5 Things Beta Readers Should Know before They Agree to the Task

There is a difference between a Critique Partner and a Beta Reader.

A Critique Partner is someone who approaches a manuscript from the point of view of a writer.

They are prepared to hone in on the nitpicky stuff, be blunt with their criticism, and give ample notes on where the story just doesn’t work.

A good Critique Partner puts significant work into critiquing a manuscript, and they usually understand what they’re in for. That’s why the relationship with a Critique Partner should always be reciprocal in some way. Either the writer is trading manuscripts with them and doing the same amount of work, or they’re paying them a fee to do it.

The role of a Beta Reader can be much more casual and this is where the lines get blurred.

A Beta Reader is someone who has agreed to read the book from the point of view of a reader.

This means that Beta Readers are not necessarily always other writers, or editors, or anyone with any sort of literary association. They might be a spouse or a good friend. And because they sometimes don’t have any experience with beta reading or critique, they might not have any idea what will be helpful in terms of feedback. They might read the whole book and say, “I liked it. It was good,” or, “It wasn’t for me. Sorry.” But they won’t know how to provide the details needed to make it better.

On the flip side, if the Beta Reader is a writer then they might be used to critiquing and go way overboard on picking everything apart before the author is ready for that stage. They might also expect the author to reciprocate in some way that hasn’t been clearly spelled out.

If you’ve been asked to be a Beta Reader here are 5 guidelines to help the process go smoothly for both parties:

Be Very Clear on Expectations
If you’re expecting something in exchange for being a Beta Reader, then make sure you let the writer know that. Reading manuscripts takes time and energy and most people are busy people. It’s important to feel your time is respected. Beta Readers should also be given a reasonable amount of time to finish reading the book. If the writer is on a firm deadline and you can’t finish in that amount of time, tell them they will need to find someone else instead.

Make Sure to Mention the Good
Many Beta Readers assume that the writer only needs to hear about the parts of the story that don’t work or could be improved. This is reinforced by the notion that writers need to be “thick-skinned” and immune to criticism. But writers need to be encouraged just like everyone else. It’s also incredibly helpful for us to know what we’re actually doing right so that we can keep on doing it. Be conscious of pointing out the excellent parts of the story along with the not-so-excellent.

Be a Reader, Not a Writer
This can be tricky for Beta Readers who are also writers. Sometimes it’s even hard for writers to read their own favorite published authors anymore because they can’t get out of that writer state of mind when they’re reading. The writer reads like an editor and a judge. But the reader reads like someone who is looking forward to being taken on an adventure. They tend to forgive minor typos because…they’re not there to edit. They are there to read the story and see if it grabs them, and if not, find out why.

It’s Not about How You Would Have Written the Book
I see this a lot when writers receive feedback on their work. The person giving feedback doesn’t like that it wasn’t a happy ending, or the MFA program they went through taught them to cut 95% of the adjectives, or it turned them off that the main character used so many curse words. It’s normal to have an opinion, but the writer’s job is not to conform their book to everyone’s opinion. Good Beta Readers are able to separate their personal tastes from a logical analysis of what actually doesn’t work in the story.

Writers, Be Real about Your Doubts
Writers should give Beta Readers a list of areas in the manuscript that they have concerns about. If the writer wants the Beta Reader to to focus specifically on certain sections, they need to ask for that. If a few other readers have already gotten confused about part of the storyline, the Beta Reader should know that before they begin. If the writer thinks the ending is weak, they should say so. Reading a manuscript can be a long journey and Beta Readers need to know the signposts for where they should slow down, and where they should stop to examine things.

Beta Reading can be a lot of work, but it can also be a lot of fun. And if you’re a writer yourself, you’ll learn so much about craft from volunteering for beta reading duties. If you’re looking for Beta Readers, or looking to do a little beta reading yourself, check out the forums on AbsoluteWrite for opportunities:

Beta Readers, Mentors, and Writing Buddies

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15 Comments

  • Reply Brian C. E. Buhl 15 October, 2014 at 10:38 am

    Tomorrow night, I’ll bring this up with a group I’m meeting once a month. We read one novel a month from the group. It is unclear if the group is acting as beta readers for each other, or critiquing. I thought it was critiquing, but last meeting, I came with way, way more notes than anyone else.

    Thanks for posting this!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 15 October, 2014 at 11:18 am

      The lines between beta reading and critique can get very fuzzy, very fast. Probably the most important part is being really clear on expectations and communicating the expectations of both parties before beginning. When I beta read for people, I always tell them that I’m not planning on acting as their editor. I truly am going to approach it as a reader who just picked their book up off the shelf and gave it a go.

  • Reply Lisen Minetti 15 October, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Right now I am using someone who switches back and forth as needed between beta reader and editor. She called last night with a problem on one part of my story and not really sure HOW to address it, forgetting she was beta reading and not editing. My answer (this time) was simple: STOP! Just put down you were confused and why; I just need to see how / where things aren’t making sense!

    Though my best investment thus far (since I have written predominately MG) is my friend’s 10 year old son. He is a voracious reader and is my perfect beta reader. He lets me pick his brain about the story for hours, all for the low price of pizza and ice cream!

  • Reply Judith Post 15 October, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    Good post, I’ve seen all of the reactions you mentioned over the years. It takes a while to find the right people as critique partners and as beta readers. Just a side question, is there a way to “like” your posts? I’ve looked and missed it.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 15 October, 2014 at 4:13 pm

      Thanks Judith! And no, so sorry, I need to get that feature set up again. Will definitely look into it.

  • Reply Mandy 15 October, 2014 at 8:15 pm

    I love point #4. This is a problem I run into a lot, and it isn’t easy finding beta readers—or critiquers for that matter—who can separate personal taste from objective critique.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  • Reply Ewa 16 October, 2014 at 3:49 am

    Preparing a questionnaire for a beta reader can be a good idea. Questions like ‘what did the story make you think about?’ or ‘why do you think the protagonist did what she did?’ can be much more helpful than ‘what did you like and why?’ – they encourage the reader to express their thoughts clearly and the writer can see their work from another point of view. There are a lot of questionnaires on the web but I recommend using them as an inspiration instead of copying them. I also think it’s good to prepare new questions to every single work.

    And Lauren – I want to thank you for your blog, I don’t know any other blog, or book, or magazine that is half this helpful and inspiring 🙂

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 16 October, 2014 at 10:28 am

      Oh wow, thanks Ewa! Your kind words are really appreciated 🙂

  • Reply Glynis Jolly 16 October, 2014 at 8:56 am

    I’m beta reading a book now. Yes, because I am a writer, I am noticing things someone else wouldn’t. I like doing the work though. It makes me feel like I’m part of the community.

  • Reply Catherine North 16 October, 2014 at 11:04 am

    Thanks for another great article. I’ve beta read for a few writers. I find giving praise comes naturally, as I’m strongly motivated to find the positives in their writing. Sometimes I struggle more with the critical side, but I try to be honest and diplomatic. People have responded well so far 🙂

  • Reply Marie Ann Bailey 17 October, 2014 at 5:03 am

    What a great post, Lauren! I’ve been a beta reader for a couple of novels and, indeed, it is very difficult to shelve my editor self when I’m beta reading. I will edit or note areas for improvement though if the mistakes get in the way of enjoying the book.

    I do channel my writer self in imagining what kind of feedback the other writer might want, if I wasn’t given specific guidelines. I just think of what I would want to hear from beta readers of my (still in rough draft) novels and assume any writer would want the same feedback. But I would prefer that the writer provide me with a list of questions or general expectations.

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  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 17 October, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    Very good, clear distinctions. I pay for professional critiques and then family and friends read as readers. a couple of my readers are writers too and as you say, the lines get blurred. ALL are helpful.

  • Reply Vashti Quiroz-Vega 20 October, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    Hello Lauren! Great article. You’ve cleared up a lot of things for me. Thank you! 😀

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