Every time I post about beta readers and how wonderful and essential they are, I get more requests for information on how to find some. Those nonprofessionals who read written work (generally fiction and generally prepublication) and suggest ways to improve it are clearly in demand, but the best betas can be hard to identify. Some sites attempt to connect you with them. And I looked into setting up a beta reader exchange myself, but I couldn’t find effective ways for it to tell people the kinds of things I want to know before I entrust my writing to a beta reader, or to be sure I’m protecting users against nutbags and manuscript stealers. Some sites attempt to connect you with them. And I looked into setting up a beta reader exchange myself, but I couldn’t find effective ways for it to tell people the kinds of things I want to know before I entrust my writing to a beta reader, or to be sure I’m protecting users against nutbags and manuscript stealers. Some sites attempt to connect you with them. And I looked into setting up a beta reader exchange myself, but I couldn’t find effective ways for it to tell people the kinds of things I want to know before I entrust my writing to a beta reader, or to be sure I’m protecting users against nutbags and manuscript stealers. Like everything else in this writing and publishing biz, finding good beta readers and creating effective and enduring relationships with them takes hard work. But it’s work worth doing. I personally use beta readers to help whip my writing into shape in specific and powerful ways. I don’t just get the “I loved it/I hated it” type of comment. My betas roll up their virtual sleeves and wade into my verbal jungle with machetes, tweezers, and sometimes even bulldozers. Each of them brings some unique characteristic to the mix, and I’ve chosen them specifically with those characteristics in mind. They show me things I couldn’t see myself, and trigger thoughts that lead to solutions. I adore them. Please note: I am not saying that sites that connect you with beta readers are no good. Some people have been pleased with results via such sites and have gone on to form strong mutual beta-reading relationships. I’m saying these sites are not on the route I have chosen myself. So what do I do?
We’re all different. Our manuscripts are different. We’re all at different stages in our careers. And, bearing in mind that beta reading is usually a two-way street, we all have different things to offer beta readers. For example, I tend to waffle and go over my word count, and my characters turn into Chatty Cathys. I have two beta readers who can zero in on phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and sometimes even whole scenes that simply do not need to be there. I value the way they complement my weakness in that area. What follows tells how I’ve come by my beta team. I hope my experiences will trigger ideas for you.
I met my very first beta reader for my novel when I entered a contest and won a prize that included several meetings with a manuscript consultant. A professional editor, she read my work at different stages. Many, although not all, writing competitions offer critiques or feedback, and some offer more substantial development. Try searching “manuscript development feedback critique competition contest” and see what comes up. Also, note that many writers associations regularly alert their members to upcoming contests. Maybe you think you can’t win, but somebody has to. I tried and failed several times before I won, and I did a lot of work on my manuscript between attempts. The feedback the specialist gave me was amazing—not just corrections but suggestions about how to get around plot problems.
My second beta reader approached me. We both worked in the publishing industry and had met on Twitter. We visited each other’s blogs for many months, left comments, and each became aware of the other’s skill set and personality. We could tell that we had some similar views about where publishing was heading and what we wanted to do about it, but I was too shy to ask her about being a beta reader. Then she sent me an e-mail suggesting an exchange: “I’d be happy to beta for you if you’ll do it for me.” Using social media, you can get to know some writers well enough to sense which ones have publishing interests compatible with yours. Then if they offer to beta for you, you’ll already have a good feel for whether it might work, and whether they’re people whose manuscripts you want to critique.
I had been chatting via e-mail with a longtime friend who was curious about my novel. I thought: What the heck … Why not ask her for a critique? She does copywriting for a living, and is a thoughtful and wise person, so I knew her insights would be valuable. She was excited to do a beta read—and did a great job too. Some people in your social circle who are not writing books may show genuine interest in your manuscript and ask detailed questions. They’re often the people who will be savvy enough to give good feedback, and who are likely to enjoy the process.
Offers of Help
When I tweeted about a manuscript deadline, I got a “How can I help?” tweet from someone I’d met on Twitter, whose blog I’d been following. (Are you seeing a pattern here with the social media and blogging?) We were writing in similar genres and understood each other’s sense of humor. I asked for her e-mail address, which she sent me in a private message. And then we began an e-mail conversation. I was nervous to ask her for a beta read, because I know it is a big ask. But I decided to plunge in. She’s been one of my star betas (and a friend) for a couple of years now, and I enjoy critiquing her manuscripts too. If someone offers to help you, you might be nervous about asking for a beta read. Most of us are. Be brave. And be careful to ask in such a way that they feel comfortable saying no.
Clients and Customers
When I told an editing client that I’d been wrestling with my novel’s opening chapters, she offered to read my first 20 pages and give honest feedback. This was risky for me. However, she said upfront, “It won’t affect my opinion of you as an editor.” (Yes, they are quite different skills.) I knew she was a thoughtful and intelligent writer. So I went for it. And I wasn’t sorry—her feedback broke a deadlock I’d been stuck in.
One of my novel’s characters has Type 1 diabetes and gets lost in the wilderness—not a good combo. I had done research to find out how her diabetes would affect her in the wild, but books on diabetes and outdoor activities don’t tend to cover extended survival situations. Luckily, I had encountered a journalist and author whose writing I Ioved and who was a passionate advocate for Type 1 diabetes research. (And yes, I found her blog via someone I met on Twitter.) I decided to be bold and contact her via her website to ask if she would consider checking just the diabetes elements of my book’s plot. I knew even that was a big ask, but I hoped it might be worth it to her to see one fewer book containing nonsense about diabetes. Although I tried to make it as easy as possible for her to say no, she said yes. And oh my, did I need that checking. The diabetes storyline is now dramatically different as a result of her detailed feedback. I needed another specialist too, because my novel involves people becoming lost in the New Zealand wilderness. During an early research expedition, I did interviews with police and search-and-rescue coordinators there. However, when the plot changed later on, I had a whole bunch of new questions I wanted to ask. Simple things like, Do you use a twoway radio or mobile phones when communicating with each other in town? I tried a number of avenues to get this information, and nothing worked, so I decided to see if I could find a police manuscript consultant in New Zealand. (You never know.) I didn’t find a consultant, but I did find a retired police inspector who had written a book about the history of gunboats in NZ. I tracked him down via the website for his book. And he agreed to read the sections of my manuscript that related to police procedures. The feedback he gave me was amazing—not just corrections but suggestions about how to get around plot problems related to procedure, and even suggestions about improving the characterization of my police officer.
Colleagues for the Future
When one of my favorite bloggers (yes, met her on Twitter—but you guessed that already) was getting to a crucial point her memoir, I offered to do a beta read for her because I love the way she writes. I’ve done a fair bit of editing in the memoir genre, and I enjoy it. She was happy to receive a beta read and offered to return the favor if my novel still needed feedback. It didn’t by then, but I told her I had a humorous dog memoir in the works and would love her to beta on that manuscript in due course (I know she’s a dog lover). She said she’d love to do it. Another of my favorite blogging authors was nearly finished the first draft of her new mystery novel. I love mysteries, and hers are delightfully quirky. So I got in touch and asked if she’d like another beta reader. She said yes, and offered to beta for me on my novel. I was too close to my publication deadline by then to be able to process another beta report, but I said I’d love her to beta the sequel. Pay it forward—offer to help others, and think ahead. Beta reading that you do will be more fun if you choose people whose writing or personality you already know you love. And there’s also a better chance of a good result when they beta for you.
Yes, I know. Think twice before asking your relatives. But my mother is exactly the right person. One thing my mother is great at is keeping it short, and my manuscript was way too long. So I asked her to go through a printout and put a red line through anything that didn’t need to be there. She was hesitant to hurt my feelings at first, but I said I’d rather hear it from her now than from bad reviews later. So she got into it. And she was brilliant. That’s what can happen when you let people play to their strengths. Because beta reading is a team sport, you need to know what part of the process each person can help you with.
Guidelines in Brief
My experiences finding and working with beta readers can probably be condensed to:
- Think ahead. It takes time to get to know and trust people who may be your best beta readers.
- Get to know and like people on social media platforms and blogs. (Writers groups can be another avenue, although it’s not one I’ve used.)
- Look for people who are strong in areas you’re not.
- Consider people who have expressed interest in your book.
- Establish genuine two-way connections before you ask for a favor. Don’t just approach people out of the blue.
- If you do want to ask a favor from someone you don’t know well because of their specific expertise, try to make it as easy as possible for them to give you the feedback, and also make it easy for them to say no.
- Pay it forward. Offer to beta read for others, whether or not they will ever return the favor.