Are Beta Readers Worth the Trouble?

Are Beta Readers Worth the Trouble? 1024 576 Reader Views

by Randy Overbeck, Author of the award-winning Haunted Shores Mystery Series

I’ve spoken with a number of authors who have raised a similar question about beta-readers. To clarify, when we say beta readers, we’re referring to readers who read an early manuscript, either in part or whole, and provide some kind of feedback. Some writers have found these early readers to be unreliable, unhelpful, or sometimes even distracting to their writing process. But for me, beta readers have been an integral part of bringing my manuscripts to fruition. Over the past several years, I’ve developed a process of involving beta readers that has provided me with insights about my work I could never have gotten on my own and helped clarify passages and sections I needed—all while I’m still in the development stage of my writing. Along the way, I’ve learned a few lessons about what works—and what doesn’t—when asking beta readers to contribute to my writing process.

You’re going to need more than just one.

When asking others to review my writing, I’ve found it helpful to have several individuals to respond to the work. Over the years I try to have a cadre of 10-12 readers who express a willingness to take time to read my work. First of all,  since I’ve wanted to learn how readers might respond to my written word, I’ve found it helpful to solicit multiple persons. I often get different perspectives and varying insights. Also, I’ve learned that some who volunteer for this task don’t end up actually doing it; life gets in the way and I understand. Recruiting several beta readers makes sure I can get the feedback I’m looking for.

Beta readers don’t substitute for a writer’s critique group.

My beta readers are not writers; they’re readers. I don’t ask my beta readers to check my grammar—though there is usually one grammar Nazi in the group who likes to do that—improve my style or check on my voice or tense. I ask them to respond as readers, to aspects like plot and character or setting. I check on what occurred as they read the passage. Did anything catch their eye or stop them in their tracks or interfere with their reading?

Beta readers need to know what you expect of them.

When I share a section of my manuscript, I try to be very specific with what I want them to respond to. With the pages, they receive a set of 5-6 questions about the writing that I ask them to respond to. (As a long-time educator, the habit of giving homework lives on.) Of course, one of these questions is always a very open-ended question, so they can give me whatever they want to say. My beta readers seem to appreciate the direction and I usually receive the feedback I’m looking for.

Like everything else in life, beta readers do best with a set timeline.

I’ve learned that my beta readers respond better when I give them an expected date to complete their review, usually about two weeks. Some will read the manuscript in a day or two and respond immediately, while others will wait until the “deadline” to finish their reading and respond.

It’s important your readers aren’t simply “yes men.

(Please forgive the gender blunder.) As much as authors like to hear, “I really enjoyed reading your work/pages,” this comment may not be very helpful—or perhaps honest. When I recruit beta readers, I try to make sure I have readers who will not be afraid to give me bad news. “That scene did not work.” “That description was too much. I found myself skimming to get to the action.” I’m careful to receive their responses, especially critical ones, in a positive manner. I encourage my beta readers to be candid and let them know that’s why I’m giving them an advance peak at my writing.

Sometimes smaller is better.

I’ve discovered that this process works best when I share my manuscript with my beta readers “in pieces.” I usually give my readers about one-third of my complete manuscript at a time. First, this gives the readers a very manageable task and allows them to complete their review easily. Also, I’ve found some insights they share in the first part of the manuscript might shift some of my writing in the later chapters. Some beta readers will even propose a plot shift or character reveal that I hadn’t thought of and I can incorporate the idea—if I like it.

When possible, I try to give beta readers a chance to come together and discuss their reading and their responses.

(This was prior to the pandemic, of course.) Over the years, I’ve tried to arrange a get-together—usually after work at a quiet restaurant—for those in the area to come together and talk. They seem to enjoy checking their responses with other readers and, once they start discussing some aspect about the narrative, they often provide me more than what they wrote on their page. Also, some beta readers simply like to tell me some things they didn’t want to write down. Some out-of-town beta readers can’t participate in this process, of course, but those that can seem to enjoy it. 

I’m confident that the insights from my beta readers have helped to make my writing clearer, more engaging and more accurate. I even acknowledged their contributions at the start of both of my published novels. I wouldn’t dream of writing my next mystery without their feedback. Finally, I’m always looking for new beta readers, so if this interests you, feel free to reach out.

Randy Overbeck is the author of the award-winning Haunted Shores Mysteries Series. The first two books in the series, BLOOD ON THE CHESAPEAKE (2019) and CRIMSON AT CAPE MAY (2020) were released by the Wild Rose Press. Both books have won national awards and garnered five-star reviews for national and international reviewers. Book number three in the series, a Christmas ghost story/mystery, is due out October 2021.

Connect with Randy Overbeck!

Twitter: @OverbeckRandy
Facebook: AuthorRandyOverbeck

  • Shirley Goldberg

    Excellent article, Randy. I’m going to try Beta readers for my new book. I had 2 friends read my last book and both were helpful but I think it’s best to keep Beta reading to people who don’t know you.

  • Steven Mayfield

    I’ve used the beta reading service, BookHive, for my last two books (Treasure of the Blue Whale, Regal House Publ. April, 2020 and Delphic Oracle U.S.A., RHP Fall/Winter 2022). BookHive is great. They provide a report that includes subjective impressions and objective data, the latter based on formatted questions as well as three questions the author can add to the analysis. Based on BookHive’s feedback from 10-12 anonymous readers, I was able to revise and significantly improve both manuscripts. I’m currently working on another novel (Paradise, Idaho) and intend to use BookHive before showing it to my agent or publisher. Bottom line: As with the author of this article, I think beta readers are integral to my process.

  • Pete Hoyer

    I agree with everything that Randy has written about beta readers. The one thing that had helped me is a one- on- one discussion with the reader. I encourage them to jot down their notes and ideas. And we discuss each issue in person. I acknowledge their actions inside the book and they receive a signed copy when it is published. That way they can see the results of their input
    Very good article, thanks for sharing. Sincerely, J. Peter Hoyer

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