What to Look for in a Beta Reader
by T.M. Williams
In many ways, finding the right beta reader1 is almost as challenging as finding the right publisher. But are beta readers even necessary? No. There are plenty of best-selling authors who don’t have them. But they have likely gone through the conveyer belt of critiquing in various other ways, if not by using beta readers. The bottom line is you need someone to objectively critique your work. Especially nowadays when everyone and their mother is self-publishing books that otherwise belong on the cutting room floor.
Whether it’s a critique partner, a beta reader, or an editor who is reviewing your manuscript, these are the things they should be pointing out in your work:
- Does your story flow? Are there any parts the beta reader wants to skim through or even skip entirely? Authors often have a difficult time letting go of these parts of their stories, and it’s the beta reader’s job to break the verbal hoarding. The opposite situation could also occur. Is your story missing an important piece that helps the reader understand what’s going on? I once read a chapter of a friend’s manuscript that spent about 15 pages describing the room in which the main character was and what they were seeing – then, in less than one paragraph, the main character was killed in an explosion. As a reader, I felt robbed! I kept scratching my head and wondering what the heck had just happened.
- Are your characters three-dimensional? Your beta reader should be sharing which characters are their favorites and why. They should also share which characters are forgettable and why. My beta reader, Veronica, is amazing at this. She will go into detail about what worked for her and what didn’t as a reader of both story lines and characters. She’ll also let me know which characters feel like they’re missing some of their back story. Does this mean you must absolutely take their advice? No. You’re the writer, and the ultimate decision is yours. However, it’s nice to hear what an early reader is picking up on that you might be missing. I end up using about 95 percent of the things my beta reader suggests because they make sense. Be open to hearing what your beta reader is suggesting and don’t take things personally.
- Is your book a page-turner? Writing a page-turner isn’t necessary, but it helps. Again, your beta reader should be telling you which parts made them excited and when you lost them.
- Do things make sense? As writers, we have pictures in our heads of how our stories go. Sometimes our ideas don’t translate to the written page. This is one of the best reasons to have a beta reader. Yes, you can picture Planet Z as if you were standing there, but does your reader think they’re in Manitoba, Canada instead? Make sure what you intend to convey is translating.
What your beta reader shouldn’t be doing:
- Your beta reader shouldn’t be editing for grammar. Why? Because your beta reader should have their hands on the story before it makes it to your editors (yes, plural). They’re the ones who are looking at the overall story, not the minute details. If you are looking for someone to go through your story once it’s been edited, that would be a proof reader – not a beta reader.
- Your beta reader shouldn’t take months to get through your book, especially if you’re on a deadline. Your beta reader should be someone who is critical of stories, reads voraciously, and can tell you the negatives as well as the positives. I’ve gone through many people who said they wanted to be beta readers, yet all they came back with was, “It was great! I loved it!” While that’s wonderful to hear, it doesn’t help improve your writing.
- As strange as this sounds, your beta reader shouldn’t be a writer/author, either. By all means, join a writers’ group where you can go back and forth with other writers. But you’re mostly writing for the general reading audience, not professionals.
- Last, but most certainly not least – your beta reader should not be changing your story. Things like, “I think this name would be better for this character,” or “I don’t think you should kill this character off here.” These are major changes to the story that your beta reader has no right to suggest. They can certainly let you know that killing off that main character made them almost want to stop reading the book, but in no way should they ever change the foundation you laid out.
Now you can see why finding the right beta reader is difficult. To add to all the prerequisites above, your beta reader should also be comfortable with the genre you write. I’m not a romance reader – so if I tried to beta read romance (which I shouldn’t be doing anyway since I’m a novelist) I would be making suggestions that the general readership of the genre will most likely not agree with.
1 Here’s a great post explaining what a beta reader is and why you need one.
T.M. Williams is a novelist, speaker, and entrepreneur. She has started successful businesses, created and sold brands, created training programs for large direct-selling teams, and won multiple awards in sales and marketing. She’s the published author of several books, primarily focusing on horror. She began her writing career late in 2012 when she accidentally discovered her passion for storytelling, earning her nickname: The Accidental Writer. She was picked up by a small press publisher in 2013 and has since gone on to write 7 novels and 6 short-stories, 2 of which became bestsellers. Williams is currently signed with AZ Publishing Services and continues her ventures in the business and marketing world. She resides in Arizona with her husband and son.