Who Are Beta Readers?
Who is a beta reader and why should we use them?
In a nutshell, a beta reader is someone who reads our manuscript before we send it out to a professional editor or submit to an agent.
Their role is to focus on the story itself and to help us prepare the best manuscript possible before we submit it.
Beta readers play a crucial role in providing feedback in the following areas:
Are our characters believable? Can the reader relate to them? Can the reader empathize with them? Are the characters’ words and actions consistent with whom we’ve created? For example, our hero should not perform brain surgery at the end of the book if we haven’t shown them having the skills earlier. Have we established the goals and desires of our characters for the story?
Beta readers can tell us if our plot makes sense; if it holds together; or, if there are holes in that make the story unbelievable.
Our beta readers can identify times the setting is a hindrance to the story and times when it adds tension and suspense. They help us see if the setting is unique to our characters.
For example, we may set our story in an urban area. Each character will experience that setting differently because of their background and history and what baggage they bring into the story.
Continuity and Story Flow
Our story needs to make sense from beginning to end. The scenes and the narrative should flow naturally from one to the other. Beta readers can point out where it goes off track. Sometimes it’s as simple as pointing out that in Chapter 10 our hero’s limp has moved from his right leg to his left, or her deep blue eyes are now light green. Other times, we can complicate it, like putting something in the story that could never happen in that environment. Or identifying where we need to plant a foreshadow earlier in the book, so a plot twist or story flow won’t look like it came out of left field on a white charger.
Who Are the Best Beta Readers?
For me, the most valuable beta reader is someone who is a reader, a lover of books and stories. Being familiar with our genre is helpful, but not crucial as long as they’re comfortable reading it. Sometimes it’s helpful to use someone with expertise in the field I’m writing about. For example, if our story involves serious medical issues, someone with experience in that area would be a tremendous asset.
They don’t have to be writers, but again, it helps.
You can find potential beta readers in your network of writing buddies.
I’ve used people in my critique groups as beta readers. A downside is they may be so familiar with our story, they may not pick up issues and concerns as well as someone who would bring fresh eyes to our writing.
Besides wanting a reader as a beta reader, I also look for someone who I respect and who I trust to give me honest feedback about my story.
Using these parameters, I approach potential readers to see if they have an interest in assisting me on the project.
I recommend limiting beta readers to three to five. More than five may result in too much conflicting input. Trying to incorporate everyone’s ideas and suggestions could lead to the manuscript becoming a mess that will take a long time to get back on track.
Help Them Focus
Once I have my beta team, I send them the manuscript along with specific questions I want feedback on.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Does the hero’s character transformation seem complete and believable?
- Where did you get bored and want to skim pages?
- What pulled you into the story?
- What threw you out of the story?
- Are the characters believable? Did any character strike you as particularly memorable? In what way?
- Is the story world believable?
- Does the plot hold together throughout the novel?
- Are the conflict and tension sufficient to carry the story?
This seems like a lot of questions and we don’t want to overwhelm or disrespect our readers. However, we want to give them specific points to focus on.
I choose no more than five questions. They’re based on areas I’m not sure about and need input.
But I also don’t want to limit my beta readers. Another approach I’ve used is to include the list of questions and ask them to answer the three to five that strike them as the most important.
The more specific we can be about the feedback we’re looking for, the better response we will get.
We also want to give our readers the freedom to be honest with us. Not only on our specific questions and concerns, but also about any area they want to comment on.
What has your experience been with using beta readers? What did you find most helpful? Not so helpful?
I want to thank Tamela Hancock Murray for the inspiration for this blog. Click Here.