Two years ago, I had no idea what a beta reader was. Years before that, most people didn't know what they were. The huge shift from traditional publishing to self publishing required the responsibility of editing a novel to perfection to shift to the writer.
Want to know how to survive the beta reading process and come out on the other side with a better novel? Then read on, writing warrior! (holy tongue twister!)
Typically, there's a team of individuals who are responsible for making a traditionally published novel shine like the tip of a boot camp instructor's boot.
But self published authors don't typically have a team in place to accomplish that. Instead of the publishing firm hiring out editors for this, it all falls to the writer. And on the way to polishing your manuscript, you should always stop off at the beta reading station for refueling.
Typically, writers go through their manuscript and make it as perfect as they can by themselves. It's never ever a good idea to send a first draft to your betas or any editors. Comb through it and ensure it's something not riddled with huge plot holes, because you can't polish a turd. Spare your beta readers and don't subject them to that expectation.
So after you've made as many edits as you can, your novel typically gets sent to a team of beta readers, you incorporate those edits, and then you send your MS to a professional editor. It's best to send it to the professional editor last as you want most of your big issues dealt with already. You don't want to blind your editor by those horrible mistakes. The editor's focus should be more on giving your novel a final polish because, as a professional, they have tons of insight into how to shape a novel!
If you give them an awesome foundation, they're going to make it even better. If you give them a mediocre starting point, your novel might be able to reach the "awesome" level. You're much more likely to reach ultra-mega-mega-awesome level, though, if you give that professional an awesome draft of your novel to start with.
A lot of people use beta readers even if they don't know it. A parent, significant other, or best friend who reads your work and gives you critiques is technically beta reading. And to be honest, most of us need that person to tell us whether or not we're crazy for taking our story in a specific direction.
Even if you're considering not using beta readers, hear me out! If you're reading this post, then you're in the market to have your story published so thousands (may we hope millions!) of people enjoy your work. You're not going to be able to please every one of them, but you want to be able to please most of them, specifically your target audience.
What if you have a main character that doesn't come across as relatable as you thought they were? You and your go-to critique friend are biased on this matter - you hopefully know more about your character than what you're writing down. You know the back story but unless you convey that in your novel, your reader won't. An element is lost in translation and it's something you'll be blind to.
This is what you need beta readers for.
Everyone can benefit from a beta reader. They can catch things you've overlooked twenty times, even if it's a small thing like someone sprinting after they sprained their ankle or a car that changed into a truck. They can catch big things like a protagonist being inconsistent or a giant plot hole that you never considered. They're there to improve your writing, and it's valuable feedback you need on the way to publication.
Let's talk first about what to include in your request for beta readers.
Your request should include basic details about your novel so that beta-potentials can decide if they want to invest their time in your story. List things like genre, word count, and synopsis. Yes, this is basic information, but it could save you a lot of headaches with repetitive questions. Also - and this is very important - let your beta-potentials know ahead of time if there are any mature or graphic scenes in your story. That's a definite way for you to make them hate your story!
Decide what type of feedback you need and then ask your betas if that works well for them. If you want them to ignore grammar, make sure this is stated in your request. If that's the main reason someone wanted to beta, then you've wasted their time and yours by not being up front about it.
Determine how you want your feedback given to you - do you want to be able to text them? Message on FB? E-mail? Make sure this is included in your request, as some people may not be okay with your preferred method.
Also include a list of questions for potential betas. What genre do you usually read in? Have you ever beta read before? What's your typical turn around, or how free is your schedule in the coming weeks? How old are you? Why do you want to be a beta reader? Are you a writer yourself?
You want to get to know your betas because you're going to have to get very vulnerable with them soon. The more you're able to converse with them, the better!
Now to something that most people wonder: where do I find beta readers?
The internet of course! Reach out to every social media platform that you're on and post a message saying you're looking for beta readers. Point them to a specific site or form if they're interested and voila!
Some ideas for this could be Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, MySpace (just kidding...who uses that anymore?). Both Goodreads and Facebook have groups specifically dedicated to finding free beta readers, so dig deep on those platforms!
Once you submit a request for betas, you might get an onslaught of volunteers or you may just get a few. Even if you only get two, that doesn't mean you should use both of them. How do you narrow down the pool, or decide whether or not you want to use that beta?
The questions that you came up with earlier should help you with this!
As a rule of thumb, I think most of your beta readers should also be part of your target audience. If you're writing a political thriller, then make sure most of your beta readers read primarily in that genre.
Note: Age doesn't necessarily mean target audience here. A majority of Young Adult readers are actually in the 30-44 age range (that'll be me one day!). Your target audience is whoever would like your genre, so make sure you don't put forth any age limits on your beta request!
Most of your beta readers should be in your target audience, but not all of them. You want a wide range of opinions on your work, including those that may think differently - they may have some critiques that your target audience would miss. Do you write high fantasy? Do you have a hint of romance in your novel? Enlist someone who typically reads romance but isn't against reading high fantasy. They can tell you whether or not your budding romance is a dud or the bomb, perhaps with more specificity than your other betas!
Their turnaround rate might be a huge deciding factor as well as their history with giving critiques to writers. It's super helpful if they can name a specific novel that they beta read for, although I don't require that in my requests! Go through your list of potentials and narrow them down based on how well you think they would fit for your story and the type of feedback that you need.
This is something you're probably going to have to develop on your own a little bit. Most people have a list of questions they want the beta reader to answer and I highly encourage you do this!
I also think it's a good idea to only send one chapter out at a time, or make sure that they answer your specific questions at the end of each chapter before moving on. This ensures that each chapter is given equal attention and the reader doesn't forget something because they read on too quickly.
Some good questions to ask can be: what's your overall opinion of this chapter? Did you like it or did you hate it? What do you think of the characters? Is there anything you found confusing? Was there any part that you didn't think was necessary? Do you have any predictions?
Each chapter could have more specific questions tied to them. If you're at the climax of the novel, ask the reader if it feels climactic. If a lot of your readers think that it doesn't, then you have some editing ahead of you! If the beta just read a chapter that has a steamy scene in it, make sure it wasn't cheesy for them. Is there a heartbreaking scene? Ask if it evoked any emotions in the reader.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't use beta readers. Do you want your story to be the best that it can be before submitting it? This isn't always a requirement, as some agents and/or publishers can be landed with just the first draft. But this isn't the norm. By any means.
Most of us want to ease into the rejection process by iron cladding our novel before we send it off to the professionals. Betas can help you with this.
If you find a good set of betas, they'll also make you feel great about your writing. A good beta can highlight the things that need to be improved upon while also telling you what they really liked about a specific chapter.
Since you're already bracing yourself to receive the critiques, it comes as a pleasant surprise when someone says something nice about your work! You can keep these niceties in a folder on your computer and look back at them if you ever get a rejection letter (hurray if you don't!...and how did you do it?!). Just remember, the best authors were rejected many times before their first work was ever published!
In the end, beta readers are used to improve your writing. It doesn't matter whether you plan to post your novel for free on your website or seek out a multi-million dollar deal - beta readers can help anyone!
This is probably the number one reason why people are so hesitant about seeking beta reader - above the fear of receiving negative feedback!
This part is pretty simple: in the US, "Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device." (Source)
If it makes you feel better, you can add a paragraph explaining the legal ramifications if someone were to steal your story. They may be forced to pay you for the earnings you lost from their plagiarism in addition to covering attorney fees. You can also keep copies of your beta correspondence to prove that they saw the early workings of your novel.
Most people don't fish for stories requiring beta-reads as a source for plagiarizing content, because it's just as protected as a published novel is. Most people want to be beta readers for you because they're either a fan of your work, or they love to read new stories and help authors out.
Most beta readers tend to be nice people in that way. Does that mean they won't be mean sometimes? Absolutely not. You can find yourself going through quite a few of these meanies, but that's part of the process! Hopefully you have more good than bad and if you don't, then keep searching for those good betas!
Your story is yours from the moment you wrote it. But that doesn't forever copyright the use of vampires to just your story. If you ever find anything blatantly copied from your novel, then go to the Government Copyright Site to find out what you need to do! Just know, you are protected!
The beta reading process doesn't have to be a scary one. If you're more afraid of receiving critiques than anything else, then remember that they're there to improve your novel. If someone is particularly harsh to you and isn't being helpful, then by all means, cut them loose! No matter what any beta says about your work, take it with a smile on your face and try to remove your emotions from the equation (easier said than done, I know).
You're trying to improve your story, and you need the help of others to do that!
Have you used beta readers before? If so, what was your experience like? If you haven't, is there anything that's holding you back?