Beta readers (also called critique partners) are, for most writers, an absolutely critical part of the writing process. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my beta readers that I don’t know what I would do without them, and I’m sure I’ll say it another gajillion times during my career. They are integral to me both on a craft level (they point out plot holes, false characterization, boring scenes, shoddy world-building, and all sorts of things that I never would have noticed myself) and also on a confidence level. Once my betas have looked at a book and pointed out its strengths and weaknesses, I am 1000 times more confident that I can send the book into the world and know that it’s not a complete and utter embarrassment.
What does a beta reader do?
Beta means second, so technically these are your second readers (the author being the first reader). Betas read through the manuscript with an unbiased eye—something that we, as the author, are incapable of. They point out places where the suspense fell flat, they tell you when your protagonist is being annoying, they pinpoint spots where it was difficult for them to suspend their disbelief, they ask for clarification on different plot twists or information reveals, etc. Some betas might focus on elements of craft (such as plot and character), some might focus on grammar and punctuation and really help you tighten up your language, and others only care about whether or not they’re entertained while reading your story. These can all be incredibly valuable elements for the author to get feedback on.
How many betas should you use?
I know authors who only use their agent or editor as their beta reader. Alternatively, I know authors who meet with a regular critique group of six or eight people. Like every stage of the writing process, it’s important to find what works best for you.
When I was revising Cinder, I had seven or eight beta readers, and while they all offered great feedback, it became obvious pretty quickly that this made for too many voices in my head. Plus, some of the feedback I was getting was contradictory, which made things confusing.
Now I work with three beta readers plus my editor, and they all tend to focus on different elements of the book, so I feel like I get a really well-rounded look at the story from them.
When is the book ready to be beta’d?
This also varies by author—some authors like to start receiving feedback during the first draft, whereas I fall on the opposite end of the spectrum. I like to get the book as “finished” as I can before I send it to anyone else, so that I know they won’t be pointing out flaws that I would have picked up on myself.
I find that with every book, I eventually reach a point where I’m just tweaking sentence structure and revising descriptions. This is when I know it’s ready to go to my betas. I don’t want to bother editing the book too much yet, because I’ll still be making big(ish) revisions once I hear my betas’ feedback.
Which means it’s time to let the book go for a while, and let someone else take a crack at it.
When you send your manuscript to your beta readers, it’s okay to ask about specific elements that you’re concerned about. I don’t do this for every book, but sometimes I might be concerned about, say, whether or not the protagonist is likeable. Feel free to let them know your major concerns upfront so they can tailor their response to your specific needs. That said, don’t overdo it! I try not to bog my betas down with tons of questions, as I don’t want to influence their reading. Step back and let them form their own opinions.
Taking Criticism with Grace
This is going to surprise approximately no one:
Taking criticism is hard.
It’s never going to be fun. You’re never going to like hearing that this manuscript you’ve been working on for months or years still isn’t there. You’re going to hope, every single time, that your betas (or agent or editor) will come back and say, This is perfect! Change nothing! And you’re going to be disappointed every time when that doesn’t happen.
It’s part of the process.
However, the great thing about beta readers (and agents and editors) is that you can get their feedback before it’s too late. There is still time to fix those flaws and make the book stronger, and wouldn’t you rather have this information now than see a comment on a GoodReads review and think, “GAH, why didn’t anyone tell me about this gaping plot hole before it was published?!”
Yes. Yes, you would.
So be gracious when you receive feedback. It takes practice, learning how to digest criticism without taking it personally and without feeling like a total failure, but this is a skill that can be learned over time. Be grateful that your beta reader put the time and effort into helping you and be mindful that everyone has the same end goal: to make this the best book possible.
When I receive my beta’s comments, I usually read through them, and then set them aside and let them mull around in my head for a while. I contemplate why something wasn’t working for my betas and start figuring out what will need to change to make it better.
A lot of my favorite scenes or elements of my books are things that I came up with to fix a problem that was first pointed out by my editor or beta readers. Hearing fresh opinions can open up your imagination to new ideas you never would have considered before. This can be a very magical part of the process.
To Change or Not to Change
I’d say that 95% of the time, I read my betas’ comments and think, instantly, YES—you are absolutely correct. I will fix this.
4% of the time I have an initial gut reaction—NO, you are wrong and you don’t get it and this is why! But then, after mulling it over, I’ll realize that they actually make an excellent point, and while I may decide not to take their specific suggestion, I can still adjust the story in a way that addresses their concerns.
Then there’s that 1% of the time when I disagree with my betas (and even my editor), and after careful consideration… I still disagree with them.
And that’s okay. In the end, it’s your book, and it’s important to stay true to ourselves as writers. Listen to your instincts and do what you feel is best for the story as a whole.
Just make sure you’re making decisions based on what you honestly believe is best for the book, not because you’re sick and tired of revising this blasted manuscript. If you know, in your gut, that the book will be improved by making a change—make the change. No matter how much extra time and work it costs you, make the change.
Trust me. You’ll be glad you did.
So… where do you find a beta reader?
I found all three of my betas through the fabulous world of Sailor Moon fanfiction. They’ve been with me for a long, long time.
But if you don’t have a writing-based community to share your work with, try joining a society of authors that write in your genre (such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, the Romance Writers of America, or the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America). Join your local chapter, attend the conferences… network! Find like-minded writers and ask if they would be willing to swap critiques with you.
(An important word there: swap. If you’re asking someone to take time to critique your work, be willing to give their work the same amount of devotion.)
You can also try the forums on different writing web sites, such as fictionpress.com or figment.com (which is specifically geared toward young writers).
If you have other suggestions—please list them in the comments!
You might find that you have to work with a handful of different betas before finding one that you really click with. Some betas may not be familiar with your genre, or won’t give feedback that you find helpful, or will have a way of delivering their criticism that puts you on the defensive rather than opening up your mind to the possibilities. If a beta relationship isn’t working for you, keep looking. Your perfect beta reader is out there, and when you find them, you will cherish them like the crown jewels.
Once I have notes back from all three of my betas (and my editor, if I sent it to her at the same time), I roll up my sleeves for what will probably be my last round of major revisions.
I generally start by going through the manuscript and making any small, easy changes first, just to clear them out of the way—things like spelling errors and easy clarifications.
Then, just like with my earlier drafts, I make a list of more major issues that need to be fixed or adjusted. I brainstorm ways to fix them. At this point, I might run some ideas past my betas (i.e., “You said you were confused about the big reveal in chapter 28… what if I did this instead? Would that fix it for you?”) and listen to what they have to say. Sometimes it can be really helpful to bounce ideas off of them.
Then, just like with previous drafts, I dive back into the manuscript and get to work.
If you would like to tell my beta readers that they are awesome (because they are), or just follow them because sometimes they post non-spoilery reactions when they’re reading my manuscripts, they can be found on Twitter: @jojodacrow, @MegTao, @TamaraFelsinger.