Updated: Oct 4, 2019
A beta reader in the writing industry is a person who reads your work in progress (wip). You've finished the book and done some editing and you just want to know what a reader's reaction to the story is.
A beta reader may give you ideas and suggestions about how to adjust your story to improve it but usually you just want them to give you their reactions.
There are many definitions and ideas of what a beta reader is depending on who you ask but for our purposes I'll tell you how I interpret a beta reader: they are someone who reads your wip and provides their reaction.
As a writer you can ask questions but I prefer to let the beta reader go in blind. I mean they'll know the gist of the story of course but I'd like a beta reader to approach their beta book as though it's pleasure reading. Because that's your audience. Most readers won't go into a book planning to provide detailed feedback to the author.
Some beta readers don't know how to evaluate a book though. While they are eager to help they don't know how to say more than "it's good" or "it's okay." So while you want your beta reader to treat the book like a relaxing read you also want them to be able to reflect on the story and characters to provide you something valuable.
Plenty of authors will tell you how invaluable a high quality beta reader is. And ideally you'd want to have several.
They can let you know where a character falls flat or point out plot holes. Let you know what they like about a character or their interpretation of motives and story. You want these to align with your goals of the story. If a beta reader is wildly in a different direction than where they should be or where you planned for them to be then you know you gotta go back to that story and make some tweaks.
You want several people for this because you can gauge if this is going to be an across the board thing or a one off opinion that is hardly universal.
A beta reader can verbalize YOUR feelings about your writing that you weren't able to capture. Something was off or not feeling right and they make a comment and your like zing...yes that!
Even a beta reader that is full of praise can be great. It can be a confidence boost and there's no writer alive who doesn't need that. It can let you know what's working and that it shines so you can do more of that. Or leave it as is...no changes necessary.
Some beta readers are a little over the top and will go over your manuscript line by line assessing nearly every word. I certainly can't claim that that's always unwelcome by the author but it's much bigger scope than beta reading is. Other beta readers will even mark or correct grammar/spelling or adjust formatting and that's just also way more than a beta reader should be.
It can overwhelm a beta reader if they feel like they have to analyze every aspect of the manuscript to be of any use.
It's not that we want our beta readers to be lazy and uninvolved but each step of the post-first-draft process doesn't need to be all jammed into one read through by a single person.
You don't want to rush your work because it'll end up showing in the final product. The rising action will be too quick, the character growth will feel uneven or worse yet, static. You'll have plot lines that are introduced but never show up or have any resolutions.
A person who has never read your words before will be able to see these things much more clear than the author who is neck deep in the story and knows what's going on.
Some of this process will involve killing your darlings...I talk about darlingcide in this post.
There are those rock star authors who manage to get a team of beta readers and just blow the rest of us out of the water.
I don't have any statistics on this but I'm just going to pull one out of thin air and say only about point one percent of authors are those kind of super stars. If you do manage to get a beta reader or two, wrangling them is a full time job. They are notoriously unreliable. You can read my post "Ten Beta Readers You'll Meet in Hell" here. It takes a light-hearted jab at beta readers.
You can find them all over the internet; writing groups, twitter, instagram, good reads. Anywhere there's a writer and/or reader, you'll have willing participants to read your book.
You can pay for beta readers from professionals (like me). Everyone has their unique take on what it means to be a beta reader. All are valid. The only thing I will take umbridge with is gatekeeping.
Have you had success in finding beta readers? How did you do it? What other experiences have you had with beta reading?
Polar Bear Editing offers two beta reader programs.
Beta Reader Roulette is a manuscript exchange program. PBE facilitates gathering participants, writing the questionnaire so feedback is standard and authors/readers know what to expect, managing the schedule, and ensuring all feedback is handed it, processing the reports, and then emailing them to their authors. All you have to do is read your assigned manuscript.
Beta Reader Rover allows authors to hand their manuscript into a pool of waiting beta readers. PBE manages the who process and the author simply awaits their report.
Jeannette is a unicorn cat who loves her job, her kids, and her husband. She’s an exceptional novel editor who’s been studying story elements for more than twenty years.
You can follow her on twitter at @Polar_Bear_Edit