Beta Readers: How They Helped Me Improve My Story and Where I Found One

Jul 14, 2022 | On Reading

Beta Readers: How They Helped Me Improve My Story and Where I Found One

Back when I wrote for pleasure, the only feedback my work received came from friends and family. They were always so kind with their thoughts on what could be improved or changed to better suit them as readers. Once I decided to embark on my publishing journey, I realized that while their feedback and critique were great, I needed more.

This is where beta readers came in. My editing journey took place during the pandemic so I resorted to the internet to find beta readers. After trying out both paid versus unpaid ones myself (plus learning more about how they differ), I got a better idea of just how beta readers fit into the publishing journey and how to make the best of them along my journey.

Here’s my personal experience as an author who opted for beta reading services (free and paid) and what I learned from it all — including some things that didn’t work out so well during this process but were still important lessons nonetheless!

What is a beta reader?

A beta reader, also known as an alpha or critique partner, is someone who reads your work in progress and provides feedback. They can be helpful for any writer, whether they are unpublished or published.

The benefits of having a beta reader

There are many ways you can benefit from working with a beta reader. Some of the most helpful ones I’ve encountered include:

They may give you a better idea of what genre your story fits into.  

In my case, I was very certain that my book would fit somewhere into fantasy but beta readers helped me realize it also contained elements from fantasy, making it science fantasy (a genre classification I didn’t even know existed!) 

They can help provide accurate insight for world-building. 

That is, if you have created an entire universe within your fictional setting. Beta readers who have an impressive reading list of books containing massive world-building can help you flesh out your own, especially if it’s your first time writing a novel of such scale.

They can point out plot holes.

If any plot holes exist in your work, chances are they’ll be spotted by someone fresh to the story rather than those who have already been exposed to everything that happens later on (and thus know how it ends). 

Important disclaimer: Do keep in mind that beta readers are not editors and thus cannot help you with any grammatical errors or typos.

What is a beta reader NOT?

Drawing on from the disclaimer in the previous section, you should keep in mind that a beta reader is simply that: a reader. There’s been some confusion as to what a beta reader actually does, so here’s the answer.

A beta reader reads your work from start to finish but they will not look at it through an editor’s eye. They give feedback on things like their overall enjoyment of the story/characters, if they would recommend it to others, etc… 

But comments such as “I think this character could do more” or “You didn’t explain how he got into this situation” still need to be edited and addressed by yourself after receiving them. 

Beta readers simply give you pointers on the directions you can take to make content edits to your novel —  whether or not you choose to take them is entirely left to your discretion. 

What kind of feedback will I receive as an author?  

Likely the same as what you’re used to getting from family and friends, but on a more advanced level. 

Beta readers are not required to have written anything themselves so their opinions aren’t biased by that fact (or they may be writers too). The ideal beta reader should also know how stories go and generally like reading books in general. 

You can also ask for specific things such as: 

  • If it’s appropriate, see if they feel there is enough conflict or if everything seems fine all the way through
  • Maybe even mention whether certain scenes could use some extra tension/conflict 
  • Character development arcs and how they felt connected to the characters

Why you need to be selective when choosing your beta reader

Not everyone is going to be a good fit for your specific story and that’s okay! But you should know how to spot the mistakes so as not to waste time on beta readers who won’t help improve your writing.

If they cannot give constructive feedback. It might be because:

  • They aren’t familiar with standard fiction terminology (i.e. “show don’t tell”) or even just basic rules of writing (like what makes a plot) in general 
  • Or their English isn’t very strong and thus any comments about the language itself will likely either go over your head or simply sound like nitpicking instead of actual useful insights into what needs improvement within the text itself

This also ties back into knowing what genre(s) you’re working with beforehand since someone whose main genre is romance may not have the best grasp on fantasy worlds or character arcs, for example. They may give you comments that either are too vague or are just plain wrong when it comes to what needs changing in your story.

You can tell they don’t read books very often and/or write themselves by their beta reader feedback because…

  • Either they’re asking questions about things that were already explained earlier in the text (sometimes through subtext) 
  • Or suggesting changes that would alter the whole tone of your book 

If they don’t finish reading your book or give you feedback within a couple weeks of receiving it. This could be because: 

  • It’s taking them too long to read and thus the beta process is dragging on longer than necessary
  • Or they simply aren’t interested in finishing (or even starting) since either
  • Their English isn’t up to par and they’re struggling with how everything sounds
  • They got bored after around 100 pages and lost interest entirely (but keep going for your sake)

The last actually happened to me once when I found a beta that, at the start, sounded super excited to read a romance but then just wasn’t up for the task. This would also apply if they keep bringing up things that were already mentioned earlier in the text as I pointed out above. 

If they seem to be nitpicking your story instead of providing useful feedback, this could mean either one of two things: 

  • They don’t read very often and are thus unfamiliar with basic fiction terminology
  • Or they have something against you for whatever reason that’s affecting how they feel about anything you do as an author (it can happen!)

This also ties back into knowing who your target audience is beforehand so that beta readers can help improve your writing without being biased by factors such as genre(s) which will likely affect their opinions on certain ideas within your text itself. 

Overall, it’s always good to start out with a few beta readers who are familiar with the genre(s) you’re writing for.

How beta readers helped me improve my novel

I’m so grateful to my beta readers, the few who actually put in time and effort into helping me improve my story. They noticed all kinds of things I didn’t see while writing it or even when editing myself afterward because let’s be honest: we tend to read what we write over and over again until our brains are too tired/bored with everything that they just zone out! 

They also made suggestions about where certain information could better fit within the text itself (e.g. “Maybe you should bring up that subplot earlier, it would coincide better with X and Y scene.”) 

This helped make sure that there was a smooth flow from one scene to the next and that everything made sense.

My experience with a free beta reader

Free readers are everywhere, you just have to know where to look. Every writer knows that the best way to get feedback on your work is by asking people who work in the industry. So when I was looking for beta readers for my novel, I went onto forums of two sites I was already familiar with: Goodreads and 4thewords.

The response was overwhelming. Within a week, I had several responses from people who were more than willing to read my book for free and give me their thoughts about the storyline and characters.

The best part about free beta readers is that you get your manuscript in front of potential readers at no cost, however, you have to keep in mind the cost of time. My free beta readers took months to come back with full feedback.

As an author, you may need to spend more time organizing the beta reader team and scheduling feedback sessions than if they’d paid for professional editing and design services. That can be especially tricky if you’re self-publishing since there are so many other things to consider before your book goes on sale.

You also have to be careful about who you choose; not all feedback will match your own style. For example, if someone is a stranger who just likes to read and doesn’t write themselves, they might be able to provide some useful tips but they might also be more difficult to direct because their writing skills are undeveloped.

If your target audience is the same as the person providing the feedback, then it’s an even better deal. This way, you’re getting a beta reader who has already shown some understanding of your genre and/or writing style. Plus, if they’re a writer themselves (like on the 4thewords community), chances are good that they’ll understand your needs better than a stranger would.

However, if you do go this route, remember that free beta reading doesn’t always mean “free”! If someone wants a chance to read your book in exchange for you reading theirs, you’ll have to show the same time and consideration they are for your work. 

My experience with a paid beta reader

When I decided to take my manuscript for a second pass, I knew that I wanted to get more “professional” feedback. I decided to give the paid route a chance. Platforms like CPMatchmaking and Fiverr offer paid beta readers and you can filter out to find the one that suits you.

A paid beta reader is someone who has been trained in how to give feedback on manuscripts or books-in-progress. You’ll often find them in the publishing industry, but they’re also available to indie authors. You can even find agencies that find the beta reader for you and assign you a single reader or a whole group at fixed rates.

Indie beta readers usually charge a flat rate for a certain number of words, and will send you their notes after they’ve finished reading your work. Here are some pros and cons of working with paid beta readers:

My paid beta reader was someone who’d been through this process before (successfully) so she knew what kind of input would be helpful vs unhelpful. I was on a budget so I went with Fiverr and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the beta reader profiles up there. Finally, I chose a beta reader whose reading lists aligned with my genre at a fee that was reasonable to me and a turnaround that fit within my editing schedule.

When you choose a paid beta reader, the obvious drawback will be the cost but as long as you find the right one, you’ll find the pay-off rather rewarding.

Tips for getting the most out of your relationship with your beta reader

I’ve had my beta readers help me with character development, the overall flow of the story and (minor) grammar/spelling changes so far. I know that they’ll be reading it for a second time later on before sending it off to publishers but these are just some general tips about how you can get more out of your beta reader(s).

Top-of-mind pointers

  • Give them links to parts within your text itself that need work e.g. “Please read chapter ___ for this part”
  • Don’t give too many instructions at once because this could lead to confusion or overwhelming feelings
  • Space things out in terms of when certain ideas were last mentioned etc. This way there’s less room for error
  • Stay open-minded towards their suggestions even if you don’t agree with them at first because reader preferences can change as the story progresses (e.g. they may like a certain character more than you do or vice versa) 

Remember that beta readers will make mistakes and that’s okay

Their input shouldn’t put your own reputation or sense of integrity as an artist on the line so I’d definitely recommend providing some sort of guideline before your beta read starts (like exactly what areas you’re looking for specific feedback on).

As always, stay open-minded about everything but also remember to use your common sense when deciding whether changes should actually go into effect!

At the end of the day, it’s your novel

Ask follow-up questions 

Please don’t be afraid of asking your beta reader for examples of what they mean if there are any parts that aren’t clear because this could save both your and their time down the line! 

Overall, having at least one set of eyes on anything you write can do wonders in terms of improving it so don’t forget to reach out if necessary! Even just reading a few articles on how other authors worked with beta readers will give you an idea of how to go about it.

Beta your way through to writing success!

Let’s face it, beta readers are a luxury that not everyone can afford. But when you’re trying to publish a book in 3 months or less, they can make all the difference. 

Having a person gifted with language give you feedback on your manuscript is like having an editor and a proofreader at your disposal to help you see all the errors in your work before it goes out into the world. And having that knowledgeable person be in a position where they don’t want to hurt your feelings makes it easier for them to be more honest about what they think of the story you’ve written. 

There are lots of ways to get beta readers: use your friends and family, put out feelers on the internet and wait for people to get back to you, or hire someone from an agency or online site.

The first two options are free but take time; the third option costs money but saves time and effort. If you’re on limited resources and trying to publish fast, as I was, then hiring someone is by far the best way to go.

All in all, keep your chin up through the experience, and don’t be daunted by the idea of constructive criticism. It’s all to further your writing success in the future. 

All the best!

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