Definition of a beta reader: A beta reader is a non-professional reader who reads a written work, generally fiction, with the intent of looking over the material to find and improve elements such as grammar and spelling, as well as suggestions to improve the story, its characters, or its setting. Beta reading is typically done before the story is released for public consumption. Beta readers are not explicitly proofreaders or editors, but can serve in that context. Elements highlighted by beta readers encompass things such as plot holes, problems with continuity, characterisation or believability.
First thing’s first – what does “beta reading” mean? Beta reading is a stage of the editing process that authors use to further improve their book and gain feedback. In short, once the author has edited the book to where they are happy with it, they let people read it and give feedback to then go back into the book and make more edits based off what the beta readers suggested.
But I don’t want anyone to read my book yet.
Many writers don’t want anyone to read their drafts, which makes sense, as it’s not finished yet and self-doubt is crippling to some. But beta reading is a necessity. So it’s best to suck it up, and let some people read and edit your book.
Think about it, if it is just you looking over your book, trying to find spots to improve and words to replace, it’s not going to work. You are the author. As in, you’ve been thinking about this book 24/7, you’ve read over your manuscript tens of times, and you already know everything there is to know about your book. A lot of times, after spending so much time with the book constantly lounging around in your head, it becomes really difficult to see the book from a reader’s perspective and know what you have and have not shown the reader on the page.
Beta reading is especially important if you plan on trying to publish your book. Publishing is all about marketing and money and business stuff. Beta reading is when you can gauge your market (or target) audience and see their reaction to your book. If most of your target audience readers aren’t enjoying your book, then it’s time to make a change or re-evaluate your supposed target audience.
I have the majority of my readers be from my target audience, but also a few be almost the complete opposite. For me, those few people who are completely opposite of my target audience have really helped me out (not that the people in my target audience didn’t). With so many edits and critiques those “outsiders” have on everything, it’s really helped me make my book more believable for my target audience (because before only a few people from my target audience really related to my book as books are generally a bit too personal to the author at first).
As for the how beta reading works (for me) mechanically, I have multiple steps I take. First, I scope out family and friends who are interested in beta reading my book (I am aware that a lot of writers use social media to find a broad and plentiful crop of betas, but with this being my first attempt at a novel, I didn’t feel like going that route yet. Also, since I am a teen, my friends are teens, and therefore they are my target audience). It is important when bringing up the idea of beta reading to possible beta readers that you make it clear it is more than just reading you would like them to do. Tell them to write any comments down, anything at all, whether it be good or bad. Tell them to mark up things they think aren’t right. Mention a specific area you might like them to focus on while editing your book. For me, I told my betas it would be helpful if they suggested where I should put chapters. Beta readers are not readers, they are editors and commentators for your book.
As a side note, if you plan doing a professional edit of your book, I believe that step it supposed to happen after beta reading.
I use Google Docs to write on, which is also something all of my friends have as well, so for them, I simply share the document digitally, and ask them to make suggestions online. For everyone else, I print them a copy and tell them to mark it up with pen, then give it back to me when they are done.
Remember, everything a beta reader says is simply a suggestion or opinion. You do not have to follow any of their advice. It’s your book, and you, the author, know it better than anyone. Change your book when necessary, but only if it’s a good fix in your eyes.