Up until a certain point, writing is a solitary sport. But once the words "The End" are written and it crosses over into a piece of work to be published, the game changes and it suddenly becomes a team effort. It takes a team of professionals- from editors, to cover designers, book marketers, etc. to get a book into tip-top shape.
Sometimes in the rush towards publication we overlook what other resources are available to help us. We're so busy trying to reach our goals that we think the only way to do that is to hire the best of the best and pay the price associated with it.
Beta readers are one such by-passed resource. The primary role of a beta reader is to give insight into what the intended audience will think of your story. Through their feedback we can learn valuable things about a book's appeal, how the story is told, and what resonates with your target audience. It can help identify the strengths and weaknesses and act as a safeguard before publishing.
While this may seem like the ideal author-audience situation, it's important to keep in mind that not all beta readers will give you the same experience. There are certain steps you can take to ensure that your experience (and theirs) is a mutually beneficial one.
If you're serious about moving forward with a beta reader, keep reading! Here we're compiling tips and advice to help you have a successful beta reader experience.
Organized according to when they read your work. Alpha readers typically come first while beta readers tend to come second.
Alpha readers: The front-line readers. They see your work in its rawest form, typically before its been edited or polished. These are the people closest to you- your family, wife, best friend, etc. Someone you trust to run the initial idea and early attempts of execution by. The drafts they see are purely developmental and their main goal is to identify big issues like glaring continuity errors and basic readability. This is also the most immediate and convenient form of reader feedback.
Beta readers: These are the writers and readers who get to see a finished, polished version of your story. The major issues discussed with you alpha readers have already been resolved and now your beta readers have the job of scanning for the finer details and errors. They're using their "editor" eyes to identify these issues and are usually knowledgeable and competent. While most grammar and spelling issues should already be corrected before this point, these readers catch broad issues dealing with characterization, pacing, and voice.
There are two types of ways that you can enlist the help of beta readers. The first is by working specifically with an individual, the second is by procuring the help of a group.
Individual: Working with an individual beta reader means that a single person will be reading and reviewing your work. Typically once you've established this type of relationship, you send them an agreed upon amount of pages to read through and then given time they send you their suggestion notes. The biggest advantages with this type are personalized attention, flexibility in timeline, and general convenience. You only have one person to communicate back and forth with and you can both work together to create the schedule. This can lead to a quicker turn-over for feedback as well as the ability to discuss said notes in detail afterwards.
Group: In a beta readers group, several writers gather together to review and critique each other's work. Typically more than one piece of work is submitted for feedback at the same time and then a group discussion is had about each one afterwards. With group work there are a few things that can lead to frustration: The wait time for notes is a bit longer (due to having to wait until the meetings to share any findings), the time spend on each work is brief or sometimes uneven. It's a less personalized process as a whole, but it allows for multiple perspectives to be shared in a relatively succinct amount of time. The best part of working with a group is the collective solutions and ideas that come up in group discussions.
There's no right or wrong way to utilize beta readers. I've tried both ways and found that they each have their pro's and con's. In order to benefit the most, you should also try them out and see which fits best for your own needs.
Where do I find beta readers?
If you're not in a creative writing college class or MFA program, finding beta readers out in the real world can be a little tricky. Here are some suggestions on where to look:
Reach out to your writer friends: Chances are you know at least one or two. If these friends share a similar genre interest or style of writing, don't be afraid to recruit their help!
Check library bulletin boards (or the virtual version): If there isn't someone offering their services already, post your own notice asking for those interested in reviewing unpublished projects to contact you. A great way to get information about Indie publishing is from Indie Author Group on Facebook.
Delve into online writing groups: Each social media platform has a writing group of some sort. Check out Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, and writing blogs. There are tons of writers out there who would be willing to connect and help out a new writer. Critique Circle is an online writer's blog dedicated to building a writing community where you can share and review creative works.
Utilize social media: Take to the virtual streets and release a call for beta readers. Chances are you have a fan or a helpful friend who'd be down to help you polish your work. Beta Readers & Critiques is a Facebook group dedicated to helping writers.
Look into virtual groups specific to your genre: There are also groups online where readers and writers of a particular genre come together to discuss things relating to what they love to read and write about. These groups are full of eager people who would love to have early access to new books but with the knowledge of someone passionate about your genre. If you write fantasy, horror, or science fiction, then you may find a home on Critters Speculative Writers Workshop.
Writing Courses: Signing up for a community college writing class is also a great way to branch out and beta readers are a guarantee since they will be your peers in the course.
Attend reading events: Another option is to check your local coffee shops and bookstores for live reading events. These can be a fun way to mix and mingle while spreading the word about needing beta readers.
Local writing groups: These are also an option if you prefer to keep things strictly in-person. Attending these groups can help you meet new writers in your area looking to trade beta reading roles. Even better, you can meet up for coffee shop writing days!
Create a Want Ad: Consider posting an add on a platform such as Craigslist, local writing websites, and online community platforms/in the comments on writing sites. This can drum up some interest and allow people to contact you if they're interested. Check out the Goodreads Beta Reader Group for a place to get started. Another good place to look is My Writers Circle.
Beta Reader services: Believe it or not, there are now services who can help put you in contact with beta readers. Check out TCK Publishing’s Beta Reader Connection Service. By filling out the form here you'll be connected with a potential reader. Best yet, it's free!
Ideally, between 3-5. You don't want to have to little because you want a range of feedback to rely upon, but you also don't want a too many. Keeping track of everyone and their suggestions can become confusing.
You also want to make sure that whoever you chose is not exactly the same as someone else in your selected reviewers. Ideally you want someone with a similar writing style as yours, someone with a different writing style (who still write within your genre), a reader who doesn't write, and someone with more experience in the industry than yourself.
Identify your target audience
Not everyone is going to want to read your work. A harsh truth? Maybe, but a truth nonetheless. Knowing your ideal audience will guarantee that you'll succeed in finding someone to beta read for you who will give you accurate insight into the mind of your future readers.
Finding your "ideal" beta reader is simpler than you may think.
Start by asking yourself the following:
What age range/gender are you trying to reach?
What are their favorite books, television shows, and movies?
Do they read to be entertained or emotionally engaged?
What makes them happy, sad, or angry?
What issues do they struggle with?
What do they fear or regret?
Why do they enjoy reading?
If you look at these questions and still feel unsure, the best thing you can do is find books similar to your own and start reading reviews. Find out who is enjoying these stories and why. This will tell you what you need to know in order to move forward.
Nurture your potential beta relationships
You should never go online and start asking people to read your work in the first conversation you have with them. You wouldn't ask a stranger you see on the street for a favor, why would it be appropriate to ask someone to read your work without getting to know them first? Same rules apply.
Rather than cutting to the chase right away, you need to take the time to get to know people and gauge whether or not they're the right fit for the type of work you're looking for. Not everyone is cut out for the work it takes to beta read. Some are too busy, others lack-the-know how, and then there's always the do-gooder who wants to help but can't follow through. You can weed these types out by spending some time talking to them first.
Initiate, don't ask
The best way you can enlist the help of competent, knowledgeable beta readers is to follow this rule: Initiate, don't ask. Remember, as fellow writers the friends you make are busy with their own projects and lives. Beta reading can be a long and time-consuming task, so in order to take it seriously, your buddies are going to need some incentive.
The easiest way to motivate them is by offering to read their work first. That's right! A mutual exchange of work is the ultimate price of a good beta reader. This way that extra work is beneficial to all the parties involved, everyone gets to contribute, and hopefully be entertained along the way.
Keep things simple
Once you have your team of beta readers assembled, it's important to streamline the process. It's your job as the author to ensure that your readers have the best experience possible. That means making sure they are able to read and comment on your work easily and at their convenience.
One way you can do this is by asking how they prefer to read your draft. While PDF may be how most people prefer things, paper copies may be required instead. It also helps to supply them with a list of questions to help guide them through the process. This comes especially in handy when your beta readers have never been through this type of work before.
No matter your experience level, critiques, constructive or otherwise, is always a hard pill to swallow. Nobody likes being told they need to improve. Unfortunately this is the very information we need to know in order to grow as writers. Without having someone to point out our weaknesses, we would never know where we need to tweak our approach.
When you get your feedback back from your beta readers, take it with a grain of salt. Remind yourself that these aren't insults, but rather advice and suggestions. It's not a commentary on your writing skills, it is the accurate representation of how well the illusion of your story holds up or not, as the case may be. Remember, your beta readers want the same thing that you do: To see your story become the best that it can be so that it will sell well.
Once you've heard back from your betas, make sure you show them the love! If you offered to read their work follow through. In the event that they don't need a beta reader currently, offer to promote, share, and review their currently published books or work. If your beta is not a writer, promise to send them a few signed copies of your book with a thank you note once it is published to show your appreciation. Most importantly, make sure to thank them in the acknowledgements page for all their hard work.
By taking the time to properly thank and show your gratitude, you'll make the overall experience more pleasant, which means they're more likely to agree to become beta readers again in the future.
When you beta read for others, keep two things in mind: honesty and value. You have to approach beta reading for others the same way you want them to read your stories- polite, honest, and in such a way that your suggestions add value to the overall story. It's important to remember that the story you're reading is a labor of love and is therefore close to the heart of the writer. By taking a respectful approach and taking the experience seriously, you'll earn the respect of your fellow writers and have more people want to work with you in the future.
There's no doubt that having a beta reader review your work is a smart decision. They add value to your work by giving you insight into your readership, by catching errors, and by helping you to build your relationships and reputation within the writing community.
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