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.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.

Barbara Linn Probst is a writer, researcher, and clinician living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel, Queen of the Owls, (April 2020) is the story of a woman’s search for self, framed around the art and life of Georgia O’Keeffe.

Author of the groundbreaking book on nurturing out-of-the-box children, When the Labels Don’t Fit (Three Rivers Press), Barbara holds a PhD in clinical social work and is a frequent guest essayist on major online sites for fiction writers. She is also a serious amateur pianist. Visit her website to learn more about Barbara and her work.

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Jean M. Grant

Great article and summary of beta reading. I found myself nodding while I read.

Linda Strader

I prefer using both. As Barbara mentions, writers catch more in the way of plot, but I’ve had some that wanted me to write it their way, or were brutally critical. As long as you can recognized that and take or leave advice, writers are helpful. Readers are good at just reading and letting you know if they connected to characters and if they enjoyed the story overall. I prefer readers that enjoy my genre, and writers who write in my genre. I also prefer to limit the number of beta readers. For sure if you have 10 betas you… Read more »

Liz Boeger

Thanks for sharing this research–very helpful. I have used Beta readers mainly at the early draft stage and from both the reader and writer categories. I think the most difficult issue for me was to find readers who had the time to commit to the process. If you can find a contest that reads the entire manuscript and gives feedback that can be helpful too. But I suppose those Betas fall into the writer category. I don’t rush to make changes unless I have some type of consensus. As a MS swap partner, I like to set up expectations and… Read more »

Yvonne Hertzberger

I use beta readers after the draft if as final as I can make it after listening to my critique group. Most are “readers only” and I do ask some questions based on what my critique group have said – that I agree with or not. I do try to get at least one who does not normally read my genre, to see if it can pass muster with those other than avid fans of my genre. Once I have the feedback I do one more revision based on commonalities. Then it goes to my editor. Often I find that… Read more »

Carolyn Studer

Such a helpful article. After learning the hard way, I appreciate the work that went into this piece.

Cynthia
Cynthia

This may be a stupid question, but what format do most people use with their beta readers? Hard copy? Dropbox? Send it on a disk? Thanks in advance

Jane Friedman

Hi Cynthia: I find practices vary dramatically, but if you’re interested in a service that helps streamline the process, I highly recommend http://BetaBooks.co

Barbara Dena
Barbara Dena

As a Beta reader, I have received mostly PDF files, Dropbox and hardcopy. Today, I worked with one of my favorite authors and we did our table read of his hard copy. We do not read the whole text of course but go over notes I have “red-penned” and discuss my thoughts. I do find PDF the most common format. Also, some Betas use Track Changes in their methods of reading if asked to help make corrections. Hope this helps. This is a great article and a wonderful response to it. Barbara has done an excellent job. Kudos

Linda C Boberg
Linda C Boberg

Thanks for doing this study. I’ve been a beta reader and I hated it. I prefer writing. I imagine any readers of my future books (they’re coming! Soon!) would do the same thing a beta would: say that they wished I’d written something different, dislike scenes, whatever! I was part of a Facebook discussion group for a new book by a traditionally published author and it was like there were 43 beta readers! So many varying opinions on the writing, the content – I wanted to scream, “It’s her book! she can write whatever she wants!” (And I think I… Read more »

T. L. Criswell

Although I have a critique partner, Beta readers are still an absolute must for me. I use people who will give me honest feedback. After all they are my readers. I have them to write down all their questions, and I open the story back up and answer the question within the story. Bets readers make you stronger.

Great article.

Nancy Peske
Nancy Peske

I’m curious about beta readers for nonfiction that will be self-published as an eBook with print-on-demand. I’ve used beta readers for sections of my book, including the update, but don’t feel they’re strictly necessary for nonfiction if you’re working with a developmental editor and you’ve tried out some ideas on your followers and received feedback.

Leanne Dyck

As a person with dyslexia, I find beta readers very help (especially in finding errors in spelling and grammar)–never instead of, but as well as an editor.

John Byrne Barry

I’m in the midst of this process right now, and I’m excited as well as anxious. I have about a dozen beta readers, half of whom have finished, and I ask them to fill out a form with questions like what worked best or didn’t work at all, what characters resonated most, and so on. Several of them I’ve asked if I could call them and talk some more. It’s been so helpful. I have a pretty clear plan already about how to approach my rewrite, and then I intend to recruit another dozen or so beta readers for what… Read more »

Barbara Dena
Barbara Dena

I am a Beta reader and love it. I have a wonderful list of authors with whom I work. I would be interested in a survey which was directed towards the Beta reader’s opinions. We readers do have stories to tell about the authors who want a Beta, but can’t let go of their “baby”, those who feel the reader will steal their ideas, those who never say “thank you,” and the best are the ones who say “please be honest and I will appreciate “harsh” as I can’t be better if I don’t know what is wrong.” Then, if… Read more »

Walt Scrivens
Walt Scrivens

I am a beta reader, and have read about a half-dozen books so far, primarily for two different authors. It gives me a real sense of being a part of the process of creating the books I love to read! This has been an interesting survey in terms of expanding my appreciation of how I can contribute to the process. I am retired, i.e. time to read, and wisdom of age :-). I have a lot of expertise in maritime subjects. heavy manufacturing, and computers. (Shameless plug – I help to edit the SANS “Ouch!” newsletter which deals in technical… Read more »

Barbara Dena
Barbara Dena

Walt, it all depends on what the author wishes the beta reader to do for him/her. I, personally do grammar corrections, punctuations, and make suggestions if the author would like that. (i.e. unnecessary qualifiers etc) Some authors ask for a straight read as an editor will catch the grammatical errors and punctuation problems. If a character has green eyes at the beginning of the novel and has blue eyes midway, this would be a certain item a beta reader would note no matter what the author requests. Keep a list of the books/authors you have helped and a folder of… Read more »

Amanda Kassner

THANK you for saying writers can also be beta readers! I’ve had perspective clients turn down my service because they said “Oh you write, too?”…..uhm, YES, I love reading AND writing! 🙂

Sandra Wendel

When an author just isn’t ready to go into edit, when an author has doubts about the flow of the story (I only work with nonfiction and mostly memoir), and when an author starts to question the story’s value itself, that’s when I suggest a beta read to answer the questions for the author. My beta readers are a mix of avid readers (with subject matter experts) and writers who willingly spend the time and effort to respond to my ten pointed questions that cannot be answered by yes or no. And their only payment: a copy of the book… Read more »

Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

I’ve been both writer and beta – writing is definitely more fun! I was part of a writing forum and would get comments from a wide variety of people. Then it got winnowed down to three – much better! I knew their writing and I had seen their comments on other people’s writing so we were all able to work well together. But I also did a stint of beta-ing for others, and that turned me off that whole side of things. Word to the wise – if you want someone to “pre-read” your work, turn off your ego and… Read more »

Rick George

This was a very helpful article. I like your approach to researching the question.

Linda P.
Linda P.

I have just sent my novel to two beta readers. Five of my YA novels were published a couple of decades ago, four each in the U.S. and Germany. Both readers were also my beta readers then, too. I have changed genres and am feeling more than ever in need of their help now. One beta reader is a non-professional avid reader providing me with impressions from the reader’s perspective. Another is an editor and author of two pages worth of books on Amazon. She has many other publishing credits that would not show up on Amazon. She and I… Read more »

Barbara Dena
Barbara Dena

This was an excellent post Linda. I enjoy knowing what authors have to say about their experiences with betas. I feel it helps me in the long run when someone asks for my help. I found the ties between author and beta often become great friendships. Good luck with your novel.

Linda P.
Linda P.

Thanks, Barbara. I love looking over other authors’ shoulders, too. We work in such isolated circumstances that it’s nice to share ideas. Great post, Barbara Linn Probst!

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[…] your work is tough. Barbara Lynn Probst delves into the use of beta readers to help raise the level of your writing. Hearing your writing read aloud is also an excellent way […]

Davida Chazan

I’ve always thought I could be a good beta reader, especially for novels that touch on subjects I know well (it drives me crazy that I see errors in books that are easily fixed with a beta reader who is looking out for such things).

martha stephens

I will ask a few friends who like to read if they will read my new novel. I have several chapters I’m not sure I want to include, so my first question will be: if you had to leave out a chapter of this story, which one would it be? And tell me why — if you have time for that. I have one friend who reads everything I write, likes what I do, and is a close reader who can point out any inconsistencies. She’s not been well, and I just hope she can take on this new book… Read more »

Liesbet

Great article! I used eight beta readers for my memoir, which is in its final edits now. While the feedback was overwhelming at first, I managed to incorporate most of the changes which were very useful. But, my main question “Which big parts could get cut” remained unanswered. 🙂 The book is still much too long. My readers were a diverse group: both sexes, writers and non-writers, sailors and non-sailors (as this is a travel memoir taking place on a sailboat), Canadians, Americans, and Europeans. I’d like to use another round of beta readers once the manuscript is done. Based… Read more »

T. L. Criswell

Great topic! For me beta readers are essential. I use between 5-8 diverse Beta readers. I ask for total honesty (even if they hate it) I want to know. ”You cant grow if you don’t know.” I have them write down all of their questions, and I ask them to use emoji’s. I open the story up as many times as I have to. I make sure to address all of their feedback (inside the story). Unless, I don’t agree with it (that’s rare). Beta readers, are my readers and I would never ever publish a Book without them. They… Read more »

Barbara Dena
Barbara Dena

From all of the misunderstood and unappreciated Beta readers, thank you!