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What is a beta reader, and why do I need one?

Updated: Apr 22



reading glasses perched on a book



If you lurk on writers’ forums or groups for self-publishing authors, chances are you’ve heard of beta readers.


But what is a beta reader, and what can they do for you and your work?


What is a beta reader?

A beta reader tests out your writing. They act as a typical reader for your work and give feedback on their experiences with your book.


Hopefully, their responses will be constructive and give insight into what somebody else thinks as they read your work. A careful reader may spot plot holes, problems with characters and other failings you can’t see because you are too close to your own work. A beta reader’s insights can help you refine and polish your story.


Who can be a beta reader?

Anyone willing to devote the time to reading your work and giving feedback on it is a possible beta reader – but some beta readers are more valuable than others.

You can ask friends or family to read your work, but make sure they are someone you can trust to give you their honest opinion. If your dear old mum is afraid to say anything negative about your work for fear of upsetting you, she will not be a useful beta reader, though she may help boost your self-confidence.

You need to seek out constructive, mindful and (for your own sake) respectful beta readers who are well-read in your genre. Your beta reader should act as your typical reader, so they will preferably be naturally interested in your work and have a good background in its genre so that they can give you informed feedback.

You may decide that you want to pay someone to act as a beta reader. If someone is confident enough to charge for their services, then they should be reliable and experienced. Look through any testimonials offered and be a little wary of anyone charging without showing evidence that they can provide quality feedback.

There are plenty of interested readers offering feedback for free, and many do an excellent job. However, the quality of feedback can vary widely. Be prepared for unhelpful responses. ‘I really liked it’ may boost your ego, but it will do nothing to help you improve your work. And there is the real risk that once you send off your work to your beta readers you will never hear from them again.


Why do I need beta readers?

A beta reader may see things you keep missing; you have been living with your own words for so long that you will become blind to the inconsistencies and muddled sentences that stop readers in their tracks. If your work is in the state that it is ready for readers then you have no doubt read it, edited it and re-reread it numerous times. You are no longer seeing what is actually on the page – you are seeing what you know should be there.

A reader approaching a piece of writing for the first time is exploring the unknown. They have only the words in front of them to work with, and the flaws that stop them from enjoying a story (or even understanding what is going on) cannot be disguised by the privileged information that the writer holds in their head.

A widely read beta reader can also lend you the benefits of their knowledge and experience. They may realise that your story is very similar to an existing novel, or that you have used distinctive names from a famous work of fiction – a connection that you may have failed to recognise or did not consciously know in the first place.

A beta reader may find things in your story that you didn’t realise were there, and their appreciation may lead you to consider new directions for your work.

A beta reader can also help if you face a particular difficulty in your story. You know that the relationship between your two principal characters is not working, but you are at a loss as to why, or what might be done to improve it. A new perspective may be what you need to break the block. Just be sure to direct your beta readers toward the issue that you would like help with.

Beta readers are a tool to help you improve your work. If you are dedicated enough to have a piece of writing ready for a reader, you owe it to yourself to make it as strong as possible. The right beta readers can help you towards that goal.


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