What is a Beta Reader? Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Getting and Giving Feedback on your WIP

This week we're proud to host author and editor Jami Gold, fresh from her role as a presenter at the RWA conference in San Antonio.

If you missed the conference, Jami's posts on the highlights of the annual Romance Writers Association event are fascinating. You'll find them on her blog at JamiGold, Paranormal Author.

Jami's blog is a must-read for new authors. She's formed a great community there. Comments are long and informative. Not only does she know more tech than my poor aging brain will ever comprehend, but her "beat sheets" for outlining and structuring your fiction are a fantastic resource.

Check out her Writing Resources page. It's a goldmine.

I discovered her blog a couple of years ago when I was looking for information on how to find beta readers, so when readers asked me for a post on the subject, Jami was my go-to expert. 

So What are "Beta Readers"?

...and how do they differ from editors or critique groups?

The term first came from fan fiction, and it means a person who reads your work-in-progress (or "WIP") when you, the writer or "alpha," are ready for feedbackbefore it goes into final draft to be sent to your fanfic page, editor, or agent. 

Lots of writers may have betas without knowing the term. Betas don't need professional-level editing skills and don't have to be members of a group. They only need to be willing to read your manuscript and give helpful feedback about what works and what doesn't.

They differ from editors since they usually comment as readers, not industry professionals. It's not necessary they have perfect grammar skills or knowledge of the genre (although they need to be aware of the conventions, so they don't try to turn your sweet romance into a gritty thriller, or vice versa.)

They differ from a critique group because they usually read a whole manuscript in a few sittings rather than hearing it over a period of months or years. This means a beta can offer better feedback on big-picture aspects: story arc, character development, pacing, etc.

Beta readers can be fellow writers who will exchange reads, or they can be friends or family who can read with a critical eye. They may become your moral support system and cheerleaders as well.

Like critiquers and editors, beta readers have to be able to leave their own egos out of their feedback and not try to change your story into their own.

When you've found someone who can do that, and still give honest, constructive, useful advice, you've struck gold...Anne

This is #3 in a series on GETTING FEEDBACK 

#1 Ruth Harris on EDITING 
#2 Anne R. Allen on  CRITIQUE GROUPS

UPDATE: I have just heard that some vicious bullies are posing as beta readers so they can play sadistic tricks on fledgling authors, putting the unpublished books on Goodreads so they can say cruel things about them. It sounds like the old Goodreads bullies gang or their meaner-girl little sisters. So be very, very careful about who you ask to beta-read. I suggest you always exchange a few chapters first, and only give the full manuscript to people you have carefully vetted. Jordan McCollum has a must-read post on her blog on The Ethics of Beta Reading.

And Jami is following up with some worksheets for beta readers you can offer your prospective betas.

Beta Reading: How to Find Readers and Become a Better Reader for Others

by Jami Gold

Ever struggle to make readers’ interpretations of your writing match your intentions? We probably all have.

Maybe readers come away with the wrong impression of a character. Maybe a plot twist is too obvious or from too far out of left field. Or maybe our subtext is too subtle or too “on the nose.”

As writers, we’re so close to our stories it’s impossible for us to know how readers will interpret our words. A good beta reader will go through our “the best we can make it by ourselves” draft and give feedback about what we can’t see. And that’s just one reason why we all need beta readers.
Sounds Great!

How Do We Get Beta Readers?

Once we have fans and readers of our published work, we might be able to find volunteers who would love a sneak peek at our stories in exchange for feedback of issues they discover. Until we reach that point, however, volunteers might not be as abundant.

Most writers in that position exchange work with other authors in an “I’ll give you feedback if you give me feedback” beta-reading arrangement. I wrote a blog post earlier this year with a massive list of ideas for where and how to find beta readers.

Here are some samples:

  • Post a request for beta readers on Twitter, Facebook, WANATribe, your blog, etc.
  • Offer to beta read for someone else.
  • Post a request in writer groups on Google+, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Facebook, NaNoWriMo, etc.
  • Ask around in local writing organizations.
  • Ask at book clubs interested in your genre.
  • Ask at the library if they know of any local resources or clubs.
  • For younger readers, ask teachers, friends’ kids, or at school libraries.
  • Join critique-oriented writing organizations like Critique Circle, FictionPress, Scribophile, YouWriteOn, Authonomy, Ladies Who Critique CPseek, and Critters.org

Do Beta Readers Need to Be Familiar with Our Genre?

We probably want most of our beta readers to be familiar with our genre, but it’s possible for beta readers outside our genre to be valuable too. No matter what genre they read, good beta readers can provide valuable feedback like:

  • identifying confusing sections
  • evaluating the pacing from a big picture perspective
  • looking for too much telling versus showing
  • finding weak/missing character motivations, etc.

More importantly, beta readers who don’t love our genre can tell us what we don’t need to worry about:

  • Did they hate the main character, but love the voice? 
  • Did the pacing and story keep them reading despite their “meh” feeling toward the genre?
  • Did they connect to the main character so much they plowed through a plot they didn’t like?

Sometimes our harshest (i.e., best) critics are those who aren’t predisposed to love our story. They won’t gloss over issues just because “that’s how it’s always done.” We’re always trying to get distance from our work for editing purposes. What better way to gain that distance than by finding a reader who won’t have any predisposition to like what we write? 

How to Establish a Beta Reading Exchange

Step 1: Offer to Beta Read for Someone Else

Almost anyone can be a beta reader. The most important qualification is having a critical-enough eye to point out issues like:

  • confusing sentences or plot events,
  • where their attention wavers, and
  • whether they find our characters likable or sympathetic, etc. (Or if the characters are compelling. A character can be pleasant and sympathetic, but not interesting enough to the reader, I'll be talking about this subject next week...Anne)

For example, when I send out a manuscript for beta reading, I ask people to mark:

  • Anything that takes them out of the story (confusing wording, voice/characterization seems off, too repetitive, no conflict/tension, etc.)
  • Pacing issues (too slow, feels too “one note,” not enough of an arc, scene goes on too long, etc.)
  • Emotional feedback (stream-of-consciousness emotional reactions)

That’s it. Beta reading isn’t about the reader’s knowledge of the craft of writing, but about what works and doesn’t work for them as a reader.

Step 2: Provide Good Feedback

Not all feedback is created equal, and we know we’re not likely to reuse a beta reader whose suggestions are 90% useless for our goals. The same applies in the opposite direction. For great beta reading relationships, we have to find a good match and we have to be the best beta reader we can be.

Here are three tips for how to increase the helpfulness of our feedback and become a better beta reader:

Tip #1: Focus on Making Their Story Better

We must work toward making their story better. We shouldn’t focus our comments on how we’d do it.

How we’d do it is irrelevant. Our voice is not their voice, our goals are not their goals, our themes and worldviews are not their themes and worldviews.

The only exception to this rule is when something about their writing doesn’t work for us. Maybe the writing is passive or the characters lack motivations, etc. Then—and only then—can we provide an example and say, “This doesn’t work for me because of xyz. Maybe something like abc would be stronger.”

Tip #2: Suggest Changes Only When the Writing Doesn’t “Work” in Some Way

Just because the writing is different from how we’d do it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. For all we know, the impression we’re left with is the impression they wanted.

If the writing works, suggested changes like word choice or sentence structure aren’t helpful. At most, we should share one comment along the lines of, “Words like a, b, and c create an impression of z, and I’m not sure that’s what you want.” Unless the writer asked us for line-by-line, copy-editing-level feedback, nitpicky suggestions are more likely to mess with their voice than provide useful information.

If the writing doesn’t work, we should focus on why it doesn’t work for us. Separating our thoughts on whether a section doesn’t work or if it’s just not how we’d word it can be tricky sometimes. So we should ask ourselves why we want to change the writing:

  • Does the current wording take us out of the story (confusing wording, voice/characterization seems off, etc.)?
  • Are the stakes, goals, motivations, etc. unclear or weak?
  • Do we not like or care about the characters?

If we can’t come up with a reason, we should leave it alone.

Tip #3: Always Give a Reason for Suggested Changes

The only time I make a change and don’t give a reason is when I find a missing word. Those are fairly self-explanatory. *smile*

Every other suggested change has my explanation of why. With that reason, the author can judge whether my suggestion comes from me not getting their voice, misinterpreting something, being confused, etc.

If we don’t give a reason, crossing out their writing and replacing it with our own is disrespectful. On the other hand, if we have a real reason, even nitpicky things like suggestions about word choices and sentence structures are helpful.

Leaving a comment like “I’d use x word instead of y word” isn’t a reason because it doesn’t respect their voice. In contrast, “I don’t think the character would use x word (would they even know that word?). Y seems more like their voice” is a real reason. The author now has enough information to decide whether or not to make the change.

Step 3: Be Gracious with the Feedback We Receive

First, no matter how much we disagree with (or are hurt by) the feedback from a beta reader, we should say thank you. They did spend time on our work, and for that, they deserve our thanks. If their feedback doesn’t work for us, consider it a lesson learned to not exchange work with them again.

Second, we need to evaluate our writing based on that feedback. Maybe we’ll slap our forehead and say “duh” to their comments. Maybe we’ll ignore their suggestion and instead just tweak our writing to fix a confusing plot point or character motivation. Maybe we’ll decide their misunderstanding is exactly what we wanted and not change a thing.

We don’t want to blindly implement changes until we decide what kind of story we want to tell. If a suggestion will help us tell that story better, we should make the change. If a suggestion would take us further from that story, we shouldn’t implement it.

Regardless, feedback is almost always a pointer that something is less than ideal for that reader. 99% of the time there’s a kernel of truth in a beta reader’s criticism, so our default should be to try to discover that truth and make the feedback work for us.

If we’re willing to provide good-quality feedback for others, we’ll usually be able to find other writers with whom we can exchange work. There are thousands of writers in the world, and we need to find just a handful to be beta buddies. Hopefully this post gives you some ideas on how to make that happen. *smile*

NOTE: Next Tuesday, August 12th, Jami will have some more info on beta readers on her blog. She's going to provide a worksheet with sample questions for beta readers.

What about you, scriveners? Do you use beta readers? Do you beta read for anybody else? Or do you prefer to send your stuff directly to professional editors? What advice would you give to authors looking for/working with betas? 


After genetically modifying sharks with lasers—er, after a decade of writing boring technical manuals and project plans—Jami Gold moved to Arizona and decided to become a writer, so she could put her talent for making stuff up to good use. Fortunately, her muse, an arrogant male who delights in causing her to sound as insane as possible, rewards her with unique and rich story ideas.

Fueled by chocolate, she writes paranormal romance and urban fantasy tales that range from dark to humorous, but one thing remains the same: Normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.

Find Jami at her blog, Twitter, Google+, Facebook, Pinterest, and Goodreads.


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