Every time I post about beta readers and how wonderful and essential they are, I get more requests for how to find some.
People want quick answers. Their manuscript is ready to be critiqued NOW. And as many of us know, the best betas can be hard to find.
I tried to find solutions to other people’s need for beta readers. I even spent quite a bit of time looking into setting up a beta reader exchange myself. But in the end it was too hard to do it in such a way that a person could reasonably find out the kinds of things I would want to know about my own beta readers before I entrust my writing to them. And I couldn’t find an effective way to protect people against nutbags and manuscript stealers.
There are some sites around that are attempting to make this work. If you’ve found a good one, please tell us about it in the comments — but please keep in mind, dear reader, that I make no representations of any kind about anything people might mention in their comments!! You absolutely must do your due diligence.
The brutal truth
This brings me to the brutal truth about beta readers, as I see it.
It takes time and effort to find good beta readers, and set up an effective and enduring relationship.
Like everything in this writing and publishing biz, it’s hard work. But the effort is worth it.
I personally use beta readers to help whip my writing into shape in specific and powerful ways. I don’t just get “I loved it/I hated it” type comments. My betas roll up their sleeves and wade into my verbal jungle with a machete, a pair of tweezers and sometimes even a bulldozer in their back pocket. (Too many metaphors?? Haha)
Each of them brings something unique to the mix, and I’ve chosen them specifically with those characteristics in mind. They show me things I couldn’t see myself, and trigger thoughts that create solutions.
I adore them.
With the things I ask of my beta readers, choosing one out of a hat would be like getting married immediately after meeting someone at speed dating. Yes, you might be embarking on a life of happiness with your soul mate. Or the outcome could be quite different…………………………. 😉
Please note: I’m NOT saying sites that connect you with beta readers are no good. Some people have definitely been pleased with the results they’ve achieved that way, and gone on to form strong mutual beta-reading relationships.
All I’m saying is that entrusting your entire critiquing requirements to “quick fix” solutions could have pitfalls, and it’s not the route I have chosen myself.
So what do I do??
We’re all different. Our manuscripts are different. We’re all at different stages in our writing career. Since beta reading is usually a two-way street, we all have different things to offer another writer, and to ask of them.
I figure the best thing I can do is to show you how I’ve come by my beta team, since that might trigger ideas for what you could do in your own situation.
1. The contest
My very first beta reader for my novel was a paid professional rather than a volunteer. I won a Publishing Fellowship via Varuna, The Writers House. The prize included several meetings with a manuscript consultant who read my work at different stages.
Ideas for you: consider entering some writing competitions that have manuscript development as part of the prize. You might think you can’t win, but somebody has to win! I tried and failed several times before I won the fellowship, and did a lot of work on the manuscript between attempts (after I stopped weeping about not winning, haha).
For Australians, Varuna and the Queensland Writers Centre are two organisations that offer some excellent programs of this type.
Worldwide, many (but not all) competitions offer critique or feedback, and some offer more substantial development. Try googling “manuscript development feedback critique competition contest” and see what comes up that is near to you or at least in your country.
If you become a member of your nearest writers association, many of them send regular emails where they alert you to upcoming competitions that you could enter.
2. The incoming offer to exchange
My second beta reader made the offer to me. I was new at the beta gig, and was too shy to ask! We were both from the publishing industry, and had met on Twitter. We visited each other’s blogs for many months, left comments, and had become aware of each other’s skill set, knew something of each other’s personality, and could tell that we had some similar views about where publishing was heading and what we wanted to do about it.
She sent me an email saying: “I’d be happy to beta for you if you’ll do it for me.” She was an amazing beta reader.
Ideas for you: Use social media to get to know and like other writers, and over time you’ll get a feeling that your publishing interests might be compatible. Then if they offer to beta for you, you’ll already have a good feel for whether it might work, and whether they’re someone whose manuscripts you want to critique.
3. A request to an interested friend
I had been chatting via email with a long-time friend in the US. She asked questions about how my novel was progressing and I thought: what the heck… why not ask? She does copywriting for a living, and is a thoughtful and wise person, so I knew her insights would be valuable. She was excited to do a beta read — and did a great job too.
Ideas for you: Sometimes there will be people in your social circle who may not be writing books, but they are readers. Look for the ones who show genuine interest in your manuscript and ask detailed questions. They’re often the people who will be savvy enough to give good feedback, and are likely to enjoy the process.
4. The offer of “help”
When I tweeted about one of my early manuscript deadlines, I got a “how can I help?” tweet from someone in the US I’d met on Twitter, and whose blog I’d been following. (Are you seeing a pattern here with the social media and blogging??) We were writing in similar genres, and understood each other’s sense of humour.
I asked for her email address, which she sent me in a private message (DM). And then we began an email conversation. I was nervous to ask her for a beta read, because I know it is a big ask — it takes a lot of time and effort to do it well. But I decided to plunge in and ask.
She’s been one of my star betas (and a friend) for a couple of years now, and I enjoy critiquing her manuscripts too.
Ideas for you: We’ve already talked about using social media and blog comments to make genuine TWO-WAY connections. Then, when someone offers to help you, you might be nervous to ask for a beta read. Most of us are nervous to ask. Recognise the opportunity and be brave! But be careful to ask in such a way that they can say no, as they may be too busy.
5. Another offer
I’d been wrestling with my opening chapters, and I mentioned this while email-chatting with one of my editing clients. She offered to read the first 20 pages and give honest feedback. This was risky for me, because some people think you can’t be a good book editor if you write drivel. 😉 However, she actually said upfront, “It won’t affect my opinion of you as an editor”! (Yes, they are quite different skills.)
I knew she was a thoughtful and intelligent writer. So I went for it. And I wasn’t sorry — her feedback broke a deadlock I’d been stuck in. Yaay!
Ideas for you: I decided not to let my worry about my professional reputation stand in the way of getting the feedback I needed. Are there times when we miss out on good feedback because of pride or insecurity??
6. A specialist
One of my characters has Type 1 diabetes — not a good combo with being lost in the wilderness. I had read books and done research into how her diabetes would affect her, but I didn’t feel it was enough. Books on diabetes and sport don’t tend to cover extended survival situations. 😉
I had encountered a UK journalist and author whose writing I Ioved, via her blog and some other websites. (And yes, I first found her blog via someone I met on Twitter!) She was a professional writer, and a passionate advocate for Type 1 diabetes research.
I really didn’t know her that well, but because she was a vocal advocate I decided to be bold and contact her via her website to ask if she would consider checking purely the diabetes elements of the plot. I knew it was a big ask, but I hoped it might be worth it to her to see one less book containing nonsense about diabetes. 😉 I also tried to make it as easy as possible for her to say no.
She said yes! And oh my, did I need that check! The diabetes storyline is now dramatically different as a result of her incredibly detailed feedback.
Ideas for you: Are there technical aspects of your book that need a specialist check? It’s worth getting it right. See who you can find who might be a specialist in that field but also a writer or connected to publishing. Often other writers are more open to helping, because they know what it’s like.
7. Another specialist
My novel Poison Bay is set in the New Zealand wilderness, and during my research expedition some years back I did interviews with police and Search and Rescue coordinators. However, the plot had changed a lot since then, meaning that there were a whole bunch of new questions I wanted to ask. Simple things like: do they use a two-way radio or mobile phones when communicating with each other in town?
I had tried a number of avenues to get this information, and nothing was working out, so I decided to see if there might be some kind of specialist police manuscript consultant in NZ. (You never know.) I googled it, and ended up stumbling upon a retired police inspector who had written a book about the history of gunboats in NZ!
I tracked him down via the website for his book. And he agreed to do the check for me!
He asked me to isolate the sections of my manuscript that related to police procedures, and gave me the most amazing feedback — not just corrections but suggestions for how to get around plot problems related to procedure, and even improving the characterisation of my police officer!
Ideas for you: Get stuff checked. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. You never know who might be happy to help you! Look for ways to make it as easy as possible for them.
8. The memoirist
I noticed that one of my favourite bloggers (yes, met her on Twitter — but you guessed that already) was getting to a crucial point in the process of her memoir. I offered to do a beta read for her, as I love the way she writes. Memoir is a genre I’ve done a fair bit of editing in, and I enjoy it.
She was happy to get the offer, and offered to return the favour if my novel still needed feedback. It didn’t by then, but I told her I had a humorous dog memoir in the works, and would love her to beta on that ms in due course (I know she’s a dog lover). She said she’d love to do it!
Ideas for you: Pay it forward — offer to help others. And think ahead. My dog memoir won’t be finished for at least 6 months (who am I kidding? — it’ll probably be 6 years 😀 ). I’m already thinking of beta readers for it now.
9. The friend
One of my friends is hoping to write books, and has been very interested in the progress of my novel. I invited her to beta, but she doesn’t read mystery/thrillers. However, she said, “I’ll definitely critique your dog book!” (Another dog lover.)
Ideas for you: Think laterally and think ahead.
10. The mystery writer
I saw that another of my favourite blogging authors was nearly finished the first draft of her new mystery novel. I love mysteries, and hers are delightfully quirky. So I got in touch and asked if she’d like another beta reader.
She said yes, and offered to beta for me on Poison Bay too. I was too close to my publication deadline by then to be able to process another beta report on my novel, but I said I’d love her to beta the sequel.
Ideas for you: You know I’m going to tell you that I met this writer on Twitter, and have been chatting with her on her blog, and then by email, over the past couple of years. 😉 Get to know people. Think ahead. Offer to help. Choose projects wisely.
Beta reading for others will be more fun if you choose people whose writing or personality you already know you love. And there’s also a better chance of a good result when they beta for you — a good match!
11. My mother
Yes, I know I told you to think twice before asking your mother. 😉 But sometimes mothers can be exactly the right person. One thing my mother is great at is keeping it short. I, on the other hand, tend to waffle (who’da thunkit?) — and my ms was TOO LONG. So I asked her to go through a printout and put a red line through anything that didn’t need to be there.
She was hesitant to hurt my feelings at first, but I said, “I’d rather hear it from you now than bad reviews later.” So she got stuck into it. Brilliant!
Ideas for you: Think carefully about the people you know who might want to help you. Allow them to play to their strengths. Beta reading is a team sport — what part of the process can this person help you with?
To sum up
My experience can probably be condensed to:
- Get to know and like people on social media platforms and blogs. (Writers groups can be another avenue, although it’s not one I’ve used.)
- Have genuine two-way connections, rather than just approaching people out of the blue to ask for a favour. You might feel like you know them, but do they know you?
- If you do want to ask a favour from someone you don’t know well, because of their specific expertise, try to make it as easy as possible for them to give you the feedback, and also make it easy for them to say no.
- Look for people who are strong in areas you’re not good at, and also interested in your book. They might make good beta readers.
- Pay it forward — offer to beta read for others, even if they’re not going to return the favour any time soon.
- THINK AHEAD. It takes time to get to know and trust people.
What about you? How have you found beta readers? Have you had any luck with beta reader connection sites? Tell us all your tips!
Featured image via Bigstock/amyinlondon