Writing Tip of the Week: Finding a Beta Reader

Writing can be a very personal and intimate experience.  Your internal thoughts, feelings, ideas, and actions leave your brain and settle onto the page.  If you’re writing in a private journal or diary, these thoughts and feelings can remain secret, with no possibility of them being displayed publicly.

But if you’re writing for people to eventually read or see your work in the public sphere, it’s essential to have people around you to read and critique your work before it is out for the world to see.  Consider these people a buffer, a set of eyes that can see your work from a different perspective, and someone who isn’t afraid to give you feedback that will make them work better.

A Beta Reader is an excellent resource for anyone to have in their writing toolbox.

What Exactly Is a Beta Reader?

A Beta Reader is the first fresh set of eyes to read your work and offer constructive feedback.  Once you are confident that you have a completed novel, non-fiction book, short story, play, or screenplay, a Beta Reader is an independent third party that can help you make the work better. 

This person can help point out story problems, plot holes, continuity problems, or other aspects that don’t work.  At the same time, they are an ideal audience to see if what you wished to convey on the page was successful.

A Beta Reader’s feedback should be helpful, pointed, specific, and detailed.  If what they tell you is too vague or generalized (“I don’t like your hero, Mark, but I don’t know why”), then the information isn’t helpful.

Beta Reader vs. Editor

A Beta Reader is for the creative side of writing (story, plot, continuity), while an Editor looks for technical issues (spelling, grammar, syntax, word choice).  Both are essential to the writing process, but each has their own skills to contribute.

Obviously, a Beta Reader can find spelling or grammar errors and an Editor can give you feedback about story or character issues, but each does serve a different purpose in the grand scheme of things.

So, how can you find a Beta Reader that fits your needs?

Who Do You Know?

Is there someone in your circle of friends that likes your writing?  Someone supportive that takes an interest in what you’re working on but offers constructive advice if asked?  Do you have a friend with opinions about films and TV shows that you respect?  This might be the person to ask.

You want someone open-minded, who likes the genres you write in, and can focus on the specific areas you want them to provide feedback on and give comments and suggestions that strengthen the work.

Obviously, being a Beta Reader is a time commitment on the person’s part.  After all, you’re asking them to read a 500-page manuscript or a 110-page screenplay, so there are hours of work ahead of them.  If you have someone in mind, ask them if they would be interested in reading your work and giving you feedback.  

If they say yes, that’s great.  If not, and you’re out of people you can trust and rely on, there are Beta Reader services you can pay to help you out.

So, what about my mom or my brother-in-law?  Could I use them as a Beta Reader?  

Well, I suggest that you…

Look Outside Your Family

Unless you can compartmentalize and keep your writer life and personal life separate, I recommend finding a Beta Reader outside your family circle.  I feel this is a wise move since you don’t want to get false praise that negatively impacts the work, and you also don’t want to get criticism that leads to a rift in the relationship.

This doesn’t mean you can’t use a family member, but I’d like to think that keeping the Beta Reader outside the family is a good way to stave off future trips to a family therapist or a segment on Dr. Phil.

Start With A Sample

But let’s say you have a friend or former coworker who is on board and wants to help.  Great.  If they haven’t read anything of yours for a while, give them a sample of your work.  As them to focus on one or two things (i.e., description and pacing), and see what they come back with.

Don’t just toss the pages out there and say good luck; give them specifics about what you want them to look for.  Based on their feedback, you’ll be able to tell if they are a good fit.  If you have to pump the information out of them or they are afraid to be critical, this isn’t a good match.  At the same time, if their feedback is too harsh, it won’t work, either.  

The key is to find a healthy balance where the feedback you receive strengthens the weaknesses, and the positive comments keep you motivated to get onto the next draft.

To Pay or Not to Pay?

I pay my Beta Reader for his time.  It’s the right thing to do, and it also makes him take the job seriously.  He’s been hired to do a job, deliver what is asked of him, and I give him a logical deadline to read the manuscript (a couple weeks at least), take notes, and have a meeting with me to discuss his feedback.  

If you take it professionally, your Beta Reader will, too.  

Patience is a Virtue

It may take time to find someone who has the time to assist you during this process.  As I said above, it’s a time commitment on their part, and you are entrusting them with your manuscript with the hope that their feedback will make it better.  If you’re not happy with the feedback you get from someone or feel it’s lacking, you can always look for someone else.

A Beta Reader is a part of your team.  Just like with dating, sometimes it takes a while to find the right person.  But once you do, you know you’ve found your ideal match. 

All writers need feedback.  All writers need a trusted source of constructive criticism and positivity.  Finding a Beta Reader that meets these criteria can be a great motivator to keep the words flowing since you have a trusted person available that can help make you a better writer.

Do you have a Beta Reader?  What have been your experiences?  Leave a comment and let me know!