Both indie and traditionally published authors make use of beta readers in some form or another before their book hits the market. The feedback beta readers provide can be an integral part of the overall writing and editing process. And if you're an author or aspiring writer yourself, beta reading for other authors can take your skills to the next level.
So whether you're an author or an avid reader (or both), beta reading is a great way to get your hands on new ideas, sharpen your skills, and read entertaining books for free. But there's an art to beta reading. So read on to learn how to be a beta reader!
- What constitutes a beta reader
- Tips for beta reading
- Ways to sign up as a beta reader
Table of contents
- What is a Beta Reader?
- Types of Beta Readers
- Tips for Being a Good Beta Reader
- How to Become a Beta Reader
What is a Beta Reader?
Beta readers are the literary world's version of beta testers. They have a specific niche to fill. They're not editors and they're not proofreaders (although they can sometimes act as both). Generally, beta readers help the author with big-picture questions regarding the story, characters, pacing, plot, and the like.
However, this is not always the case. Each author has a different writing process, so beta reading for one author may differ from reading for another. It's all about what the author is looking for help with. More on expectations later in the article.
Some authors will ask beta readers to point out typos along with big-picture issues, and any other “errors” they see along the way. It really depends.
Beta reading happens after the author is tentatively “done” with his or her editing passes, but before the manuscript goes out to a professional editor.
Types of Beta Readers
There are a couple of different types of beta readers that look for specific things.
Sensitivity Reader – Authors who write about minority groups or cultures other than their own may want to employ a sensitivity reader who is familiar with said group or culture. They can help the author avoid any glaring mistakes of a sensitive nature.
Niche Professional Readers – Those writing about a profession or lifestyle they're not familiar with will often seek out a niche beta reader. One example would be an author of a detective novel seeking out a detective to read their book and point out any issues. Obviously, this is done in addition to thorough research during the writing process.
Beta Reader vs ARC Readers
It can be easy to confuse beta readers and ARC readers. ARC stands for Advance Reader Copy. ARC readers get the finished product. The book has gone through rewriting, editing, and formatting, and it's ready to hit the shelves.
ARC readers get the book early to read and review it — usually before the release date. When a new book has good reviews upon release, those readers who are on the fence about buying it might see the reviews and take a chance.
Some authors ask their beta readers to review the book, while others have two separate groups of ARC and beta readers. It all depends on the author! Some beta readers may even review the book without being asked to.
Tips for Being a Good Beta Reader
Whether you're an author or an avid reader looking to read new releases for free, the following tips can help you be the best beta reader you can be!
1. Seek Clear Expectations
The most important part of being a beta reader is the feedback you give. Authors use beta readers not to hear “it was good” or “I didn't like it.” They use them to find out what works and what doesn't. This is why it's important to seek clear expectations from the beginning.
Experienced authors will probably already have specific questions they'd like you to answer, or guidelines you can follow. But if the author you've volunteered to read for doesn't tell you what he or she wants from the start, don't be afraid to ask them. If they don't seem interested in getting specific feedback, it's up to you to decide whether you want to read for them. Just keep in mind that the vast majority of authors want specific and honest feedback from their beta readers.
2. Read in a Genre You Like
There are so many genre-specific tropes that writers will try to hit in their manuscript. When writing to market, an author will write for a target reader. A target reader is one who already reads and enjoys the genre — a stand-in for the ideal reader of a certain genre. This is why it's important for you, as a beta reader, to read books in a genre you know and like. The best beta readers are members of the genre's target audience.
Without knowing the tropes of the genre, you won't be able to provide complete and accurate feedback on the book you're beta reading. Plus, if you read in a genre you like, there's a much better chance that you'll enjoy reading the book instead of deciding that you don't like the genre halfway through the book!
3. Take Notes
As an ideal beta reader, it's always to take notes. You can be as thorough as you like, given the expectations set by the author. If the author has given you questions or guidelines, it's a good idea to have them handy while you're reading the manuscript.
There are a number of ways to do this. You can comment on the manuscript using Microsoft Word or Google Docs. If you're reading it on a Kindle, your phone, or in paperback, you can take notes freehand or create a document to record your thoughts.
When referencing an error, it's a good idea to provide a page or chapter number. For example:
“In chapter seven, Character X is wearing a black shirt, but in chapter eight, the shirt is blue.”
Or: “On page 14, the word ‘Antidisestablishmentarianism' is spelled wrong.”
Of course, the depth of your notes will depend on the guidelines put forth by the author. Some authors will have proofreaders, beta readers, and editors work on the manuscript at some point, so you may not need to provide extremely detailed feedback.
4. Provide Constructive Criticism
Writing a book is hard. And putting that writing out into the world is often harder. So while the purpose of a beta reader is to provide a critique of the work, it's always good to do so with tact. This does not mean you shouldn't be honest. You absolutely should. Only honest feedback will help the author become a better writer. But there's a difference between criticism and constructive criticism.
For instance, telling an author that their writing is so bad they should quit is an example of unhelpful feedback.
On the other hand, telling the author why the book didn't work for you with specific details is constructive criticism.
If you don't think you can put into words why the book didn't work for you, try telling that to the author. Start a dialogue and get her to ask you questions about the book.
5. Don't Expect to Get Paid
Beta reading isn't usually a paid gig. At least, not in monetary terms. The exchange is honest feedback traded for a chance to read the book for free.
When money gets involved, things can get a little fuzzy. All of a sudden, the author doesn't know if the beta reader actually wants to read the book or if they just want the money. It can also skew the feedback, which makes valuable feedback harder to come by. This is why most beta readers are existing fans of the author's work. They want to read the author’s work. They want to be a part of the process. And yes, they want to read the books for free!
6. Consider Style
Since many beta readers are also fiction writers, it can be easy for us to start thinking about how we would write the book. But the fact is, it isn't our book. The style the author uses is his style. Which is why it's important to consider style while you're reading. Stylistic choices shouldn't be considered errors unless they are truly confusing or detrimental to the story.
Feel free to say that the author's style threw you off or kept you from becoming fully immersed in the story, if that's the case. But when you suggest changing stylistic choices, you could be unwittingly changing the author's voice to your own. This is a fine line to walk, but it usually only takes a chapter or two to get used to the author's style.
7. Mark Any Time You Were Pulled Out of the Story
The most helpful feedback you can give as a beta reader is telling the author where you were pulled out of the story. There can be a number of reasons for this. Some of the most common include:
- A character says or does something that doesn't make sense, given what you know about them.
- The prose is confusing, too flowery, or simply not engaging.
- You aren't aware of where the characters are in space. This is usually due to a lack of environmental description.
- You're suddenly lost in the plot and things don't become clear as you read on.
Whenever a reader is pulled out of the story, it's a sign that something is wrong. And when multiple beta readers say that they were pulled out at the same spot, the author has a good idea that the writing needs some work there.
8. Things to Consider While Beta Reading
To give helpful beta reader feedback, consider the following things as you read the unpublished manuscript:
- Character Development – Are the characters believable? Do they change as the story progresses? Do their decisions drive the story forward, or are they only reacting to things?
- Plot Development – Did you see any twists coming? Did the plot build on itself nicely, or is it just a collection of random happenings?
- Clear Action – Are the actions clear? Even a character walking is action. Is it over- or under-explained?
- Dialogue – Do the characters have distinct ways of speaking? Is the dialogue flowing and believable?
- Pacing – Does the story pull you along and keep you turning the pages? Does it ebb and flow, balancing between action and build-up nicely? Or is there too much of one or the other?
9. Finish On Time
For most authors, there's a finite amount of time to receive and implement beta reader feedback. If the author asks you to finish the book within a month, try to do so. If you can't, let the author know as soon as it's clear that you won't meet the deadline. Communication is key.
If the author is asking you to read the book too quickly, let them know or choose another author to beta read for. You shouldn't have to stress out and read the book super fast. The beta reading process should be a pleasant experience!
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How to Become a Beta Reader
Does beta reading sound like something you'd like to do? If so, there are plenty of ways to get your hands on those exciting, unpublished manuscripts.
Email or Message the Author
The best way to sign up as a beta reader is to contact the author you'd like to read for. Most indie authors have websites with contact forms, Facebook pages, or easily accessible email addresses. Just send a simple message letting them know that you'd like to be added to their list of potential beta readers!
Join a Writing Group
If you're an aspiring writer who also wants to beta read, join a writing group. There are plenty of virtual-only groups online, or you may find one locally. Each writers' group is different, but you should be able to find a critique partner easily. Then you and your fellow writer can beta read each other's books and give feedback. Just keep in mind that you'll usually want multiple readers for the best results possible.
Join a Beta Reading Service
There are a few beta reading service websites out there you can join. Most of them are free to join and hook you up with authors who are looking for beta readers. You'll also see beta readers offering services on platforms like Fiverr and Upwork for a nominal fee.
It's up to you if you'd like to make a few extra bucks by signing up on one of those websites. Most authors seek out beta readers from their existing fanbase, but you may get some takers on these gig websites.
Creative writing takes skill and creativity — and so does beta reading. Taking a manuscript and reading it with some specific questions in mind is a challenge. And putting your thoughts into words for the author can be even more of a challenge. If you're a writer, it's a chance to strengthen your own writing and critique skills. If you're a reader, it's a chance to read new books before anyone else sees them — and to help the author perfect their story!
Imagine if you had a chance to beta read Harry Potter before the first book took the world by storm! You'd have bragging rights for life. And you would always be a part of the book’s history, even if most people don’t know it!