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Beta Readers: Who They Are, What They Do

Updated: Mar 20



Young man intently reading a sheet of paper with a notebook in lap and pen in hand
Beta reader at work!

The process of writing a book manuscript can be exhausting and confusing, especially for novice writers. They might ask themselves every day, “Is my writing any good?” Does the plot/storyline make sense?” “Does my book fulfill the promise I made to the reader?” “Are my characters likeable and fully formed?” (This applies to memoir, as well.).


If you want answers to these questions before you publish, beta readers can be helpful in improving the overall quality of your manuscript by offering focused feedback about the elements of your writing.


How to avoid the wrong beta reader

The purpose of a beta reader is often a point of contention between writers and editors. Most newbie writers want to have their writing reviewed by people in their lives, people they are comfortable sharing their writing with: family members, friends, coworkers. This is a bad idea, for several reasons.


First, folks who know you will generally want to be kind, supportive, and encouraging, especially family and friends. They know how hard you’ve worked, how much time you’ve put into your writing, and how much this book means to you. So you will have their backing 100 percent, no matter what.


Second, a beta reader should be—really, must be—an avid book reader; someone who spends a lot of time following storylines, getting to know characters, enjoying good dialogue, and appreciating atmosphere, description, and setting. In other words, wallowing in the elements of a good book. A beta reader who doesn’t read books on a regular basis isn’t ideal.


Third, beta readers should always be given a checklist of questions about those elements of your manuscript that they will evaluate as they read. Asking someone to read your manuscript and comment openly about anything and everything will not yield useful information. Beta reader feedback is most helpful when each reader answers the same specific questions about different aspects of your writing. The ability to compare and contrast feedback is essential to learn how to improve your manuscript.


Tips for choosing the right beta reader

Since I’ve told you who you don’t want to ask to read your manuscript and what mistakes to avoid, it leads naturally into a review of how to select the best beta readers and get the most helpful feedback.


Your beta readers should be people who don’t know you intimately, and total strangers are a good option. These people are much more likely to be honest in their critique. Additionally, people who don’t know your story (particularly in the case of a memoir) will not know anything about you and your situation other than what you share in the manuscript. They can’t “fill in the blanks” because all they know is what they’ve read. If the story is missing key information or if characters—especially you, in the case of memoir—are under-developed, someone who doesn’t know you will spot this immediately.


A beta reader who has some exposure to the genre who’ve written for is a plus. If you’ve written a memoir, the beta reader ideally has read other memoirs. If it’s self-help, they should have experience reading books of that kind. I don’t work with fiction, but obviously, if you’ve written a sci-fi or fantasy manuscript, a romance, a mystery, or a thriller, it’s a good idea to have beta readers who are familiar with those specific genres.


A feedback checklist

The primary way to get the most meaningful feedback from your beta readers is to provide them with a checklist of questions to answer. This doesn’t have to be long or elaborate and plenty of good checklists already exist. To start, make sure your checklist asks these questions that apply to any nonfiction book or memoir:


  • The Why: Is there a clearly stated purpose? Is the reason for writing the book obvious?

  • The Who: Who is the ideal audience? Who is this book specifically written for? Is the language appropriate to that audience?


With fiction, your book is written for a particular genre. The Why is to produce a book people will want to buy, read to the end, and recommend. The Who, your audience, will include readers who have an affinity for that type of book or are just dipping a toe into the genre.

 

I want to reiterate an important point about memoir that I have made in other blog articles I’ve written: a memoir has more in common with a novel than with a nonfiction book. Why? Memoir is a subgenre of creative nonfiction—nonfiction because it is factual and creative because the structure is novel-like. Think Wild, Educated, Angela’s Ashes, The Glass Castle, The Year of Magical Thinking, or Eat, Pray, Love. These memoirs read like novels. For this reason, a beta reader feedback checklist for a novel often works well with a memoir.

 

I am not going to link you to any particular checklists. Many lovely people on the interweb have created wonderful such lists. To find them, do a Google search for any of the following:


  • Beta reader checklist

  • Beta reader questionnaire/beta reader questions

  • Beta reader instructions


Find the one that best suits your manuscript, as some will be more appropriate than others. You can always add to and modify any list you choose.


Final thoughts

Feedback from beta readers can be extremely helpful in improving the focus, overall quality, and reader engagement of your manuscript. But each beta reader should be chosen carefully and given detailed instruction about their feedback if the process is to be truly useful.


Let me know what you think of this article. I appreciate your comments and suggestions.


~~Trish Lockard is a freelance editor and writing coach, specializing in nonfiction and memoir. Her business is Strike The Write Tone. She is the co-author, along with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism.

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