Monday, June 2, 2014

Fresh Eyes on the Page: Beta Reading

by Carla Luna Cullen

So, you’ve finished the first draft of your manuscript, worked it over with a critique partner (or two) and done the necessary revisions. You’ve polished it up so it shines, with no grammatical clunkers or spelling mistakes. Is it ready to submit? Nope. Now is the time to send your baby off to a few beta readers.

Everyone has his or her own way of revising a manuscript, but for me, beta readers are an essential part of the process. It’s not the person who sees the work-in-progress, like a critique partner or critique group, but the person who reads the entire manuscript, all the way through, and looks at the big picture. The process can take a few rounds, especially if major revisions are required, but it’s definitely worth it.

Having used beta readers (and having read for numerous writers), I thought I’d share some of my thoughts:

Why Use Beta Readers?
  • As writers, we’re too close to our work to see if characters seem flat, if the tension sags mid-way through the book, if our amazing plot twist is too obvious, or if the ending is resolved too easily (one of my biggest flaws!).
  • Beta readers spot errors, inconsistencies, and little flaws that we might gloss over because we’ve read the same words so many times.
  • If more than one beta reader has a problem with a character or a scene, then it’s definitely worth considering. With my last round of readers, three people pointed out the exact same issue, which meant it was a definite red flag.

Finding and Working With Beta Readers
  • Beta readers don’t have to be writers; some people prefer to get feedback from readers. For example, my thirteen-year-old son, who loves middle grade adventure and science fiction, has read for a few MG writers I know. He’s great at pointing out places where the story dragged or confused him. 
  • Places to find beta readers in the writing community include: local chapters of SCBWI or RWA, online contests (like The Writer’s Voice, Pitch Madness, and Pitch Wars), Twitter, and sites like CP Seek.
  • You don’t have to exchange manuscripts, but it’s nice to offer. Whenever someone beta reads for me, I always offer to return the favor, depending on my schedule. 
  • If you aren’t sure about whether a reader will be good fit for you, or vice versa, start by sending a few chapters to test the waters. 
  • Be realistic about your expectations. Do you need a basic overview, outlining the big-picture issues, or detailed comments using Track Changes? Do you need a quick turnaround time or can you wait for weeks or months?

After you get Feedback
  • If you get a critique you don’t like or comments that don’t work for you, wait before responding. Don’t fire off an angry letter, furious that the reader didn’t “get” you. It’s fine to send follow-up questions for clarification, but keep them friendly.
  • If a comment doesn’t resonate with you, don’t use it. But think about it. Set those comments aside in a folder and refer back to them, in case someone else makes a similar observation.
  • Thank your readers! Beta reading takes time away from writing, so it’s very important to acknowledge the time and effort your readers put in.

Beta reading is not only a great way to get feedback, but also an excellent way to branch out and make friends among the writing community. Some of the strongest champions of my work are writers who have read and enjoyed it!

Do you use beta readers for your work? If so, where have you found them?

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Carla Luna Cullen is a YA and NA writer who lives in Wisconsin with her husband and two teenagers. In her pre-kids existence, she worked as an archaeologist on projects in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. When not writing or reading, she spends time hanging out with her children and trying to keep up with their technology. She also loves baking, listening to Broadway showtunes, watching movies, and going for long walks, where she plots diabolical ways to torment her characters.


  1. I definitely need a group of young beta readers for my work. I've asked a couple of young readers if they'd be willing and they were excited, but I'm not sure they're online. I'd have to give them the printed copy and let them mark it up. It's also important, I guess, to find readers who aren't "fans," per se, and will therefore give their honest opinions.

    1. I've printed out my manuscript a few times for readers and put it in a 3-ring binder. It makes it easier for them to write comments directly on the pages. I also agree that it's great to seek out honest opinions if you can. Sometimes the feedback can be hard to take, but it usually helps me improve my story!

  2. I've never been in a situation to have a completed novel that required beta readers, but I have been a beta reader for a few of my writing friends. I also agree that it's an important part of the process. There are so many things that you just won't pick-up on unless the manuscript is reviewed as a whole. :)

    1. Definitely! When people read the entire manuscript, they pick up on character arc, pacing, tension, etc. And if you have a plot twist, beta readers can let you know if it's super obvious or if it worked!

  3. Great post, Carla! My betas are very different from my CPs. My betas are readers, not writers. I want the readers to tell me what they liked/didn't/what parts need more...CPs are amazing, but in the grand scheme of things I'm writing for my readers. I found my betas in my Book Clubs and at Bookish Conferences (RT). Readers who read what I write and are good judges of what sells in the market I am writing in.

    1. That's a great way to find readers! I have yet to do that, although I plan to seek out some YA readers for my next round of feedback.