What Beta Readers Are and Why You Want Them

Once you have worked your way through the Elements of Nonfiction Editing Checklist, taking as many passes as needed to address the Personality, Presentation, Voice, Information, and Mechanics of your book, what next?

The first thing many writers do is run their manuscript past some beta readers or critique partners. Maybe both. These are two different things, so let me explain.

beta readers critique
Photo by Kristen Stieffel

Beta readers are like the beta testers who test software before it’s released to the public. They use the product in a real-world situation and then provide feedback to the developer. In the case of software, this might be “when I launch the app, I get an error message that says Cordova is not installed, and then it crashes.” In the case of a novel, it might be, “the heroine was Too Stupid To Live.”

In the case of a nonfiction book, it might be, “the section on investing lacks an analysis of the merits of Exchange Traded Funds as compared with traditional mutual funds.”

The point is to run your manuscript past some people who represent your target audience or who can otherwise contribute intelligently to the topic. If you’ve written a personal finance book for beginners, then you want beginners as your beta readers. If you’ve written an academic text on financial analysis, then you want financial analysts to read it. Beta readers should be carefully chosen so they can catch errors of fact in your book. You also want people who can catch errors of omission, which are the hardest to spot.

Beta readers will read through the manuscript the way a paying customer would. One does not customarily pay beta readers a fee, although if you wish to compensate people for their time you certainly may. Beta readers usually provide brief feedback, about the length of a good book review. Ideally they will identify strong points as well as problems. But their report will not be as thorough as a critique.

How Critique Differs From Beta Reading

When you’re looking for critique partners, you want to find other writers, rather than readers. The “partner” aspect implies that you will trade critiques, with you critiquing their manuscript while they read yours. Critique partners are usually more thorough than beta readers. Instead of reading the manuscript the way a customer would, they read with a critical eye toward identifying whatever flaws in the manuscript are their strong suit. So for example, if you have a critique partner who’s a grammar nerd, he will help you fix your sentence structures, but probably doesn’t have the expertise to catch that error of omission regarding the ETFs.

Mechanical issues like formatting, punctuation, and spelling are usually what critique partners are able to help with. Because they are writers, they can also help with matters of voice and sentence structure. Depending on your critique partner’s level of expertise, they may also be able to help you with the big-picture areas of Personality, Presentation, and Information. If you have difficulty finding critique partners with sufficient breadth and depth of expertise to help you, most freelance editors like me will offer a paid critique service. This will be very thorough indeed, though not as thorough as a full-on edit.

See this page for definitions of different types of editing.

Enlisting beta readers and critique partners to help you improve your manuscript will pay off in the long run. When you reach the point of bringing it to an editor, whether that’s a traditional acquisition editor or a freelance editor to prepare your book for self-publishing, it will be closer to the desired finished product. For the acquisition editor, that means their in-house editors will not have to put in as much time to get it ready for release, so they’ll be more likely to choose your manuscript rather than one that needs more editing. For the freelance editor, spending less time on the manuscript means you will pay less for the editing.

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1 Comment

  1. […] this is your first book, bring in some beta readers to get feedback. If you’re new to writing, you may want to hire a professional editor or […]

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