How many Beta Readers do you need?

November 21, 2014 | By | 41 Replies More
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Martha Conway

Someone in my writing group recently sent his first chapters to five different people … and got five very different responses. The result: he’s more confused than ever.

Beta readers—those readers you trust your manuscript to before sending it out to an agent, editor, or publishing house—can give valuable feedback. They read with more distance than you do, and because of that they often point out problems or inconsistencies you’ve missed. I love my beta readers. But I’ve also had the experience of a careful reader giving me misleading (even hurtful) feedback—who hasn’t?

Beta readers can be your friends or colleagues; they can even be the very agents or editors who will eventually work on the finished manuscript. I believe that the key to using a beta reader successfully is twofold: one, approach the right reader(s); and two, be clear on what kind of feedback you want.

Easier said than done.

How do you know which person will give you the most valuable feedback? First, look at what they read. It’s very important to find beta readers who like to read books in your genre. When I wanted feedback for my novel, Thieving Forest, I knew I needed someone who understood both historical novels and women’s fiction, since Thieving Forest straddles both worlds.

If you choose a beta reader who generally reads thrillers and your book is a character-driven literary novel, that reader will probably be impatient with your descriptive imagery and itch for more action. Their feedback will reflect this. Ideally, you want someone who has read so much in your genre that they have internalized its structure and rules; then, if something feels off, they can point to it (even without knowing how to fix it).

Some writers avoid using other writers as beta readers. Why? Because writers are in the business of storytelling, and we all tell stories in different ways. Having a beta reader “re-write” your story is about the worst feedback you can possibly get. Sure, there are times when a specific plot element doesn’t work, but there is a fine line between pointing that out and changing the story’s trajectory.

Nevertheless, I’ve found that I feel more comfortable asking other writers to read my work for the simple fact that with them I can do an exchange: I’ll read yours if you read mine. However, if I ask another writer to be a beta reader, I always first weigh how effectively that person is able to take off her writer’s cap and put on her reader’s cap when critiquing. Remember, you can always “test” a beta reader by giving her one chapter, or even one scene, of your manuscript, and see how her comments resonate for you.

I once tested a potential reader this way, a professional who came with great recommendations, only to find that she followed guidelines to which I didn’t subscribe; for example, she claimed that that there was a “rule” against using parentheses in fiction (had she never read Kate Atkinson?). She might have been good for some writers, but our styles clashed.

Second, limit the number of beta readers. Some writers like to have an odd number of beta readers so that there isn’t a “tie”—two readers think something works and two think it doesn’t. Remember, everyone brings their own thoughts and experience to reading—it’s one of the joys books give us. And it’s a good thing if your manuscript is bringing up different ideas for different people. But not if all of them want you to change what is on the page accordingly.

Third, let all the comments sit for a while before integrating any of them into your work-in-progress. I’ve had the experience where I was initially put off by a comment and dead-set against it, only to find, weeks later, that I was still thinking about it. That’s a good indication that the comment might be right. I’ve also had the opposite experience—something sits right initially but the more I think about it the less it resonates for this particular book. Trust your instinct. But also be open to changing your mind.

Martha Conway, Thieving Forest

Martha Conway, Thieving Forest

After you have done all you can to find yourself the right beta readers, you still might end up with comments that are more confusing than helpful. Here’s where it pays to be proactive. Before you send your manuscript to your readers, write a list of specific questions. Are you worried that chapter three moves to slowly? Write, “Point out places where the story drags.” Are you questioning where you began the story? Write, “Does the first scene catch your interest?”

Here’s an example of some questions one author gave me when I was a beta reader for her manuscript:

  1. Is the main character clearly defined and are you interested in her story?
  2. Does the ending deliver on the novel’s promise?
  3. Was the ending satisfying?
  4. Where did the story lag?

CiS_rsjUUAAK9ybThis helped me focus on the specific concerns of the writer, and I read her manuscript with these questions in mind. Of course, beta readers might (and probably will) also address issues you didn’t ask about; some of these will be helpful and some not. But at the very least you should have their response to a particular issue that’s been plaguing you.

Finally, as someone who has both been a beta reader and has received beta readers’ comments, I try to use advice often given to parents: model the behavior you want to see. When someone asks you to be a beta reader, try to think what feedback you would want if the manuscript were yours. I always start with something positive and end with something positive. (I believe this is called the “feedback sandwich.”) And I try to stay as specific as possible: I was thrown out of the story in this scene; or, I was confused by this paragraph.

The more I write, the more I admire other writers. It’s hard work! There’s a certain amount of tenacity, smart choices, long hours, inspired re-writes, and luck involved. We need a supportive community, that’s for sure. And in writing as in life, it pays to tell others how they can best support us, rather than leaving it to chance.

Do you use beta readers? If so, how many and who are they? What pros and cons have you encountered?

Martha Conway is the author of Sugarland: A Jazz Age Mystery [Noontime Books], available via Amazon. Conway’s first novel was nominated for an Edgar Award, and her second novel, Thieving Forest, won the 2014 North American Book Award for Best Historical Fiction. Her short fiction has been published in The Iowa Review, The Carolina Quarterly Review, The Quarterly, The Massachusetts Review, Folio, and other journals. She teaches creative writing for Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program and UC Berkeley Extension, and is a recipient of a California Arts Council Fellowship for Creative Writing. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she is one of seven sisters. She currently lives in San Francisco.

Find out more about her on her website: http://marthaconway.com/

Follow her on twitter @marthamconway

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, How To and Tips

Comments (41)

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  1. Sarah says:

    Hmm.

    I kind of disagree on a couple things in this. First, if a write is very new or not a strong writer, I think a fellow writer could be most valuable. Poorly flowing sentences, for example, is something experienced writers almost always catch and can say “Hey, this isn’t clear. You can take this sentence to another level and it will do more for you.” On the other hand, those who are editing only to see if something is grammatically correct and readers who are simply looking at the big picture might either not catch it or they might not recognize that it could be better.

    Also, on the whole “critique as you want to be critiqued”- I want people to be ruthless. I want to know every single place where they think the story could be improved. That doesn’t mean that we will agree or that I will necessarily change it, but I don’t want someone to give a compliment simply to make me feel better about the writing. If the entire thing is terrible, I want people to tell me! If they love something and would hate for me to change it, I want people to tell me! If the whole thing is fantastic… well, then we would know they were lying! ☺

    Overall, though this is a great article on beta readers. Betas don’t get enough attention in writing blogs!

  2. Great article! I show my work to my writing group, which consists of about five or six readers. And then, after editing, I send it off to two beta readers. So the five or six are alpha readers? I’m not sure but this is the system I used for my latest novel and I think it’s worked out really well. My rule of thumb is that if more than one person mentions a problem they have with my work, then it’s a problem for me to fix!

  3. Dear Martha, thank you so much for this article. I am currently working on my first book and did not understand the concept of beta readers. This has made it much clearer and has made me reconsider my next step.

    Regards,

    Paula.

  4. I happened upon this piece today, minutes after reading comments from one of my beta readers! I have struggled with putting together the right “team” of readers and try to pick people who I know will give me different perspectives. For example, one of my betas is a huge reader and strong on copy edits, so I know she will not only comment on story structure, believability, etc. but those silly typos that evade my capture after too much time with my manuscript. One wants to talk through the book instead of providing written comments. Etc. Etc.

    One place where I disagree with you, at least based on my own personal experience, is picking readers within your genre. I am part of a virtual writer workshop and there I met a writer who is all about the supernatural thriller infused with gory/erotic details. We were paired in the same group, so she was getting chapters of my novel, and when the workshop concluded, offered to beta for me when I was done with the novel even though in her own words, she never reads or writes in my genre (literary women’s fiction). I took her up on her offer, and she gave me the most thoughtful and useful feedback to date. She actually said reading my novel helped her realize she could expand beyond her own comfort zone. I love that she got something out of the beta process as much as I did. Sometimes that outside perspective helps because these aren’t filling in the blanks the way someone comfortable in the genre might.

    It’s a valuable process but you have to trust your gut and be strong enough to disagree with comments as well. Taking the time to digest feedback is critical. No knee-jerk editing! That’s hard for me! I want to get right to it!

    Thanks for this piece. Picking beta readers is an inexact science, but it can be a crucial part of the writing process.

  5. Aya Walksfar says:

    Martha,
    Good article about beta readers. I have five novels out and all of them had beta readers.I have a file called RC Candidate Questions (Release Copy Candidate–my wife’s a computer engineer). It lists what I would specifically like feedback on, but since my beta readers are professional women who are well-educated and meticulous about beta reading my work, I always add “all feedback appreciated.”
    I feel fortunate to have a circle of five beta readers who are willing to read whatever I write. Of course, they meet my “target readers” description: women, independent, employed or retired, age range…. and so forth.
    Since there is no way I could possibly afford to hire their services, each reader receives a signed print copy of the books they read. It’s a small token of my appreciation and they seem quite thrilled to receive the books. It is a little pricey since three of them live a distance away and I have to mail the books. The one who lives in England is the most pricey. (There’s no media category for out of country).
    The other thing I do I to name them on the Acknowledgement page.

  6. Hello Martha,

    Your article has perfect timing for me. In January, my manuscript will be fully edited and I am searching for beta readers. After reading your article, I feel more informed about the whole process.

    This week, I need to take the time to write down specific questions for their feedback. The questions you listed in your article are the ones I’m going to use along with a few more.

    Thank you again.

    Marie

  7. I am currently in the middle of 7 “pre-beta” reads for my fifth novel, Give Us This Day. The pre-beta reads are more of a mastermind group read, in that I have people whose expertise in the area’s my book touches, respond to the way I approached what they know. What usually happens is even though they are experts in certain fields; Medicine, Police, Military, Financial, Political, Governmental and Science, they actually read the entire book. So I get lots of plot and ‘sense of story” comments. I always tell them, I reserve the right to modulate their input so as to not have the facts get too much in the way of a great story, but I infuse much of their suggestions and intention through out the book. After I have moderated then folded all their points and corrections into the manuscript, then I send it out for the more traditional beta reads. These are more genre-specific readers who won’t hesitate to point out inconsistencies or pace and plot issues. I always make sure to acknowledge their input in the back of my books. After they send it back I review comments make changes that seem right, then it’s off to my publisher for the most import read of all. Then the editors take a swing at it and the real fun begins.

  8. amar says:

    dear Martha,
    Thanks for the article, it will be useful as I start finishing the draft for my second novel. For my debut novel, I reached out to beta readers in three phases. First two chapters were sent to 30 persons, and after the manuscript was complete, before sending it to the editors, I sent one or two chapters to another 30. After editing process was complete, I reached out to 7 more reviewers who read the entire novel. The tntire process took nearly 8 months. I would not recommend it to anyody, but I was experimenting. For most part it worked. In each case, more than half the respondents gave their (very good) feedback. I am not trying to plug my blog, but I thought you and your readers might find the following post usesul.

    http://nrithebookblog.wordpress.com/2014/03/07/how-did-i-approach-beta-readers-to-review-my-novel/

    Thanks,

    Amar

    • Amar, you have a serious process! I’ll take a look at your blog. I’m impressed that you have 30 people to send your novel to; do you ever get conflicting advice? I need to keep my circle smaller, but I can definitely see the advantages to casting such a wide net. Will you do anything differently next time?

      Martha

      • Amar says:

        Martha,

        Thanks, but I think the reviewers agreed largely because I was writing for the first time, and they offered their support and encouragement. I don’t see that as a sustainable option for evey book. First of all, it takes up too much time in correspondence. I also sent a complimentary copy of my book to each reviewer, which probably resulted in lost sales.

        I might still follow a step by step approach (reviewers for first two or three chapters –> completed manuscript –> production ready version) with about 7 or 8 reviewers each time.

        The reviewers’ feedback was quite consistent- many of them found my novel too verbose (I had to trim it from 100,000 words to 78,000), but fortunately they all liked the plot and the storyline.

  9. Jackie Gardner says:

    Great article. I’m a beta reader for about 20 Indie’s and love being part of the process. Its great when an author provides specific questions for you to answer as they are always in your mind while reviewing the manuscript. Its also very important to let your beta’s know what you want. Some people I work with want typos noted and others want your impression of the characters or a specific plot point. When you know the expectations then it’s hopefully a good experience for all

    • Jackie, Thanks for giving us the beta point of view! Sounds like you’ve had very satisfying and productive experiences. I will definitely keep your tips in mind. So glad you weighed in.

      Martha

  10. Liz Harding says:

    Hi Martha. I’ve written a novel, and after re-writing it a dozen times I know it still isn’t right, but I don’t know what to do about it, and from what you say, it sounds as though beta readers are the answer. I hadn’t heard of such things before, and don’t belong to any readers’ groups. Could you possibly tell me where to look for a beta reader, please? I’d be more than happy to read another novel, (or several), in exchange. You advice would be very much appreciated, and thank you.

    • Hi Liz,
      One way to go is to ask a friend who shares a similar taste in books. Bribe with dinner or a movie. You could also sign up for a community college class or, if you live near a university, an adult or extension class in creative writing. This is a great way to meet other writers (and teachers). I would start there and see where that gets you. If nothing else, be your own beta reader while you look. Put your manuscript away for a month and then pick it up again. You’ll read it with fresh(er) eyes.

      Good luck, and keep at it!

      Martha

  11. Shellie Blum says:

    I especially related to the part of the article about beta readers in the biz. I’ve been told everything from my memoir would be better suited to a magazine article to that I should hire a ghostwriter. Ugh! I’ve decided to go with my gut instincts and let the readers in the general public decide.

    • Thanks for the comment, Shellie. I agree, in the end we have to trust our own instinct. The best is when a beta reader confirms what we suspected; the worst is when he or she contradicts what we believe altogether. I think you’re right to go with instinct if nothing resonates.

      Martha

  12. Richard Alan says:

    I use beta readers, however my wife/business manager takes care of it for me. She sent my last novel to 12 readers. Five of them followed through with providing input. She includes an online questionnaire and assures the readers that I will not know who submitted what. She gathers all of the data in one document for me. We believe this helps the beta readers be appropriately critical. I have found all of the feedback to be very helpful.

  13. I had 9 and it worked perfectly. I told them what I wanted and what I knew existed and they should ignore. We used Pressbooks for real time feedback and they read as a group. They also discussed among themselves. If they all had a problem, I had a problem. If one of them had, sometimes the others could point out things that smoothed the way for the one with the problem. Sometimes I realized I could rewrite it to make it more clear even if only one had a problem and 98% of the time, all agreed that the rewrite was more clear than the original.

    The group I picked worked well with me and together and I liked the group read on the net immediate feed back and could edit and change immediately method. All of them asked to Beta the next book so it was a good experience for them too. Several hadn’t read my genre before but decided to try books in it after reading mine.

    I’ll keep using the Pressbooks.com method. I like it much better than sending each of them a copy. BTW they all wanted a copy of the draft they read before I altered it on the next edit.

    • Sounds like a well-running operation! I’ve never heard of Pressbooks; I’ll check it out. How did you find your beta readers?

      Instant feedback sounds wonderful. Thanks for your comment.

      Martha

  14. Diane Fraser says:

    Martha,
    This was a helpful read. As I prepare to meet with my beta-readers, I’m going to keep your list of questions handy and add my own. I think it’s good to have beta-readers beyond our writing groups – as our writing comrades can become invested in our work as they experience it, like we all do.
    Your suggestion to give the feedback some time to settle is a good one. We can probably apply it to more than just writing 🙂

    Thanks again for this helpful piece!
    Diane

    • Diane, this is a great point you make about finding beta readers outside of our writing groups. I hadn’t thought of it before, but you’re absolutely right, our writing partners do get invested in our work as time goes along. It’s important to get a fresh perspective. I’m going to put that on my list! Thank you!

      Best,
      Martha

  15. I just finished my first draft of my first novel, and really want to go for publication after I have edited the crap out of it (which, honestly, is most of it. Shitty first drafts, right?). Finding beta readers is on my to-do list. Thanks for the timely tips!

  16. With the first draft of my first novel, I had pages read by two writers but gave the whole manuscript to readers who are not writers.I got useful feedback from both groups and ultimately decided to pursue an assessment of the full manuscript from a professional editor which was invaluable.This article helped me think about what I would ask for next time. Thanks for the reminder that we ultimately must choose what to leave in or take out and that writers and readers need each other. The story belongs to us.

    • Oh, Suzanne, I couldn’t agree more, and I love how you word it: “The story belongs to us.” That is so true. There’s a fine line between wanting the story to be the best it can be (and getting feedback in pursuit of that) and releasing control. Every time I go to one of my book group meetings I’m reminded of how differently people interpret the same book. And that’s a good thing. But we also have to keep/guard the integrity of our particular story.

      Thanks for your insightful comments.

      -Martha

  17. E J Frost says:

    Great post! Love those four questions. I’ll definitely use those when asking for beta-reader feedback. Thanks so much for sharing!

  18. Anjali says:

    Wow! This has come just at the right time for me and has clarified so many things. I am at the moment doing a creative writing course that helps polish your novel (it’s for people who have already written a novel.) and the students and tutor give feedback / workshop, which is incredibly helpful. But it IS a challenge to know ‘how much’ of it should be taken on board and how to ‘act’ upon it. For me the challenge is especially great because I come from a different culture (Indian) and my readers are all Caucasian and certain fundamental differences in perceptions arise and I am struggling with that. Should we at the end of it go entirely on our gut instinct? Because I’ve been asked to cut out on a story line of a particular character that reduces my novel by nearly half and I am scared I won’t have anything new to write! Help!

    • Sounds like a difficult situation, Anjali. If you take your beta readers’ advice and delete a character’s story line, do you yourself think the story would be stronger? You might try writing out a list of pros and cons. Then I would just sit on it a while. Sometimes a reader has a particular problem (the story is confusing, for example), for which they offer up a solution (delete this character); you might find that the problem can be solved using another solution. In any case, it is productive to understand the underlying problem for this reader.

      I always advise writers to go back to the basics: what do I want to say with this story, and have I set that up? Then you can reflect on whether this character’s story line is integral or not.

      Good luck! Stay the course!

      -Martha

  19. Thanks for the insightful article, Martha. You don’t hear much about beta readers, but they’re so important. I love being a beta reader and feel honored when asked to take on the task. On occasion I will point out when it feels like something is missing, and will learn that the author had to cut a big chunk of the story for word count or because it bogged down the story. Unfortunately, sometimes that process leaves the manuscript with holes, where important bits of info are missing. The writer sometimes doesn’t catch it because SHE knows the backstory but forgets that the audience doesn’t. Those are proud moments for me, because I know I’ve helped to make the storyline more clear.

    • Elaine, I agree, those times when you can help a writer clarify something in her manuscript feel great. Thanks for your comments. It’s strange how much word count comes into play these days … I’ve been up against that particular albatross myself. On the one hand, it’s good to have a tight ship. On the other hand (I can’t keep up the nautical metaphor here!), it seems silly to delete for the sake of a number. Sounds like you’re a great beta reader.

      -Martha

  20. julie Brown says:

    Martha – your article could not have come at a better time! Just had my beta-read meeting the other day. I was fortunate in that one of the members in my writing group organized the readers and the format for critiquing. The feedback was valuable, to say the least. I’m marinating with it before making any changes though.

    Fellow writers can be excellent beta-readers; some are not. My fear is that I will have difficulty when it’s time for me to return the favor. “Writing” has changed the way I read. I’m slow, overly critical, and must fight the urge to edit as I go along. However I’ll do my best. We writers have to stick together – nobody else understands us!

    Will follow you now and check out your book! Best of luck and thanks for a great post. Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Hi Julie, so glad the timing of this blog post was right for you. I’ve never heard of an organized beta reading, and I’m very envious! It sounds like a very thoughtful and productive experience. Also it seems like you have been energized by it. I think that’s the litmus test.

      Thanks for your interest in Thieving Forest! Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.

      -Martha

  21. Hollie Overton says:

    This article came at the perfect time! I gave my novel to six beta readers and one of them was very late to get back to me. I’m planning to turn my novel into my agent and the notes this reader gave were significant. But I realized having read your article that she’s reading my work like a writer, not a reader. Great advice. Thanks!

    • Hollie, I’m glad the article was useful to you. I’m getting ready to be a beta reader for my friend’s manuscript, and it’s good to be reminded to “read like a reader.” Hard to do, as a writer! Glad you figured out what didn’t work for your manuscript (or are in the process of doing so). I wish you every success.

      -Martha

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