Beta Reading Guide: How to Get the Most from Beta Readers

Why is feedback so important?

This question could be its own blog post… but receiving feedback is one of the best ways for writers to grow their writing prowess, improve their craft, and polish their stories.

Sharing your work can be nerve wracking and may leave you feeling vulnerable, but like many things that seem scary, you will come out stronger on the other side. I have yet to hear of an instance of someone actually dying from beta reading.

So if you’re still reading this, I imagine you are here because you are ready to strike out and send that work-in-progress into the world. Congratulations, taking this step is one of the hardest parts. You have already put the work into writing a book, now you get to sit back, attempt to relax, and let beta readers have at it.

This guide covers the following:
  • Getting started
  • What a beta reader is
  • Benefits of having beta readers
  • How to find beta readers
  • Ways to send your manuscript to beta readers
  • How to establish expectations for your beta readers
  • What feedback to seek and what to include in a questionnaire
  • What to do while waiting for responses
  • Tips on receiving feedback
  • Common mistakes made by writers
  • Other considerations

Getting started

You’ve just poured a ton of your time, energy, and soul into your manuscript. Letting someone else read it can be very humbling, and listening to their thoughts on it can be flat out terrifying.  

Before you talk yourself out of taking this step, ask yourself why wouldn’t you be eager to improve your craft?  Receiving feedback does eventually get easier and it will continuously help you improve. Open yourself up to feedback, it will only make you and your writing stronger.  

Do you have a completed book? If yes, you are ready to get started! For a writer seeking out beta readers for the first time, it can feel a little overwhelming. Remember that this process isn’t just invaluable, I would flat out call it essential. At the end of the day, remember that your beta readers are people too, people that are signing on to help you.

What a beta reader is

  • A beta reader is part of a writer’s test audience.
  • They provide open and honest feedback.
  • They commit to reading a story within a designated timeline.
  • They communicate their thoughts and send feedback to the writer.

What are beta readers expecting?

They are expecting to read a completed/polished manuscript. Keep in mind, this does not need to be a flawless manuscript. Beta readers understand that this is still a work-in-progress and often they are reading it before professional edits.  

What is the difference between a beta reader, an alpha reader, and a critique partner?

  • Alpha readers aren’t as common. A writer might enlist the help of an alpha reader to read sections before the book is completed in order to help the writer establish a clear direction for the story. Or alpha readers might receive sections of the manuscript in its non-edited state.
  • Critique partners will always be fellow writers, and often in the same genre. CPs exchange stories, chapters, or sections anywhere in the writing process. They can also be used as thought partners, editors, and will take a deeper dive in their criticism. CPS are the symbiotic relationships in the writing world.
  • *Writers might have a differing definitions regarding these roles, confirm with the individual what they are looking for and determine specific expectations. 

Benefits of having beta readers

By enlisting the help of beta readers, you will…

  • Receive fresh eyes that offer new perspectives on your story.
  • Have areas of confusion, plot-holes, and inconsistencies pointed out.
  • Understand which reveals came as a surprise and which were predictable.
  • Learn where development is needed or what can be eliminated.
  • Improve your writing craft. Beta readers will often point out things you do well in addition to things that need work. You can then target your focus on what specifically needs improvement. And sometimes you might not know your strengths as a writer until someone else points them out.

How to find beta readers

Where to find beta readers:

  • Social media is your best friend. Look to Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. There are full groups dedicated to finding beta readers.
    • I have had great success of Instagram. I highly recommend falling into a writing community. For me, I met a lot of readers/writers through:
      • #findmywritingcommunity
      • #thewritercommunity
  • Local writing groups. This isn’t quite as easy to track down during a global pandemic, but local readers that you can see face to face are super helpful, especially when it comes to opening their feedback into a discussion.
  • Critique websites. Three that I recommend are: Critique Circle, Critters Workshop, and Internet Writing Workshop. Keep in mind, internet-based platforms usually only accept a chapter at a time and you have limited control over who reads your work. Often, you are required to critique other people’s work (which can be helpful) in order to have your writing critiqued.
  • Family and Friends can be the easiest audience to find, but also the hardest to send to. It takes a little more grit to let someone you see every day to read your soul written on a piece of paper. Also, the people who know you will be biased and might not give you as accurate feedback as possible.  

Okay, but how do I find good beta readers?

When setting out on this process, you are essentially trusting a stranger with your hard work. It’s natural to assume that people will flake off or won’t offer what you hoped. Think of it like dating. You might have to have a few duds before figuring out what works.

Get to know someone a little before you ask them to read for you. Establishing a relationship with your beta reader will most likely make them more open and responsive.

  • What to look for: seek out someone that has…
    • A familiarity with your genre
    • The ability to provide honest feedback
    • Availability to commit to your timeline.

Should my beta readers be writers?

Fellow writers are very useful beta readers. They are familiar with the “rules” of writing craft and often construct more specific feedback. Non-writers can be just as useful. It is most important to cultivate beta readers that fall under your target audience.

How many beta readers should I have?

  • There is a balance: too much feedback can overload you, while too little feedback can leave you with holes.
  • Just like it takes at least two to tango, it takes at least two to beta read a novel, and a minimum of 5 beta readers is recommended.
  • As a writer, account for beta readers to drop off. It is human nature to sign on to things with the best intentions and not to finish them.
  • Estimate the possibility of at least half tapering off, pick the number of responses you want and then double it. Meaning, if you want 5 responses, send your manuscript to 10 beta readers.
  • One exception is if you are writing books in a series. Increase the size of your reading pool by having a couple more readers than you’d think to read the first book. When writing anything after book 1, you will want your beta readers to have read the previous book(s).

Ways to send your manuscript to beta readers

Selecting your preferred format:

Since we live in a digital world, most beta readers expect you to send your manuscript in a digital format. But the format can still vary. Here are a few to consider:

  • Word doc/Google docs give it to the beta reader straight. There is little in the way of formatting frills, but the largest benefit is that it allows for comments. Google docs provides live tracking and will automatically save your reader’s progress.
  • PDFs compile the manuscript into a clean and pretty package. A PDF is less interactive, which means the beta reader has less ability to alter the manuscript and it is more limited when tracking/making comments.
  • E-Reader. These are files in formats such as .EPUB/.MOBI. They are used when publishing e-books. This is a less common platform to send to beta readers, but it allows the manuscript to be read like a standard e-book.
  • Beta Books is a third-party site dedicated to beta reading. There is a free, standard, and pro version available. All include plenty of bells and whistles. It provides a secure platform to share your manuscript, track your beta reader’s progress, and receive feedback through an organized structure.

Should I send it altogether or in sections?

  • Traditionally, beta readers receive the entire book in one document, but that doesn’t mean it is a hard and fast rule. This method allows your beta readers to pace their reading as a true reader would. They can then provide feedback after having read and digested the full story.
  • Alternatively, you can decide to break it into parts––a few chapters at a time, based upon acts, or however your book might naturally break up into installments. By using this method, you can more easily track the progress of your readers and target feedback to specific sections.
    • This method also opens opportunities for more dialogue between the writer and the reader and the feedback tends to go a little more in depth.
    • However, this method tends to lengthen the timeline and can halt your readers if they don’t yet have the next section.

How to establish expectations for your beta readers

Introduce yourself and your story:

  • This doesn’t have to be long winded. Proving context about the genre and general plot of the book helps to inform the beta readers of just what kind of story they signed up to read.

Clearly explain what you are looking for

  • Identify the type of feedback you are seeking.
  • Share how they should go about providing said feedback.
  • Establish guidelines for the manuscript including sharing, saving, printing, etc. Ensure that your book baby is protected.

Provide all necessary materials

  • They should have the manuscript, an instructional message, a method for providing feedback (questionnaire/survey/etc.), and any other miscellaneous items.
  • Don’t forget to provide the best method to get in touch with you.

Set a timeline

  • 4-6 weeks is generally recommended for standard length manuscripts.
  • Let them know whether it is a hard or soft deadline. Do try and be flexible with your timeline, your beta readers are doing you a favor.
  • DO send an occasional check in email/deadline reminder. DON’T overwhelm the readers with too much communication.

If you want a closer view of the beta reader’s perspective, check out my guide on how to be an amazing beta reader!

What feedback to seek and what to include in a questionnaire

Beta readers are usually there to help identify big picture items.

Requesting too specific of feedback can overwhelm the reader and cause them to lose their attention, while requesting too general of feedback can leave you with very little to work with.

Have your beta readers consider the following:

  • Character arcs and whether or not they work.
  • Unnecessary details that can be eliminated.
  • Authenticity of the world in which the story is set. This can also include authenticity of dialogue.
  • Pacing: Does the plot progress too slow or too fast at any particular moment?
  • Plot holes, inconsistencies, and whether or not established plot reveals pay off.

Questionnaires are super valuable because they provide a method for beta readers to leave their thoughts. They also allow you ask targeted questions in order to gain specific feedback.

  • When creating a questionnaire, try to cultivate open ended questions that will require the beta reader to answer with more than just yes/no.
  • Want someone to create those thought-provoking questions for you? Click below:

What to do while waiting for responses

  • Congratulate yourself for getting to this step
  • Take a breath and much needed break
  • Start working on your next project or write a few short stories.
  • Research editors, avenues for publication, book marketing, etc.
  • DO NOT consume yourself with the manuscript while it is in beta readers’ hands. If you change significant pieces of the story, what they are reading becomes irrelevant.

Tips on receiving feedback

Wait to read feedback until after your scheduled deadline

  • This will ensure that all the responses you expected to receive will have been collected.
  • You can then compile all of the feedback and sort through it without getting stuck on a single reader’s opinion.

Know when to take suggestions and when to leave them

  • Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not all opinions will be right for your story.
  • If several people point out something, it is worth looking into. This is why having multiple beta readers is so important.
  • Don’t feel like you have to make every single change, in fact you shouldn’t. You are the owner of the story and will ultimately make the best decisions for it.

Separating personal bias from feedback

  • Developing a thick skin is invaluable. It is extremely easy to take your beta reader’s feedback personally, but try your hardest not to.
  • Keep in mind that the reader has signed on to help you in this process, not to tear you down.
  • Don’t look at negative comments as an attack. Look at them as suggestions on how to grow.

Common mistakes made by writers

  • Not reading feedback. Don’t waste people’s time by requesting feedback and then do nothing with it.
  • Consistently bugging your beta readers. An occasional reminder is fine, but let them be free to read and respond at their leisure.  Conversely, not sending beta readers any reminders might lead them to forget that approaching deadline.
  • Overwhelming your beta readers. A forty-page questionnaire might be overkill. If you have a 100k+ word manuscript, understand that it will take more time for readers to get through it. Because beta reading requires a bit of close reading, it takes longer to beta-read than it does to read for leisure.

Other considerations

  • Remember to thank and show your beta readers appreciation.
    • Beta readers are volunteers and do not expect to be paid. However, you should show them your appreciation in other ways.
    • Always express your gratitude with thanks, they are doing you a favor after all.
    • Consider sending them copies of the finished book, either physical or digital.
    • If a beta reader was particularly impactful, consider giving them a shout out in in your acknowledgements.
  • Schedule follow up chats. Just because they finished the book doesn’t mean that this is the end. If you have questions regarding their feedback, reach out to the beta reader. Establishing further dialogue can help drum up additional story development.
  • Beta readers do not replace professional editors. After you consolidate and implement the feedback, then you will still want a professional editor to take a stab at it.

Congratulations on reaching the end of this rather thorough guide! As mentioned, writers are weird and things will vary based upon the individual. Please consider all of the following as guiding principles, NOT hard and fast rules.

With any hope, something in this guide will prove useful to you as you engage with your beta readers. It is a big deal to take this step, and I am cheering you on!

Let me know your thoughts on this guide in the comments below. Message me with any content you would like to see in the future!

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