In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
I usually send manuscripts to between four and eight people who have critiqued my stories over the years. When you give out six or eight copies of a book, you get back six or eight highly subjective opinions about what’s good and what’s bad in it.
Beta readers are critical to your success as a writer.
I didn’t believe this for the longest time. I rarely considered using beta readers. I thought I could do it on my own. I could revise my books without help from anybody. I knew my story, my characters, my world. What was a beta reader going to tell me that would possibly make my novel better?
I plugged along for many years writing novel after novel… and finding no success. I figured I just hadn’t written the right story yet, and that in due time my success would come.
Looking back I wish I had started looking for beta readers so much sooner. In fact, I wish I’d had beta readers — even just one or two of them — from the very beginning.
Because here’s the thing — beta readers aren’t out to get you. They don’t want to hate on your book and tell you the fifty-six reasons why it’s terrible.
Yes, there will be negative feedback. Yes, there will be constructive criticism. Any beta reader worth a damn is going to tell you things about your book that aren’t working and that need to be changed.
And yes, hearing some of this will be hard. It still is hard for me to hear it.
But it’s simply part of the process. Finding beta readers is something I urge you to do because this one step might mean the difference of your book being sold to a publisher or being put into your office drawer for all eternity.
I started using beta readers a few years back, and I don’t know what I would do without them.
My earliest beta reader was my pal Shaunta, who also writes here on Medium. She read two or three of my novels back in 2012 and 2013 and gave me pages of constructive, honest, helpful notes. She made those novels all the better because of her feedback.
When it came to my 2015 YA thriller Toothache, I decided I wanted to do two things before I sent out the query letter. First, I wanted at least three beta readers to read the novel and give me notes, and second, I wanted at least one person to read and critique my query letter as well.
The novel ended up not being signed by a literary agent (and yes, it’s still sitting in my office drawer), but the book had its full manuscript requested from twenty agents over the course of a year, an all-time record for me. And that’s something I’ll never forget.
I used two beta readers on my YA thriller Nightmare Road, and two beta readers on my middle grade horror novel Monster Movie, which is the book that eventually got me a literary agent in 2017.
Last year, I put out a call for beta readers for my MFA thesis novel, and fifteen people said they would read it for me and give me feedback. I decided that was too extreme, so I picked five of them — a mix of friends and MFA colleagues — to read the book and give me notes.
This part of the process took six long weeks, but it was an essential step in making the manuscript better, and now, in its tenth draft, my MFA thesis is finally coming together in ways I never thought possible.
Beta readers are ultimately important to your writing career for three key reasons.
One, taking the time to let your manuscript rest while beta readers out in the world read it and prepare you feedback is good for you to step away from the project, to put your mind elsewhere, which I’ve discussed on Medium before.
When you read through the feedback of your beta readers, you won’t want to challenge every critical thing they say, you won’t throw their feedback in the trash and say they’re wrong. Once you’ve taken a break from your book, you’ll actually enjoy their feedback and look toward ways to make your manuscript better!
Two, beta readers will notice things about your novel you never would have thought of in a million years. This certainly happened on my MFA thesis novel. Two of my beta readers in particular found flaws in my characters and storyline that were absolutely on the money and not things I would have thought about as I continued revising the project.
Three, beta readers will be your first fans in a way, people who you know and who you trust who will talk up your books to others as you continue revising the project and ultimately querying it to agents. Unless the beta readers absolutely hate your book (which rarely happens, at least in my experience), you will have your first fans of your work in the world, people who have read an early version and desperately want to see your story published in its finished form.
A few final tips about beta readers…
So how do you find beta readers if you have no idea where to look? Try online writing communities, on Facebook and Twitter. Those have worked well for me. Also think about people you know in real life. Think about joining an in-person writing group, or go pursue an MFA in Creative Writing, like I did.
And keep this in mind, too, when it comes to beta readers: you shouldn’t implement into your latest draft every single note they provided. Don’t just do the next draft fixing and changing every little thing they put down in your feedback letter. Use the notes that make sense to you, that feel right, and feel free to disregard the ones that don’t.
It will be hard to read the negative criticism. You will want to disregard all of it at first.
But remember this: if one of your beta readers criticizes something about your novel you intensely disagree with, then you can move on, but if all of your beta readers criticize the same thing, then you need to absolutely address that issue in your next revision!
In the end, remember that beta readers are out there to help you, not hurt you. They want to help make your writing career a success.
You can’t do this alone, I’m telling you. You need honest, intelligent, thoughtful beta readers to look at your work from time and time and give you the feedback you need to make your novel the best it can be.