Looking for a Beta Reader? Flip That Question Around.

Image: a woman sitting at a desk, editing a manuscript with a red pen.
Photo by Ron Lach

Today’s post is by author and editor Kris Spisak (@KrisSpisak).

Where can you find a “beta reader” for your manuscript?

It’s a question that writers often ask when they’re looking for early readers who can share advice on what’s working and what’s not yet there. Professional editors definitely can be transformational partners, but beta readers are often on the front lines of manuscript metamorphosis.

So, where are the beta readers we keep having recommended to us?

Well, to find them, smart writers should flip that question around: Where can you find writers in your genre looking for a beta reader?

Why do I argue for the flip? Two reasons:

  1. Because helping each other is always a good thing (you’re not the only one with this dream!), and
  2. Because the more you practice your editing skills, the stronger you will become as a writer.

Voracious reading of well-written books empowers a storyteller, but so does donning an editorial hat. When we read as editors, it’s not just a matter of enjoyment. It’s an education, both for the writer we are helping and for ourselves.

Practice hones skills. We know that already. The more we write, the better we get. However, the creative journey is more complex than just putting words down onto paper. The revision process is often a less-examined segment of the writer’s life, yet we need practice here too. It is in the revision and editing stages where we cajole our characters to life, amplify the scenes our readers didn’t see coming, and where we spit-polish our language to a shine.

The more we examine entry points into stories and what is working and what isn’t, the more our own storytelling finds its footing.

The more we analyze someone else’s closing pages, the better we understand resolutions and the art of tying up all necessary threads.

Thus, the new question becomes: How can you be an awesome beta reader?

  • Think about more than grammar, punctuation, and spelling perfection.
  • Think about celebrating strengths just as much as pointing out areas needing more work.
    • When you see an awesome line, celebrate it.
    • When you love a character, let the writer know.
    • When you’re terrified or swooning or utterly fascinated, applaud how the scene is crafted.
  • Think about specific notes that could be helpful to the writer.
    • Where are you confused?
    • Where does the story seem to wander off-focus?
    • Where is a motivation or a plot twist unclear?
    • Where does the story seem slow?
  • When you finish, see if you can articulate what the book was about (the plot) in three sentences or fewer and what you saw as the overarching theme or takeaway. (The writer will be inspired when your understanding matches their own, or if it doesn’t, that too can be telling!)
  • Think about what would be helpful to you if you were the writer receiving feedback.
    • Critique with kindness not brutality.
    • Remember you are in “editor” mode, not a “ghostwriter” tasked with rewriting anything as you would do it.

When you can articulate to someone else why an aspect of a story isn’t working as well as it could, you will come to understand that element of craft in a greater capacity.

When you can pinpoint the moment that you were truly hooked in someone else’s manuscript and why (whether it’s page 1 or perhaps on page 37—hey, that’s what happens in early drafts sometimes), you’ll understand what might be necessary to create that hook in your own story.

While there are many books on how to write, there are far fewer focused on editing and revision. So, yes, read those (I might have a referral for you), but also practice. Practice on your own manuscript and practice with others. You can network and be a creative partner all while transforming your own creative future.

In the Q&As of my fiction editing workshops and webinars, the matter of where one finds a beta reader comes up almost every time.

So, I’ll repeat the answer I always give: Look to local writing communities you can join; look to genre organizations where you can network; look to online groups with solid reputations; look to those you know who read your genre who might have a thoughtful eye. But also look at yourself.

While you may be looking for a beta reader, so many others are too. Beta reading can be so much more than a chore. It can be a creative education. Lean into that. Your future books will be all the better for it.

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