What A Beta Reader Is and Is Not
Updated: Jun 7, 2020
Beta readers are a requirement for any author. There are entire groups dedicated to helping authors find betas for their WIPs. No one can argue how valuable a good beta is to the quality of your books. But you need to be careful not to abuse the generosity of their time by placing unreasonable demands on their efforts. It’s important to know what exactly you will get out of the experience, and what you can expect from your volunteers, as well as what you expect of them. Here is a brief rundown of how beta readers can help you, and where they cannot.
Beta readers are your test target audience -
They are your guinea pigs to ensure your novel is entertaining, has a logical progression, all plot holes have been covered, and the overall story is interesting to your target audience. They point out any areas which seem to drag on, don’t make sense, or seem out of character. They tell you their impression of your world-building, the journey your MC finds themselves on, and if something just reeks of Deus Ex Machina. Those readers who are well-versed in the industry might be able to help you decide what genre your book is. Those who aren’t sure about genre definitions but are avid readers will be able to tell you what other books are out there that feel similar to yours. Most important of all, beta readers will tell you if they enjoyed it.
Other questions betas answer might be: what was your favorite/least favorite scene and why; was there any place you wanted to stop reading and why; who is your favorite/least favorite character; did the pacing seem consistent? Try to be specific in your questions so your volunteers can focus their feedback.
Betas help you fix any glaring holes or issues before you tackle the final editing round and send it off for publication. Editors tend to charge by the hour, so you want to make sure it's the best you can make it before you send it off. Not only will this make turnaround time faster, but your editor will thank you. And you certainly don't want to have to spring for multiple rounds of editing to rewrite clunky areas your volunteers could easily have caught ahead of time.
Beta readers are not free editors -
While some betas will be kind enough to point out grammatical errors or places where your prose could be stronger, it is not their job to edit your MS. Most are not qualified for it, and it's unfair to ask them to perform such intensive work. Beta readers tell you if they enjoyed reading about your characters. Editors will tell you if your characters have strong development and growth. Betas tell you where the pacing was too slow or had too much exposition. Editors help you trim those areas into punchy, gripping paragraphs. It is your job as the writer to do the best you can weaving your tale, then hire a competent editor to smooth out the rough spots. The burden of fine-tuning, correcting errors, and polishing prose does not belong on the shoulders of volunteer readers whose only interest is being entertained.
Beta readers are not mentors -
Ideally, the first round of edits has been completed on your full MS before you send it off to betas. Some people do ask for betas during the first draft process (known as alpha readers), and this is fine as long as they understand it is an unfinished work. Some authors want to assure themselves they are on the right track before they get too deep into the story and have to change everything.
The same questions apply to an incomplete MS as a completed one: pacing, impressions of characters, world-building, etc. When you get feedback stating they’re interested in finishing your story, you know you’re going in the right direction. (As an aside, it’s polite to give these betas the finished first draft as a thank you for putting up with your shenanigans.) However, as helpful as these in-progress betas are, they are not your writing mentors. They can tell you where your work is falling short, but it’s not their job to work with you for hours to fix it and hold your hand throughout the entire process. Please respect their time as you would your own.
While your volunteer readers are supportive and want you to complete your book, but they are in no way responsible for your productivity, self-esteem, or level of skill. Some would argue mentors aren’t either, but a large part of mentoring is growing confidence in a budding writer to have faith in their work.
In short, beta readers are just one aspect of a long and involved process, not a one-stop shop. You should care enough about your work and your supporters to have betas, critique partners, mentors, and editors. Not every author finds critique groups or mentors helpful, and that's fine. But remember, a beta reader cannot provide the same level of in-depth examination as an experienced critique partner or the same experienced guidance as a mentor. Careful not to lean on your volunteers for tasks they are unsuited for or unwilling to perform.
And it bears repeating - beta readers should not take the place of editors. All authors need an editor, even the most seasoned. Can’t afford one? Save up for it, find an editor willing to make a trade, whatever you need to do, but don’t charge your betas with catching every typo or expect them to adjust your syntax. It forces their attention away from where they should really be focused - the awesome story-line.
Be respectful to your audience, your volunteers, your supporters, and yourself. Keep growing. Keep writing.