What Are Beta Readers, and Why Do Authors Need Them?
Every author needs beta readers, yourself included. Even the world’s top writers use beta readers to modify and refine their masterpieces. Beta readers, the first people to read an unpublished manuscript, are crucial to the writing process. They’re the ones who give authors unbiased feedback on their drafts, offering a glimpse into how the general audience will react to a book.
Unlike editors, agents, and publishers, beta readers go through a manuscript from the perspective of a reader looking for a good book, and they offer valuable insight to help you attract and retain your audience. Without beta readers, authors would have a tough time improving their writing and bringing their book to perfection, even if only for the mental fatigue that comes from reading your sentences over and over. Besides, you’re the single least objective person when it comes to your manuscript.
If you’re looking for a professional editor, check out our big-picture editing services for authors. Still in need of beta readers? Keep going to learn more about what exactly they do.
What do beta readers do?
A good beta reader will offer notes and critique your manuscript, all in the spirit of improving it. It’s not always easy to swallow criticism, especially after you’ve spent so much time writing, editing, proofreading, and rewriting. You were supposed to be done with your manuscript, and now you’ve got this person telling you to fix and change and get rid of all the details you believe make your story unique?
Well, that is the job description. All authors will agree that once their bruised egos have had time to recover, these notes do tend to make their stories demonstrably better. Don’t expect a beta reader’s feedback to be fun to go through. It’ll be painful. Just work on keeping your emotions at bay and doing what’s best for your story.
A beta reader will offer a new perspective on your story and help you fix the parts that might work perfectly in your head but maybe don’t translate as well on the page when someone who doesn’t intimately know the background of every character and line of dialogue is reading them. Beta readers have emotional distance and a fresh pair of eyes, which, as a writer, you know you no longer have after writing countless drafts and versions of the same story.
So, basically, beta readers help writers get out of their heads and out of their own way. Sometimes, you have to cut or dramatically modify scenes you really loved. If most of your beta readers are saying similar things, you know changing certain parts is best for your book, even if it’s something you would never have done on your own.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to implement all the advice from your beta readers. Even if most of them are offering the same suggestion, it may not work for your story. However, now you know that, for example, that particular scene is confusing, and you can rework it to convey your intentions more clearly.
Should you get more than one beta reader?
Yes, you should definitely get multiple beta readers to read your manuscript at the same time. After all, any individual beta reader will have their personal tastes and biases, and other readers may not agree with all of their opinions. Don’t go too crazy—20 readers might be overkill, but three probably won’t be enough. Usually, the sweet spot for emerging writers is somewhere between five and 11 readers (odd numbers are best so as to avoid ties).
You want readers with a range of perspectives and life experiences as these will affect the way someone interprets your book. Be wise in your selection, though—you want beta readers who actually enjoy your genre and represent some segment of your actual target audience. Also, you want to cover your bases in case some of your readers don’t complete the assignment or take too long with it. Although you want to give your readers enough time to finish your book, you can’t wait indefinitely for their feedback, right? You have to go back to writing!
In addition, if you get the same note from multiple people, you’ll know with certainty that it’s not a personal bias but a consensus, which means you have some serious editing to do. A criticism from a single beta reader can be chalked up to personal taste easily enough, but if the majority are saying it, not acting on their advice is doing yourself a disservice.
Should you still hire a professional editor if you’re working with beta readers?
This is another big fat YES. Although essential, a beta reader cannot replace a professional editor. For one thing, they simply don’t have the qualifications—a beta reader is just a regular person reading your book and offering feedback from a reader’s perspective, whereas an editor possesses specific, high-level linguistic and publishing knowledge.
Some writers prefer to send out their manuscript after working with a professional developmental editor to get notes on their finished draft. Others choose to do it multiple times throughout the writing process, including before they hire an editor, to ensure they’re sending the editor the best draft of their manuscript. Do whatever works for you and seek out beta readers whenever you feel ready to receive feedback on your manuscript, but keep in mind you should get a new crop of beta readers each time.
Of course, you don’t have to incorporate every single note or piece of advice you get from your beta readers—you have to be discerning and objective enough to know what works and what doesn’t for your story. Still, do take their input seriously since they’re effectively a focus group showing you what readers may and may not like about your book.
An editor, on the other hand, is a professional who will bring your manuscript up to industry standards and help you craft your story so that it sells. They will focus on things like themes, plot holes, character development, story arc, and structural issues. So, if you’re ready to have an expert carefully comb through your manuscript, start working with a developmental editor today.