Books Are Better with a Beta Reader
By Carly Spade
Beta readers and critique partners are only necessary if you aren’t confident in your work.
Now that we got that misconception out of the way, I’m going to be your glass of cold, hard truth in the following words. No one will ever love your work as much as you do. This is a good thing. You should love what you’re writing. If you don’t, that’s an entirely different topic. But because we are, essentially (ideally), our own biggest fans, we need an outside perspective. A fresh pair of eyes, if you will.
If you are a part of the writing community on any social media platform, there’s no doubt you’ve seen the terms ‘beta reader’ and ‘critique partner.’ These roles are not synonymous.
A beta reader is someone who reads your book and gives you feedback. Did it suck? Did it move you? Did it give you that warm, tingly feeling inside? Beta readers give you the feedback that you’re looking for from an audience perspective. A good beta reader will be honest with you. You’ll get nowhere if all of your beta readers blow rainbows up your butt. Sure, everyone likes a bit of an ego stroke now and again, but inflating your ego to the size of a planet will do nothing to improve your writing skills – or your book.
Once your book releases into the insanity that is the world of readers, you need to realize it will be read by people of different backgrounds, religions, cultures, and upbringings, and many of them will differ from you.
“But, Carly, it’s impossible to please absolutely everyone on Earth!” This is true. However, if you could make 10% more of those naysayers a tad bit happier simply from a beta reader clueing you in, why not?
Example: One of my manuscripts contained the phrase, “Wired for sound.” I’d heard this saying since infancy, but one of my beta readers was a native Aussie and had no clue what it meant. Did I need to keep this phrase? Nope!
Perhaps you wrote a book that involves parasailing, but you’ve never parasailed. You watched YouTube videos, read about parasailing (or maybe none of that, but things like this will be covered in Marian L. Thorpe’s guest post, Landscape, Memory, Imagination) and then wrote about it. One of your beta readers has, in fact, parasailed before and gives you insight as to how you got several things wrong about it. Great! They just saved part of your reputation with the resident parasailers that may read your book.
I can’t tell you how many times I needed the reassurance, for my own sanity, that my fantastical ideas would be interesting to even a handful of people. We all know it: a writer’s brain can be a place of tantalizing concepts. Everything we encounter is a potential book. The floating piece of garbage in an alley way; the kid losing the last scoop on his ice cream cone; the eccentric woman in the park who dances with the pigeons. But does this mean that other people will be on board with your ideas?
Beta readers are a way for you to find out.
And they should be different types of people. If you wrote a romance, find someone who doesn’t always gravitate towards that genre. Be brave. Be bold.
I recently wrote a vampire romance and had my co-worker read chapter by chapter. She willingly volunteered to do this, despite the fact that she isn’t much of a book reader and, when she does read books, they’re not about supernatural beings. Not only was she sucked into the story and invested in the characters, but she became disappointed if, one evening, she didn’t get an e-mail update. This was an all-new beta reading experience for me that gave clarity. If I could intrigue someone who could care less about hunky dudes with fangs, plus never reads romance, think what I could accomplish with the people who enjoy such things!
A critique partner (CP), is a bit different. You may have a different group of beta readers for each individual manuscript, but if you’re able to find a critique partner, you are one lucky writer. Critique partners are other writers that read all of your work. You build with them a solid relationship that blossoms into a friendship of harsh truths, cheerleading, and idea bouncing. I’m fortunate enough to have two amazing CPs who aren’t afraid to tell me when something doesn’t make sense or if a sentence shouldn’t exist. At the same time, they’ll tell me when a line makes their stomach flip (in a good way, I write romance 😉) or spit out their juice in laughter. In turn, I do the same for them. With beta reading, there isn’t necessarily a requirement to read each other’s work, but ‘partner’ is the keyword in the phrase.
Three years ago, I punched out my first book. This book had no beta readers and no critique partners, only me, combing through it several times before I drafted a query letter and started to pitch my idea to the world. As a newbie, I came to the painstaking realization that it wasn’t good enough. The idea was solid, the execution…not so much. This can often be the case with your first book. So, I shelved that book and started on the next one.
My next book was Power of Eternity. This time, I’d spent a bit more time in the trenches, forming friendships with fellow readers on Goodreads. Finding someone willing to read my book as I wrote it chapter by chapter made a world of difference, but it didn’t stop there. It went through that beta reader, then I read it again, and then I found my first critique partner and she read through it again from a third perspective. And I read it again. And again. And again. At this point, it went off to a professional editor for a fourth perspective and then I…you guessed it…read it again. Honestly, if you haven’t read your book at least a dozen times before you publish it, please reconsider - before publishing it too soon.
This article doesn’t center around self-publishing versus traditional publishing, but you may have noticed my sudden transition ‘beta reading’ to ‘publishing’. I’ll keep it short and simple: after receiving hundreds of rejections for three different books, I decided to give self-publishing a go. I like having control over what I write, when I write it, when I release it and how I brand myself. Moving on…
My most recent release, The Other Tide, was a different experience with beta readers as well. Not only did I have my critique partner reading it from a grammar-correcting, story-developing, cheerleading perspective, but I had a friend (again, met on Goodreads – hint, hint, nudge, nudge) who was an Australian now living in America. Considering the book takes place almost entirely in Australia and the Hero is an Aussie, I wanted a sincere sense of authenticity before I’d feel the slightest bit of comfort releasing it to the masses. The jargon, the lifestyle, and really everything needed to be true to Australia. The research is worth every extra hour it takes to make your work genuine. People will appreciate it, I promise you. This same friend has stopped reading some books altogether for overusing the phrase, ‘G’day, mate’. True story!
I also entered The Other Tide into a contest on Twitter when an editor offered to do free edits and feedback on an author’s first three chapters. To this day, the simplest comment she gave me made the BIGGEST difference in that book. The first draft of the story contained a chapter set ten years prior to the events in the rest of the story. In my brain, it made sense. It showed their dynamic, why they didn’t like each other, but gave hints into why they make like each other more than they realize. Her advice: toss the first chapter and work all of it into the story itself. BRILLIANT! It gave a sense of mystery I didn’t know the story needed and allowed for more depth, more banter, and improved it tenfold. A shining example of why you need several pairs of eyes reading your work before it gets out there.
“Carly, this sounds good and all, but do beta readers grow on trees? Is there a vending machine for critique partners? It sounds too amazing to be true!”
Writers willing to form a partnership with you ARE out there. Most likely they will not approach you. It isn’t a secret most writers are introverts. We almost have to be. Writing is a lonely, secluded, ‘living in a fictional mind land’ type of career choice. The advantage we DO have as writers in the 21st century, however, is social media. Those two words may make you cringe, but I’m here to tell you, if you haven’t built a presence on at least ONE major platform, your process will suffer.
Before I chose to explore writing on a more serious level, I took to reading like a mad woman. Prior to that, I’d been nose deep in my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Avidly joining groups on Goodreads, I made a lot of friends with similar interests in book genres. Why was this helpful? Most writers will write what they enjoy reading. I’m no exception. Give me a slow burn romance with the enemies-to-lovers trope any day of the week, and I’m a happy reader. Throw in a little magic, and I’m sold double time. Naturally, this is what I chose to write, and I already knew dozens of readers who shared this love. They were the FIRST people I approached asking if they’d be interested in beta reading my book!
Some authors avoid Goodreads because it can be a place of ridicule and harsh words. For every nasty review a book may get on this site, however, is potentially a dozen more glowing reviews. During my time on Goodreads as only a reader, I can tell you that thousands of people use this site as the sole means for making a decision - not only whether to read a book, but what to read next. You don’t have to read the reviews, but to give yourself more exposure, a Goodreads author account is a MUST.
I found both of my current CPs on Twitter. Sometimes, it is simply a matter of tweeting to the masses what you’re looking for and asking the writing community to retweet on your behalf. Don’t be afraid to ask for social media shares! This community is all about helping each other grow and, until you get thousands of followers, get those with the following to help you. I asked the first literary agent who rejected my full manuscript to put out my request to her followers that I was looking for a critique partner, because I knew I needed the extra help. Guess what? She appreciated my desire to help myself, posted the tweet, and I found my first critique partner. We’ve since read several of each other’s manuscripts and made hundreds upon hundreds of comments.
My second critique partner was purely on a hunch. I took a risk direct messaging, because, let’s face it, most of us scoff at the people who send DMs, but I had a feeling it would turn out for the better. I saw her tweet because someone I followed commented, liked her work in progress idea, and her personality jived with my own (this is also VERY important when looking for critique partners). And now we’ve each read each other’s manuscripts, commented our little hearts out in Google Docs, and are geared up for the next one.
To summarize this rambling, please don’t kid yourself into thinking you don’t need beta readers. Critique partners aren’t for everyone (though I still highly recommend if you can find one you mesh with), but beta readers are essential for your credibility as a writer. Get yourself out there! There are thousands of people in the world attempting to do the exact same thing you are. You WILL get swept up and swallowed whole if you don’t make the effort of building a rapport with the community, opening yourself up to communication, and yelling to the planet about your existence. Be brave. Be bold. Be better. Use beta readers.
Commentary from Meg:
If you’re struggling in your own search for a beta reader, consider utilizing Overhaul My Novel’s FREE Beta Program! Visit overhaulmynovel.com/betaprogram, or email firstname.lastname@example.org to get started.
Thank you Carly for the generous contribution! You can keep up with Carly at the following links: