don’t work.
Beta readers will naturally focus on different elements of the story. Some may pick up on the psychological consistency of your characters. Others may be great at finding plot holes. Take note of which strengths they each have and keep this in mind for your next novel.
Beta readers should come into play once you think you’re close to the final story, but before you hire your editor and proofreader. No matter how talented you are, your beta readers will find enough issues to warrant section rewrites and character tweaks that can reintroduce grammatical errors.
Ideally, your beta readers are honest and reliable. They won’t shy away from voicing their opinion to avoid hurting your feelings. We’re not looking for malicious criticism, but we are hoping for truth-telling.
What Beta Readers Aren’t
Beta readers will not replace an editor. They’ll spend less time obsessing over sentence structure and will miss errors. They certainly won’t comb through a style guide to figure out the proper use of capitalization and commas in formal aristocratic titles.
Beta readers are still essential. Editors, proofreaders, and writing critique groups all have a focus on writing craft. If your writing critique group has a group of authors representing a wide range of genres, you’ll find that some people may look down on other genres, and their bias will reflect in their feedback.
Even if your critique group is a group of writers in similar genres, your monthly meetings will only allow for reviewing a chapter at a time. You’ll have to wait for ages to revise every chapter of your book. You can, however, recruit friends in a critique group to join your beta reader group.
How Many Beta Readers Should I Enlist?
At least three people should be in your beta reader group, but we recommend no more than six. You’ll need several people to help break ties on feedback, but too many people make things confusing. Some people will be bothered by a character, and some people will love the same character—tallying feedback can help you decide to develop the character further or keep them as-is.
You must make a conscious effort to include people from the cultures you represent in your stories if you’re not from that culture. Sensitivity readers are wonderful, but getting a single perspective on life as a Chinese-American, for example, may not be enough to catch issues. What offends one person may be inoffensive to another. In these cases, more beta readers are better.
Where to Find Beta Readers
Reading a full manuscript and making comments involves quite a bit of effort. It’s essential to find someone who is invested in your book’s success, or, at the very least, wants their book critiqued in return.
Your Existing Social Network
Family members and friends can make excellent beta readers if they’re honest. If you’re afraid you’ll get biased feedback or they shy away because they’re scared of being overly critical, it’s best to recruit people from alternative social circles listed below.
Your website can be a tremendous beta reader resource. If you’ve been blogging (or, better yet, published in the past) and have established an email subscription function on your website, you have a pool of interested people waiting to hear from you.
If you write multiple genres, it’s easy to create a Google Form as a signup sheet for beta readers or early reviewers. We recommend giving people options. Some people can’t stand grammatical issues and will stop reading. These folks aren’t good candidates for beta readers, but they may be good sources for reviews before you launch with a polished (professionally edited) advanced reader copy.
You don’t need to get fancy. A simple email inviting people to respond if they are interested in reading an early manuscript in exchange for a free paperback copy often suffices.
Many local colleges offer continuing education classes for writers. We’ve found these classes to be a fabulous way to meet writers (and beta readers).
We’ve gotten pushback from people with an MFA about signing up for a local college class. Many offer classes structured around NANOWRIMO
and how to keep students motivated to finish their book in a month. You don’t need to sign up for classes to improve your craft to participate.
Goodreads has several groups dedicated to helping authors. You may get lucky and find some great beta readers with a little research.
If you search for “beta readers” in your browser, you’ll stumble across websites that match readers to writers. Many of these are paid services. Research these options carefully and search for reviews. Ensure any reader you sign on agrees to your timeline and commits to giving you advanced notice if they need an extension.
Working With Beta Readers
It’s fantastic when you find an excellent beta reader. To keep talented readers, you must make the experience as positive as possible for them.
Think of a list of questions you want your readers to consider as they’re working. If they’re experienced beta readers, this won’t be necessary. First-time beta readers will want to know what they should and shouldn’t critique. Remind them they can comment on anything that strikes them as “off” and list examples of things they should watch for (missing words, character inconsistencies, plot continuity, etc.).
Set Clear Expectations
When you begin working with someone, make sure they know your timeline. We recommend giving your readers a month to give feedback. It isn’t realistic to drive them to finish feedback in under two weeks. They have busy lives and will be fitting your novel in where they can.
Use the Right Tools
We recommend using a collaborative tool to share your novel such as Google Documents or Microsoft 365. Any software you use should have comment functionality. Your document should be hosted online so readers can see other readers’ comments. If people review their version offline, you’ll miss an opportunity to get different perspectives on a single piece of feedback.
Unless you are paying your beta readers, they are volunteering their time. It’s important to keep this in mind as you work with your team. Don’t micromanage, be respectful, and make sure they realize you’re grateful for the time they’re spending on your book.
Don’t Ignore Popular Opinion
If you have multiple people critiquing an aspect of your book, don’t ignore them. Fix the issue.
Don’t Take it Personally
If someone hates a character, they aren’t criticizing who you are as a human. They simply don’t find the character likable.
Don’t make feedback personal. You asked for feedback, and it’s your responsibility to accept it gracefully.
If you’re using a paid service, compensation is taken care of. Otherwise, we recommend you gift the reader with a physical, signed copy of your book once published. If you’re friends with the person, a bottle of their favorite beverage or a free meal doesn’t hurt.
Consider offering to beta read for them if they are a writer.
What to Do With Feedback
Ultimately, it’s up to you to implement feedback or ignore it. A wise writer once said that readers often don’t know how to fix an issue or precisely what the problem is, but they’re always right that something is wrong.
We don’t recommend ignoring advice unless you’re confident removing or changing the section in question would detract from your story. Instead, think about the feedback and try to approach your story with fresh eyes. You may find a unique solution that makes your book even better.
Our Parting Advice
Authors rarely aspire to write a single novel. As you engage with your beta readers, keep in mind that you may want to work with them again. If someone discovers beta reading is more work than they bargained for, let them out of their agreement gracefully. It’s better to let someone off the hook on good terms than to risk making an enemy.
Burning a bridge with one beta reader may get around to others, particularly if you recruited them on a social platform like Goodreads. We can’t imagine burning bridges within your existing social network is a good idea, either.
Be kind, respectful, express gratitude, and don’t forget to give them something in exchange for their effort. Whether it’s a free paperback copy or your time beta reading their book, make sure what you give back is valuable. Mentioning them in your book’s acknowledgments is also a nice gesture.