Beta Readers: Who, When, Why, and So What?

beta readers
Photo credit: Nanagyei on Visualhunt / CC BY

Today’s guest post is by writer Barbara Linn Probst.

If you’re reading this essay, you’ve probably heard the term beta reader. Although some people do offer beta reading for a fee, the term usually refers to unpaid non-professionals who give feedback on writing prior to publication. Unlike critique partners, there’s no requirement to exchange manuscripts; unlike editors, there’s no expectation that beta readers will have advice about how to fix whatever weaknesses they find. They’re civilians, proxies for our future readers. Typically, they’re people we know, if not personally, then through a friend or writing community. We trust them enough to test our books on them and (presumably) listen to what they have to say.

Use of beta readers is widespread, but surprisingly little has been written about how writers actually use them and how they help—or if they do. Most articles focus on how to find beta readers or what questions to ask. See, for example, How to Find and Work with Beta Readers by Kristen Kieffer. But that’s not quite the same thing.

As a former qualitative researcher, trained to look at what folks on the “using” or “receiving” end have to say, I got curious about this gap. I put the word out on five different Facebook groups for writers, asking whether, who, when, why, and how people used beta readers. Within a few days, I got 92 responses. After parsing the responses into topics and themes, I ended up with nearly 200 distinct “bits” of information.

Here’s what I learned about how my fellow authors use beta readers. Not what other blogs tell them to do, but what they actually do.

Most people use a variety of beta readers—writers and non-writers.

Whenever 92 people respond to a question, there’s bound to be a spectrum of experience and opinion. However, responses to this particular question fell into three clear camps.

Readers only, please! Some people only used readers, never fellow writers, because they felt that readers were more authentic, representative, and jargon-free. They liked readers with “a sharp mind and attention to detail,” preferably from their target audience, who were familiar with and liked their genre, and whose judgment they could trust. Some preferred non-friends who had no expectations, vested interest, or reason to soften their response for the sake of the friendship. “I’ve had plenty of betas who ‘yes’ me to death and while nice for the ego, it’s not what you need.”

At times, specialty readers were also sought, either because they were experts in an area relevant to the book’s setting or plot (e.g., legal or mental health issues, a particular time or place) or because they could serve as “sensitivity readers” for content or characters outside the author’s experience.

Writers only, please! Other people were equally adamant that they preferred to use fellow writers, whom they considered better equipped to spot and articulate specific plot, pacing, and character issues. “Civilian readers don’t catch snafus like we do.”

On the other hand, they were well aware of the pitfalls of using fellow writers—in particular, the challenge for a writer of being able to switch gears and simply “read as a reader.” “We writers have a tendency to want to change it to how we would write it ourselves.” Interestingly, this is very much what I found, back when I was an academic and doing research on therapists who returned to “the client chair.” Most had a very difficult time surrendering to the patient role, even for an hour.

Both, please! More often, however, people preferred a variety of beta readers, both writers and non-writers. That could include family members, trusted critique partners, representatives of the target audience, strangers, and “intelligent friends.”

“You need a good variety to get a full understanding of the good and bad in your writing.” One person used one-third supporters/cheerleaders, one-third tough critics, and one-third “wild cards” whose opinion she couldn’t predict. “I like to ask two sets of people: a few that are my target audience and a few who can help edit and deal with higher level critiques.” 

What matters isn’t just who, but when.

Rather than thinking of beta readers as a single group, or of beta reading as a single event, many people use different groups of readers at different points in their writing, and for different reasons. They liked to have one kind of reader to review an early draft, but wanted a different kind of reader for a revision and a third kind for a polished manuscript.

These three “points in time”—early draft, revision stage, and final version—weren’t rigidly defined, of course. Nevertheless, people were consistent in stating that different types of beta readers were useful at different stages.

Fellow writers were seen as most helpful for early drafts, ongoing critique, and feedback when one was stuck, at a crossroad, or “when I have done everything I can with a draft but don’t know how to go further and need assistance with recognizing craft issues.” Drawing on a common lexicon, fellow writers could explain, more specifically, what was lacking or wrong—as long as they didn’t cross the line into “this is how I would have done it.”

Non-writers, on the other hand, were more helpful later, when the book was done, “as a test audience, almost as quality assurance,” but not for material that still required considerable work. Respondents emphasized that it was up to the writer to make the manuscript as polished as possible before showing it to non-writers, who “don’t want to read something that’s not been edited or is hard to follow.”

Using beta readers is worthwhile, if not essential.

Those who responded to the survey felt that beta readers were a necessary part of the writing process. “They are a huge part of my process since the longer I work on a manuscript, the more susceptible I am to blind spots.”

In some cases, people used beta readers because they couldn’t afford a paid professional. Betas were seen as an alternative way to get an independent, impartial view of their work. For other people, beta readers complemented the feedback they received from paid editors, preceding or following their input; that is, they used—and valued—both. “Betas tell you how the average reader will respond to your book, and the editor will make your book marketable.”

Getting the most benefit from a beta reader was a key issue. To avoid both generic praise and generic criticism, some people felt it was important to give readers a list of specific questions about structure, clarity, continuity, and character development. “The questions are the key to focusing the comments—otherwise you run the danger of vague praise or people thinking they’re line editors.”

On the other hand, some preferred to leave things open-ended, letting readers report what they actually felt, without being limited or primed—the way people will focus only on the color of a flower, ignoring its shape and scent, if you tell them that’s what you’re interested in.

Using beta readers has its pitfalls and limitations.

Problems can stem from an over-abundance of feedback—a trap that writers can fall into when feedback is free. “It’s way too easy to ask ten people for comments, and then implement all their comments and lose what I intended for the story.” Confusion and loss of focus will make the manuscript worse, rather than better. “If you get too many chefs in the kitchen, it can change the recipe, which is almost never the best solution.”

Because feedback from beta readers doesn’t reflect knowledge of writing craft, it may lack the specificity necessary for it to be “actionable.” As one person put it, “reverse engineering” is needed to translate a beta reader’s reaction into what exactly went wrong and what to do about it, requiring so many extra steps that it left him wishing he’d hired a professional—or never asked. In his view, willingness to provide useful feedback and the ability to do so aren’t the same thing.

As with all forms of feedback, quality will vary. “My experience is that you can find beta readers that are spectacular and some that are useless. And it is the same for professional editors. It depends on who you can find, not on whether you pay them or not, or whether they’re writers or not.”

Ultimately, of course, writers must decide what to do with the feedback they receive. People tended to feel free to accept or reject what beta readers told them. If a number of people pointed out the same weakness—especially if they included both writers and non-writers—or if the comments resonated strongly, the feedback was more likely to be taken seriously. What I don’t know—because I didn’t ask—was whether people felt the same way about feedback they had to pay for.

I guess that’s another study.

What can we learn from this study?

  • Know—and communicate—what you want from a beta reader. That may be different at different points in the writing process.
  • Seek diversity of background and viewpoint, depending on your aim. Sometimes you’ll want a heterogeneous group of readers, and sometimes you’ll want someone specific. Think about what you need before you ask.
  • Regardless of whether you also use a paid professional, beta readers can serve a vital role as a test audience. Just remember the difference between asking for someone’s experience and asking for her expertise.

What is your experience with beta readers? Share in the comments.

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