Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Why I Need a Beta Reader...and So Do You...

Do you have any non-writers that read your work?

I was asked this question at ACFW conference by a fabulous author who critiqued my first twenty pages and offered loads of good advice.

I had to answer her question with "no."

I have wonderful critique partners. I'm fortunate to have both an online critique partner and a face-to-face group full of astute critiquers. These people had all offered help that was invaluable.

Then there were the people who read parts of my story. Family. My husband. Friends. A member of my church. These people offered mostly their support. I am so blessed to have such encouragement.

Simple details. An opening of a door that didn't close. A cat that appeared out of nowhere.

Such details are in the writer's head and in my case I thought my on the page explanation was all present.

Deborah Raney explained that oftentimes other writers will miss these details as they write and as they critique. That's one reason why its so important to have beta readers, not to replace our critique partners but in addition to them.

If you are involved in the computer world at all, you are probably very familiar with the term "beta testing." My husband is an avid gamer and has been excited to be involved in beta tests for several computer games. In exchange for free play, he goes to the forums and writes about all the "bugs" he detects. Most of the people testing these games are just your average game player and have no inside knowledge of the software.

Hence the beta reader. He or she is willing to provide the service of testing your manuscript to let you know where the bugs are.

  • Are your characters realistic? Are their motives believable? 
  • Does your plot move logically from one event to the next? 
  • Are there unexplained holes? For instance, in my case a character closed the door but hadn't opened it. 
  • Have we left out details that are necessary to the plot?
Beta readers can be good at finding the big picture.

Sometimes the words beta reader are used interchangeably with critique partner. 

However, I think there is a lot of value in having a beta reader who is neither a writer, nor a close friend or family member.

I decided to enlist a friend from high school that I haven't seen in years. I thought she was a good candidate because we are not currently in close contact so I didn't think her honesty would be hindered. She is also a frequent reader so I thought she would be likely to notice issues of details. 

Here is some valuable feedback from my first beta reader:

So as a reader I felt the beginning of the book was smooth and a quick read.

For instance, Mother Anna, she needs a line or two about who she is.

For me anyways, I need the background stories to fully involve myself in the novel. or I lose interest. 

Although, I found that I had to go back to points to figure who some of the characters were and how they related to the story.

It's a great idea for a fictional novel and you have a great piece of Americana. I would love to know when you have completed this and have it published. 

(Here's to hoping on that last point).

So what did I gain from having a beta reader? 

First of all, I have decided I would love more of these and I'm willing to bribe them because the feedback is invaluable. 

Secondly, my beta reader was able to see the big picture of my story in a different way as a reader. She spent less time focusing on the grammar/mechanics and so was able to give me an idea of how the "average" reader might read my story (does such a thing as an average reader exist?)

Thirdly, she was able to give me objective feedback (although I think my critique partners are also wonderful at doing this). 

So how do I find these people?

  • Network, network, network. If you blog, its possible a blog reader might be a good fit. I am just exploring the world of LinkedIn, but it offers networking groups that might be excellent for finding beta readers.
  • Sites like Critique Circle can be a great way to find those willing to read your work. 
  • Join a book club. What better way to find those who love to read than joining a book club. (Since my book club consists largely of my family this would not be a good fit for me).
  • Think of college friends, MOPS members, moms of those in your children's activities, those you chat with at the gym. There are so many possibilities.
  • Pray.
  • Think target readership. This is a biggie. Who is the audience of your book? Where might you find these people? Hanging out at the local gaming shop? Going to bowling league after all the kids are in bed? These might be the perfect places to find a future beta reader.
Very important...make sure you give back. Beta reading is a lot of work, though the person might be willing to read your work for free make sure you give back to them in some way. Critiquing is often a partnership with give and take, beta reading can be more one-sided. Be appreciative of the advice they are giving. Offer cookies and flowers and lots of words of affirmation.

Do you have a beta reader? If so, how did you find them? 

Julia enjoys writing women's fiction whenever she can find a chair free of smushed peanut butter sandwiches and lego blocks. She is a wife and homeschooling mama of two littles. She also is a reviewer for Library Journal, Title Trakk and Christian Library Journal.


Joanne Sher said...

Ooooh. I DID equate beta readers with crit partners. DEFINITELY need to look into the beta reader thing - I can DEFINITELY see the value! THANK you!

wanderer said...

I dabble in writing but I must love to read more, because when I first heard of beta readers I didn't want to find one, I wanted to be one.

Is saying that on a writing blog the equivalent of holding out a handful of goldfish crackers at a petting zoo?

Karen Schravemade said...

Ha ha - wanderer - yep! Be afraid! LOL.

Julia, such a great article on something I've never really considered, and yet can instantly see the value in implementing! Thank you! I'll definitely be giving this some thought.

Jeanne T said...

This is great, Julia! The one thing I'm learning about using beta readers is to ask them questions about the story, or send them questions. Maybe it's my uber-organized mind, but in my earlier writing, I sent my chapters to a friend who's an avid reader, and the only feedback I got was, "It's great!" Not so helpful. :)

You brought up great points here. Is it okay for me to copy your questions to share with my beta readers?

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Ooooh! This is a super post! I've said in the past that I need someone outside the writing world, an avid reader, to look at my story. I've had a few people like that read my story, but none really gave a ton of feedback except my sister. I picked her because she LOVES the genre I write so she knows her stuff!

I'm definitely going to pray on this for the future. I can see a big benefit to having beta readers in addition to critique partners. Thanks for this post!

Lindsay Harrel said...

Interesting...I've received the opposite advice: to use other writers as beta readers. They wouldn't critique on the level a CP would, but would still be able to give overall impressions of a book.

It's always good to hear other perspectives! :)

Julia M. Reffner said...


As I mentioned, I didn't even think of this until Deb mentioned it to me, but it made a lot of sense. Hope it will help you as its just beginning to help me.


Yes, you are in demand. Its a great way to get to read a work that who knows, might become a surprise bestseller someday.


Thanks, glad it gave you food for thought.

Julia M. Reffner said...


Good for you! Sounds like this strategy has worked for you! Yes, I think asking questions is so important. Absolutely, copy away. :)


Sounds like your sister has worked well for you. I can't wait to watch your career continue to grow as I know it will :)


I know some people do this and I think there are so many different approaches. What Deborah said made sense for my own writing and has made a difference, but maybe for someone else a writer as a beta reader would work best.

Lindsay Harrel said...

I totally agree, Julia. Hope you don't think I was criticizing you or Deborah's advice! :) So glad you found something that works for you.

Julia M. Reffner said...


Absolutely not. I love being able to have discussion. I have so much to learn and am so glad to learn from all our Alley friends, like you :)

Stacey said...

Great post. I love this idea. I never looked at using non-writing friends in this way before. I recently had an acquaintance offer to read my manuscript for me and I declined, but maybe I should be pray about that offer. Thanks for this great blog post!

Lisa Jordan said...

Julia, I've considered asking a friend who is well read if she'd like to be my beta reader. She's not a writer, but she reads a lot. She's be able to give me overall input rather than the fine details that my craft partner gives. Thanks for this thought-provoking post!

Angie said...

Good post, Julia! It's something I never prioritized before, but I just had a friend read my novel through...she's the first one besides me to do it! She was super encouraging, and I felt like I could quiz her on it since we are friends! HA! Glad to read your perspective and what you've learned.

Mari Passananti said...

I have the opposite problem: I heart my beta readers. They've caught inconsistencies at omissions, the kind that made sense in my head but not on the page.
I find it's harder to find critique partners outside a workshop setting.
Great post!