Hunting the Elusive Beta Reader

Photo by moriza.
Photo by moriza.

Writers long to be read. Why else would we be in this business? Completing a book can be a lonely and isolating experience, and if you’re anything like me, gnomes of self-doubt will be gnawing at your ankles the entire way. But once we’ve struggled through that first (and second) draft, and finally hunted down and exterminated all the problems we could find… there is likely a big smelly heap of problems still lurking in the prose, waiting to ruin the good time of an unwary reader.

That’s where the beta reader comes in. Hero to millions, purveyor of wisdom and hope. That trusted soul who will weed out the treacherous needles in your precarious tower of haystacks. The paragon who delivers insight you never would have stumbled into on your own. A good beta reader is more precious than gold, and can make the process of editing and revising much easier.

Finding that perfect reader, on the other hand, can be damned difficult.

Here’s the thing. Almost every reader I know is also a writer, and writing and reading take a lot of time and energy. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to read all the books, write all the prose, blog all the posts, and also live the sociable, hygienic life of a fairly functional human being. Asking someone to beta read your work — or agreeing to beta read the work of another — is not a pact to be entered into lightly.

How to Be an Awesome Beta Reader

Be communicative. Taking the time to read an author’s work is only the beginning of the process. Chances are, if you’ve agreed to be someone’s beta, that writer will be on pins and needles within minutes, bleary-eyed and twitching as they sit by their phone or computer waiting for your email. “So did you like it?” they will yearn to ask, every five goddamn minutes.  Hours will stretch into years, each day an eternity, stars guttering in the void as aeons march past like elephants on Vicodin. Hit your writer with a three-word “I liked it!” email at the end of all that time, and they may well end up wanting to shank you with a staple remover.

Is that fair? Not really. But a writer looking for a beta reader is a writer in search of meaningful feedback. Getting a “like” or a bit of praise for your writing on the Internet is not actually that difficult. Post a snippet on Facebook or on your blog, and you can probably get a plus or a like from somebody, even if they’re just supporting a friend. Real, constructive feedback takes time and effort. I’m not saying you need to write a book of your own in response to theirs, but be ready to drop a few thoughtful paragraphs, at the very least. If you’re not willing or able to do at least that much for your writer, then maybe you should reconsider taking the assignment, to avoid wasting both your time and theirs.

And if you really want to earn your writer’s devotion, drop them a line every once in a while to tell them about a bit you just read. They will love you for it.

Photo by striatic.
Photo by striatic.

Be engaged. One of the toughest things about finding a good beta reader is narrowing the field down to those readers whose taste and interest intersect with yours. To get good feedback, you need someone who understands what you’re trying to do, knows the genre, and is excited to read your work. The sad truth is, someone might fulfill one or two of these criteria, and in general be an awesome person and a good friend, and still not work out the way you’d hope.

Even the most supportive, enthusiastic friend may not end up being your best choice for a beta reader. There are some people out there I’d love to give my work to for critique — people I interact with daily and whose opinions I value. But some don’t read much in my chosen genre. Or they’re too busy with their own work. Or any number of other reasons. This is all the more reason to choose carefully.

Be tough. In their bitty secret hearts, all writers hope that our half-complete second draft will blow everyone’s socks off. But we also know that it won’t, and probably shouldn’t. Praise, while nice, is only good if it reinforces what works on the page — and it must be balanced out by what doesn’t work. Spot the problems, point them out, and be tough. I don’t mean lay into the writer with the blazing fury of a thousand suns. But if something in the work made you uncomfortable or angry, say so and detail why. Because one thing is certain, people are far less forgiving and cordial out there in the marketplace.

Be available. Simply put, don’t commit to reading someone’s work if you don’t have the time. Sure, things happen, life circumstances change, and time you thought you had might unexpectedly disappear. But don’t just leave your writer hanging. Tell them what’s up, and politely beg off if you have to. But don’t just leave them to assume the worst. And don’t agree to beta read “to be nice” if you have no real intention of following through. Turns out that’s actually not nice.

How To Be an Awesome Writer (for Your Beta Reader)

Be choosy. Don’t just throw incomplete work at anyone who looks at you cross-eyed. Most of all, show consideration for your prospective beta-reader by making sure they’re interested, available and willing to put in the work. Don’t try to guilt them into it or force reading on them. That way lies strained friendships and sadmaking.

Be clear. Outline your expectations up front. Put together a couple of paragraphs on what you wanted to accomplish with the work, what kind of feedback you want, and any questions you want your reader to answer. Don’t expect them to use their telekinetic powers to glean what you want from the cosmic ether.

Be patient. Reading takes time, and reading critically even more so. It can be nerve-wracking to wait for any scrap of feedback. But that’s the road. You may wait weeks, or months. Deadlines may come and go before your reader regretfully informs you that their car exploded and the dog got chicken pox somehow and they’ve been selected for the next moon shot. It happens. If you simply must pester your reader for progress reports, do so gently and politely.

Be grateful. Even if things didn’t work out like you expected, take the time to thank your beta reader. They took time out of their life to read and comment on your work. That’s not nothing, especially if you’re someone they’ve never actually met in real life. And for the love of Heidegger, don’t unload on them or argue with them about your book if they level a criticism you don’t like. Nod your head, consider their point, and if you must, quietly resolve to find a different beta reader next time and just move on. But you gave out your work with the express purpose of getting another person’s opinion on it. Respect their reactions and alter your work, or not, as you see fit.

Finding Beta Readers

So I know what you’re thinking. “Yeah, those criteria are great, I’ve finally learned how to be picky and difficult, what a treat. But how do I actually find beta readers?” Well, if you’re looking for a magic bullet, I don’t have one to give. But here are the things that helped me find some awesome beta readers:

  • Talk about your work. Not in a spammy way. Talk about what excites and scares you.
  • Share excerpts and see who gets interested.
  • Support other readers and build relationships.
  • Pay it forward. Volunteer to beta read for writers you know.
  • Blog about what’s important to you. Reply to comments.
  • Be awesome to others.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to thank those people who took the time to try to make my work better. You know who you are. Thank you for being awesome.

  • Very valuable stuff, and a great reminder. I need to remember to be more critical when I beta-read, because I’m guilty of just saying, “Awesome stuff. I liked it.”

  • Tracy McCusker

    Hunting the perfect beta reader is every bit as hard as you make it out to be. In the end, I think I settle on finding a pool of beta readers that collectively satisfy your three criteria (someone who understands what you’re trying to do, knows the genre, and is excited to read your work). I find that if a beta reader has two of the three criteria, sometimes “understands what you’re trying to do” can be cultivated. Boy howdy is it hard to find good poetry betas.

  • Jen Donohue

    As somebody who will need one of those Beta Reader entities eventually (not to be confused with a Beta Fish, evidently), this was a great post!

  • Sophie Moss

    Excellent post. Finding good beta readers is always a challenge. I think the most important aspect you touched on is that they must first like and understand your work. I spent a lot of years sharing stories with crit partners and other writers who did not get my writing at all. Those critiques stunted my writing and did not help me improve. It took a long time to finally get the courage and confidence to share my work online (through self-publishing) and once I did, that’s where I found my real readers. Sometimes you just don’t have anyone in your physical writing communities who “get you.” That said, even when you have an audience, it can be hard to find those people you can really trust to help you polish your story before publication. I’ve tried out a few new beta readers with each of my stories. The biggest issue I’ve run into is time. Some get back to me right away, some take up to a month to get back to me. I think of a beta reader as someone who does a quick high level read-through, as if they are reading the story for pleasure. I think a month is awfully long to wait for feedback on a basic read through. I offered my beta readers a month this time and I won’t do that again. In the future, if they don’t have time to get to it within one week, I’d rather find someone else. My advice for new writers, would be 1) be patient and wait for the right people 2) try a few new people each time and maybe one will stick, and 3) don’t be afraid to give your beta readers a time limit of one week. If they can’t get back to you by then, find someone else who has the time and is excited about your work.

    • I never said thank you for this amazing comment, Sophie! A terrible oversight on my part. A week might be tough for me as a reader, but I agree that a month is probably too long to wait.

  • Colin_Kerr

    That’s a splendid treatment of feedback relationships, and the principles extend to all manner of creative endeavor. Sometimes it’s hard to be straightforward with people about expectations and such, but remember that this is usually a part-time or full-time job for at least one party, and think about what you would insist upon telling–or hearing from–your boss or colleagues at any other job.

    • Thank you, Colin! It is tough to be straightforward with people, especially when we want to be supportive, but in are a position where we have to be critical.

  • Lisa Shambrook

    Great post. I’d love to beta read, but just don’t know what’s expected of me. I worry that my knowledge of grammar etc might not be up to scratch enough to point out problems in other peoples work. I’ll be needing betas myself at some point and the whole process scares me a bit, quite a bit actually!
    I still hope I’ll have something to offer as a beta one day, like Sophie said, someone who can read and comment on the package as a whole, pointing out something that might not work, praising what does.

    • In my opinion, any reader’s judgment is valid. You don’t have to be an expert, just to be able to talk honestly and in-depth about what you did and didn’t like, and why. Thanks, Lisa!

  • Excellent post – thanks for sharing! Now I know how to be a better beta 🙂

  • Another brilliant post Dan!

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