You’ve written a book.
Books are meant to be read, but your first draft is probably not the prize winner you want it to be. Not yet, anyway. That certainly doesn’t mean it can’t be, but you need some fresh eyes. When I first wrote The Elder Throne, my finished first draft was a flawed, exhausted thing. Instead of jumping right into the Beta Reading pool, I knew I had to run it past a developmental editor for a second opinion. Of course, that’s just me. Not everyone wants to do that, and that’s fair enough. What every writer should do, however, is choose a group of Beta Readers. And here’s how.
What are Beta Readers?
Using a very helpful Google search: Beta readers are not explicitly proofreaders or editors, but can serve in that context. Elements highlighted by beta readers encompass things such as plot holes, problems with continuity, characterisation or believability; in fiction and non-fiction, the beta might also assist the author with fact-checking.
The way I see it, Beta readers are the trusted few who can criticise your life’s work and you’ll take it with a smile. This is because they’ll offer constructive criticism: honest, well-meant advice about how to make your book-baby the best it can be.
How many Beta Readers should I have?
A difficult question. The answer? Not too many, not too few.
As annoyingly vague as that sounds, it’s up to the author to gauge how many readers they think will give them a good range of opinions. The danger of choosing too few readers is that aspects for improvement will be missed, and the danger of choosing too many is that so much criticism will flood your own ideas and vision for your novel.
For The Elder Throne, my Beta base camp totalled at 10 people, for two reasons:
- I thought it’d give me the best range
- I have a thing about even numbers
For some books and authors, that might be far too many readers, but mine weren’t chosen randomly. In fact, I chose them very carefully so they could each offer me a different, valuable opinion. Every Beta had something unique to offer to my story, and were handpicked out of the mire because of that. No one in my base camp was just there to fill numbers – everyone provided something I could not get from anyone else in the group. This is important to remember when you choose your own Betas. Be picky!
Not everyone is cut out to be a Beta reader, so first of all, you need to choose your elite. There are 4 main things to look for in a perfect Beta Reader.
A critical eye
No book is perfect. Your first draft certainly won’t be either, even if it is polished to the best of your ability. Beta readers should ideally be able to see the flaws in your work. In fact, they should be looking for them.
It’s all very well for a Beta to enjoy your book. Enjoyment is a noble goal, but it should come second to poking holes in your plot, pointing out flaws in a character’s creation, or underlining syntax issues with a fat, red pen.
Beta readers must pay attention. They must actively read, not just passively enjoy. They must be capable of critical literary thought, and be able to articulate that criticism in a way that makes it possible for you to fix the problem.
Voracious readers tend to be good at this type of thing, just because of the amount of experience they have with books. It is a rare reader that has nothing critical (constructive or otherwise) to say about a book.
The flip-side of this is the reader who doesn’t like something about your book, but cannot tell you why. Apathy is a difficult thing to articulate, but if someone dislikes an aspect of your book, that’s more than a shrug of your shoulders. Don’t get defensive, but don’t let the comment pass without asking ‘why?’. It may be the smallest of fixes that makes your book better to a plethora of new eyes.
In relation to ‘critical eye’, honesty is another important aspect of Beta readers.
Receiving feedback that’s just “I loved it, no problem here” is heartwarming but ultimately the worst response you could hope for from a Beta. If you don’t know what’s wrong, you won’t be able to fix it.
The temptation to not hurt an author’s feelings is pretty strong for most. An example I have is from my 9-12 year old Beta reader, who was nervous about approaching me with something he considered a flaw. I assured him that criticism was what I wanted, and he pointed out something I hadn’t seen before, and agreed with.
If you think hesitance might be a dangerous area with your Beta readers, create a feedback form. This way, you can ask specific questions about their reactions to the book, and they’ll know which areas you want to focus on. Make sure to include an ‘Any other comments’ section, however: you might not have covered all the bases, and they might have noticed something you didn’t consider.
My feedback form tends to cover five main topics:
- General (pacing, enjoyment out of 10, most liked, least liked, syntax, favourite character, least favourite character).
- Plot/pacing (Was the story too fast/too slow/erratic, did it make sense, were there holes, etc.)
- Characters (Specific character break-down questions about personality and story arc)
- Reactions (what were the readers’ reactions to certain key points in the novel)
- Any other comments (free form opinion)
Your book is flawed. You know that. Everyone knows that. Get them to tell you why. A good Beta reader won’t need too much prompting!
Enthusiasm and/or Relevance
Your Beta needs to want to read your book.
That doesn’t mean they have to love the genre, but they must have some kind of investment in getting to the end. Obviously, this is largely dependent on the type of novel you are writing, but under no circumstances should you request a Beta reader who is reading under duress, or only doing it for the money. In fact, if someone’s asking you for money, do not choose them. Beta readers are not editors; they are not professionals. They are essentially volunteers and should be wanting to read your book because of the book.
You will find most writers are willing to be Beta readers, no matter what genre, and writers’ circles are great places to meet others who want the same thing you do: to improve their book. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of tit-for-tat here; you read my book, I read yours, but the important factor is willingness. If a book really isn’t their cup of tea and they wouldn’t usually, under any circumstances, pick it up, they’re not the Beta reader for you. Of course, diverse reading groups are the best choice (which I’ll touch on in a minute), so if you can find a reader who doesn’t typically read your genre but is willing to give yours a go – that’s excellent.
- Do give it to the curious reader who wants to experience a new genre.
- Do not give it to the scowling person backing away whilst making the sign of the cross with their fingers.
Of course, better than a curious reader is a relevant and enthusiastic reader. If your book is a Horror, find some Horror readers. If your book is Fantasy, unearth a Tolkie, Westorosi and/or an Elderling.
My genre is Childrens (9-12), so I had two happy readers from that demographic serve as Betas. But relevance is a funny thing: it’s not just the demographic you might need to look for. If you’re writing a book that required research, as mine did, then it might be worth running it past people who know the topic you researched, to see how well you interpreted the material.
No matter what, each of your Beta readers should have a reason to be included. As I mentioned before, each of my 10 Elder Throne Betas had a unique selling point:
- Demographic 9-12 (male)
- Demographic 9-12 (female)
- Personal and professional experience of protagonist’s way of life
- Voracious reader (adult female)
- Writer of adult fiction (critical eye)
- Writer of children’s fiction (critical eye and relevant demographic)
- Reader and writer of horror (critical eye and opposing genre opinion)
- Enthusiastic reader with cultural relevance (adult female)
- Hard-to-please reader of fiction (the Nokia 3310 approach***)
- Typical horror/crime reader (adult male)
Most important to me was Reader #3 and Reader #8, readers who had personal experience of things I did not. For example, Reader #3 has Amniotic Band Syndrome (a condition shared with my protagonist) and currently writing a thesis on the representation of disability in the media. Reader #8 has a different cultural background to me and one that is shared with a secondary character. In both cases, I wanted to make sure I was being as accurate as possible in my fiction. The opinions and feedback from these two readers have been invaluable to me and I cannot thank them enough.
Writing for a demographic is all very well and good, but diversity in a readership can really prove a novel’s worth. For example, my demographic for The Elder Throne is the 9-12 age range. On top of this, as I have a female protagonist and the book involves (murderous) fairies, I’m aware the book may be marketed more at girls than boys. This doesn’t mean my Beta readers were just pre-teen girls. Ohh, no.
As C.S. Lewis said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”
I honestly believe this is true. Narnia, Percy Jackson, Harry Potter and many other children’s books (up to and including the Dinosaur That Pooped series, marketed at under 5s) are some of my favourite stories. Yes, I read Narnia and Harry Potter when I was 10 or so, but Percy Jackson was as recent as five years ago, due to a recommendation by another adult, and Dinosaur was literally two months ago.
In the same way, whatever genre your book is, it might be a good idea to choose one (or more, but not all) Beta reader who doesn’t typically read that genre, to see how your novel would fare in the wider reading world.
As I mentioned above, my Beta readers each offered something unique with their feedback. Do not stick to just one type of reader throughout your entire Beta group. Varied opinion may offer insight you otherwise would not get.
- Beta readers are useful tools for a novel’s improvement, and their opinions should be listened to with open-mindedness and respect. It is also worth remembering that these readers are volunteers. They have spent their own time helping you, whether or not you agree with their feedback, or even if they gave you nothing useful. Make sure to thank them for helping you out.
- If a Beta reader doesn’t work for you, do not feel obligated to use them again just because you did once before.
- If you want the feedback by a certain time, let your Beta readers know that. Most writers work on tight schedules. Give deadlines (politely) to ensure you receive what you need by the time you need it.
- Most of all, remember that it is still your novel. Respect the Beta readers’ opinions, but do not feel as though you have to change everything they mention. If several people are telling you a character or plot point does not work, it may be prime for revision, but otherwise carefully consider what changes you want and need to make to improve your book.