First of all, as with Critique Partners, you’ll notice that the question isn’t “Do I need them?” because that’s a given. You need them. Period. So what are they and how do you get them?
First you might ask: how does a Beta Reader differ from a Critique Partner? Both are all about helping you create the best story or novel you can. Critique partners usually focus on the “bones” of your manuscript, looking at grammar, sentence composition, punctuation. In other words, all of the elements that make your story function, that make it easy to understand and to read.
A Beta Reader’s job, on the other hand, is to look at the big picture: are there plot threads that got lost? did a character do something unexpected and unexplained? Are the characters likable (or at least identifiable) at the beginning as well as at the end? did you overlook something that seemed to be important in the thrilling denouement? are there unanswered questions in the reader’s mind when they get to the end? is there anything about your story that seems impossible or improbable?
While some of these questions may have been answered by your critique partners, there are probably some things that don’t become obvious until the work is read as a whole. Critique partners often swap a few chapters or a given number of pages at a time; Beta Readers are normally asked to read the entire story at once, and base their judgments on the entire manuscript.
Beta Readers don’t necessarily need to be writers, but they should be avid readers with an interest in your genre. The Beta Reader can be given a list, similar to the one you gave your Critique Partners, so that she or he knows what specific feedback you’re looking for. While neither a critique partner nor a Beta Reader should ever be sent a first draft of a story, Beta Readers should be given the final version: after your critique partners have finished and you’ve made all applicable changes. They get the version that you would deem good enough to send to a publisher. The Beta Readers are the final step in the chain to make sure your story is publication-ready.
As with the critiques you’ve received previously, your work is your own: no matter what feedback you receive, it’s up to you to adjust or not. But it’s important not to argue with your beta readers – after all, they’ve gone to some trouble to give you their best advice. For free. Thank them, if for nothing more than their time and good will.
So, how does one find a Beta Reader? Again, if you belong to a writers’ group or association like Romance Writers of America or The Historical Novel Society, you may find it a ready-made source of interest. If not, there are many services listed if you Google “beta readers”. Twitter and Tumblr also offer connections, as will Yahoo Groups, though you may have to join the groups first. In short, beta readers are easy enough to find – and your work will be much better for their input.
Did you use a beta reader’s services? Would you recommend it to other writers? Tell us about your own experiences.
Next: what to do if the relationship with your critique partner or beta reader doesn’t work out …