April 5, 2012

Ask Jami: How Do We Find Beta Readers?

Woman reading in a park on a sunny day

My post about combining comments from multiple beta readers in MS Word brought up a great question.  How do we get beta readers?

In the comments, Amanda Byrne asked, “[A]ny hints on how you can scare up more beta readers? … [O]nly one of them gets back to me in a timely manner.”

Then Aldrea Alien pointed out, “I don’t wanna give someone my work and find I’ve not the time, or the skill, to properly reciprocate.”

These comments bring up multiple issues, and I’ll do my best to address each one.

What Does a Beta Reader Do?

The first thing to recognize is that just about anyone can be a beta reader.  Our mom. Our neighbor. A random Twitter follower.  Unlike a critique partner, who might comment on grammar and whatnot, a beta reader gives high-level feedback.

Can our mom be honest and point out confusing sentences or plot events?  Where her attention wavers?  Whether she finds the characters likable or sympathetic?  If so, she’d make a fine beta reader.

Next question is to ask ourselves if we can answer yes to those same questions.  If so, we’re qualified to be a beta reader as well.

For example, the last time I sent out a manuscript for beta reading, this is what I asked people to mark:

  • Anything that takes you out of the story (confusing wording, voice/characterization seems off, too repetitive, no conflict/tension, etc.).
  • Pacing issues (too slow, feels too “one note,” not enough of an arc, scene goes on too long, etc.).
  • Emotional feedback (I’d love to see stream-of-consciousness emotional reactions when you notice them/think of adding them).

That’s it.  Beta reading is not about the reader’s knowledge of the craft of writing, but about what works and doesn’t work for them as a reader.

We shouldn’t discount our ability to provide useful feedback because we’re not perfect writers ourselves yet.  I can’t write a query letter to save my life, but I can still point out if someone’s query letter mentions too many characters by name, has a confusing-sounding plot, or reads flat.

Here, Beta Reader, Come Out Wherever You Are

Now that we’ve addressed why we shouldn’t think we’re “not skilled enough” to beta read for someone else, my advice to Amanda in the comments of the last post might make more sense.

“I think the key is to be a good beta reader yourself and then offer to help others with their work.  If they find your comments helpful, you can usually work out a beta buddy exchange arrangement.”

It’s that simple and that hard.  We offer our services to others.  I’m always looking for readers with fresh eyes to check a reworked project.  Probably many other writers are the same way.  We welcome offers of beta reading.

This advice assumes we’re targeting other writers as beta readers, but  I didn’t start off that way.  My first readers were family members.  I then “graduated” to one critique partner I met through the comments of an editing blog we both visited, and we gave each other line-by-line feedback.  After I was experienced enough to take high-level comments and figure out what I needed to do to fix the issue, I switched over to using beta readers.

I met one at a conference, I offered to read for another because I love her blog and her writing, I answered a call for readers on Twitter for another, etc.  If we’re being social on blogs or other social media, we’ll meet people we “click” with.  Offer to read for them.

Are We Ready to Give as Well as We Get?

Why do I use mostly writers even though I pointed out above that non-writers can provide helpful feedback too?  Professionalism.

Most non-writers don’t understand our deadlines, whether those are self-driven, contest deadlines, or an agent request.  Non-writers are more likely to blow off the seriousness of our statement, “I’d like to have all feedback returned to me by such-and-such date.”

Even other writers might not take our deadlines seriously.  Some of us are more professionally oriented than others.  That’s not a bad thing.

The trick is finding people who match our level.  The second trick is making sure we hold up our end of the bargain.  We can’t expect professionalism from a beta buddy if we’re not willing to do the same.

Yes, that means sometimes we have to make their writing a priority over ours.  If we promised them feedback by a certain date—and we want them to keep their promises to us—we have to be willing to put our work on the back burner and read theirs instead.  If we want to get deep, helpful comments from them, we have to spend the time to give them the same.

Are They a Good Match?

Some writers might not know what it means to be a good beta reader, but will learn if they have it modeled for them.  We should give others the style of feedback we’d like to receive.

To avoid burning a bunch of time on someone who might not be a good match, we can offer to give feedback on a query letter, synopsis, a short story, or the first chapter of their novel.  See how they react to our feedback.  Are they defensive, or do they blow it off?  If so, we’ll keep looking for a better match.

If they seem appreciative and seem to “get” our feedback, we can ask them to check something small for us.  Are their comments helpful and insightful?  Are we able to take their style of comments (the harsh and honest factor)?

Yes, there is a give and take aspect to being beta buddies with others.  We can’t ask others to spend time giving us feedback if we’re not willing to do the same.  But I usually learn something new when I’m helping others, so I find that I win both when reading for someone else and when getting comments from readers.

Have you offered to beta read for others?  Do you think you’re a good beta reader, or could you use more pointers?  What drives you crazy when others read for you (they never get back to you, etc.)?  Have you used writers or non-writers so far?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Angela Quarles

My first beta reading experiment was a disaster! For my first novel I ever wrote (not the one I’m currently shopping), I made the mistake of giving it to my mom to read. The problem was, that it was the rough draft, and I knew it had big problems and wanted to have someone to help me figure out what those problems were/bounce ideas off of, etc. Her being an artist and a big reader, I thought she’d be great. Well, a reader is not the one to help with that. I was too much of a n00b to know that it was a critique partner I needed at that stage. She read it, making snide comments in the margin and basically her feedback was that it wasn’t polished like novels she’s used to reading and proceeded to hand me books she felt were great and that I fell short. Well, duh, mom! That’s NOT what I needed! I already knew that, just didn’t know why, LOL. I learned my lesson and waited until the proper stage for a Beta reader for this last one (for me it was the 3rd draft) and it worked out much better! I wrote a blog post about it: “Why I’m Happy My Mom Hates the Ending…”


*chuckles* Is something in the water? I posted about this today, too, because I’d had a question on my own blog, though I focused more on when you want them and how you find the type of person you want for a beta reader—and how to process their advice.

Some of my best betas are the ones who read and then don’t get around to getting back to me until I ask them about it—because, if it’s been a few days or weeks since they’ve read the (“finished”) story, then I’m hearing about what left an impression.

For Destiny’s Kiss, one friend on her own brought up a scene that had the exact emotional impact on her that I was aiming for. (She called it so funny but so sad.)

Buffy Armstrong

Jami, this post is timely. I’ve been asking myself this question for a while now. I have a manuscript that I want to send out, but I think it needs some work. The only person who sees my work is my writing buddy. She is great. She’s freelance editor. She works with writers all of the time, but I can’t dump everything on her. I’ve sent it out to a cousin who reads paranormal romance (a non-writer) and a Twitter pal who is a writer. We will see how it works out. I would like to be a beta reader for someone, but thus far no one has asked.

Juli Page Morgan

You’re so right, Jami. To get good beta readers you have to reciprocate. When I ask writer friends to beta read, I make sure they know I’ll do the same for them since I know what a huge undertaking it is. When reading a published work it’s okay to think, “Are you kidding me? Why is this here?” *skip skip skip* But when beta reading you need to tell the author, “When Barbie stopped right in the middle of her argument with Ken to flash back to times her parents fought, it interrupted the flow and made the argument less relevant. Perhaps her memories could occur after Ken storms out.” To do that through the whole book is time-consuming and a huge commitment. I won’t ask anyone to do that for me unless I’m willing to do the same for them. I’ve found that fellow writers are more apt to heed my plea of “Please be honest! You won’t hurt my feelings!” more than non-writers. Three of my beta readers were non-writers; one is a voracious reader of romance novels (my genre), one was curious as to what I’d been working on for so long, and the third, well, he just likes to read. The romance reader’s feedback was thorough, but the other two initially responded with, “I really like it. Good job!” I had to sit down with each of them and quiz them until I got, “Well, there WAS this one part…” It took some work on my…  — Read More »


Thanks, Jami, for answering my question in such great detail! 🙂

I have a friend who I thought would make a great beta reader. She’s got a minor in creative writing and she, well, actually writes for a living. And as much as I love her, she turned out to be one of the worst. It took her two and a half months to get back to me on the short story I’d sent her, and her feedback wasn’t terribly helpful. Grr.

I actually used my mother as a reader for the same short story, and after I got over the initial embarrassment (because she’s my mother and OF COURSE she loves whatever I do), she ended up providing some of the most useful feedback I’ve ever gotten. So much so that when I get around to turning that short into a novel, I feel utterly confident I’ll be able to go to her with plot points and problems.

Rebekah Loper

Wow, such a helpful post!

I’ve not reached the stage yet where I had to recruit beta readers for my own stuff, but I have done quite a bit of beta-reading for friends with shorter works, and recently attempted to beta-read a novel for someone, but real life got in the way (my family is so dysfunctional it’s not even funny), and I had to drop it.

There was also the issue of the fact that there were so many grammar errors that the poor writer didn’t need a beta-reader, he needed a CP. I tried to tactfully point them out in the first few pages, and sent it back, and I hope that he’s found someone who had the time to help him!

Marcy Kennedy

This was a really great post. I may try asking fellow writers to beta read next time. In the past, I’ve tended to use readers and that was fine except for the not understanding deadlines part you mentioned.

The other biggest problem I’ve found is that I’m not a sugar-coating type of person when it comes to my writing. If you can tell me what’s wrong, I’m excited because that means I can get down to work on fixing it. Sometimes people are too afraid to tell you when something doesn’t work for fear that they’ll hurt your feelings or hurt the friendship. I think another writer would probably understand that it’s not a personal attack if there’s something they don’t like and point it out, but non-writers don’t always see that dividing line.

Melinda Collins

Oh how timely this post is, Jami! I’ve actually had a WIP out with a Beta since September (I requested feedback by October – at least 3 weeks). I’ve since requested for feedback about 4 times, and saw on FB that she was reading through it, but that was weeks ago. *head desk* And she’s a writer too. Unfortunately there are times where even fellow writers – who know and understand deadlines – fall behind, or better yet, don’t prioritize the tasks they’ve committed themselves to. *rolls eyes* I wish I had done what I originally intended to do by sending only the first few chapters for feedback first, but it was offered and I needed it, so I accepted knowing that I would one day return the favor. And I have to say, I’m such a nice person that if I received her WIP via email tonight asking for a Beta read, I’d go ahead and get it done and send the feedback with or without getting mine back. 🙂

So, needless to say, I’m back to looking for at least another one or two Beta’s so that when I get done with these deep edits, I can get feedback within my deadline so I can begin the query stage during the fall. *sigh* It’s seems for far away but it’s literally just around the corner.


I beta-read for two writers before. One especially wanted help because her first language wasn’t English, so my edits were almost all linguistic ones.

Now there’s a website called , you might have heard of this before. This is where writers post their stories or poems online. You need to review enough people’s work before you can post, and they must be constructive reviews.

My problem is, often when I read someone’s work, unless their mistakes or weaknesses are obvious, I only see their strengths. I see all the things that are really good about their piece, but am at a loss to say what could be improved. Is that a bad thing, or is it good to only see strengths for now, and later develop more as a writer and consequently see more?

Aldrea Alien

From what I can see on that site, you have to pay to post your work. Reviewing is free, posting cost ya a monthly fee. At least, that’s what it asked me to do when I went to sign up.
I used to put up my first 7000 words (that’s their max) at which ask that you critque others in exchange for ‘points’ that you can put towards the story you want. The choice is randomised and you judge their writing out of five based on eight points (as well as having to pass a test based on the piece), then give’em your feedback.
I haven’t been there for a while though, my daughter tends to suck up most of my free time.

Shain Brown

For me, I am still trying to find the right crit partners. But this is definitely something that I will hang on to for a later date. Whoever you decide to work with, in whatever capacity, takes time to build a level of trust. I think your point regarding professionalism and possibly using a writer is spot on. Thanks for the great information.

Aldrea Alien

Okay, been having a think about this, digging up old critiques and stuff and, according to the definitions, when I -do- comment on someone’s writing, I stick myself somewhere between critique partner and beta reader and stay there.
Looking over some of the critiques I’ve done on some sites: I can be quite harsh (probably to the point of being rude, but I try to scale that back), I can stop part way through a work if I’m not drawn in, and above all, I’m a bit of a genre snob who’ll be even harsher on fantasy works (though I’ve hundreds of them on my shelves and write in said genre. In fact, that may be the reason I’m so harsh. It’s what I know).

In short, who the heck would want someone like me as a permanent CP/BR?

Jami's Tech Guy (Jay)

Great post Jami. As most of you know, I’m obnoxious. 🙂 So I have no qualms about playing matchmaker and asking those in the pool of authors I read for to do so for each other. Especially since it will probably be 2030 before I need a beta reader. Yes Buffy, I do love to beta read. (Or more accurately, something between critiquing and beta reading.) Even ‘girly’ stories. It’s so much fun getting into the story voice and the characters’ heads and sometimes helping them argue with their creator. “No, I absolutely wouldn’t do it this way, I’d do this *much more devious* thing.” My first beta read request was from someone who just wanted me to check the science of a scene. I posted on Twitter how much fun it was and someone else asked me to read a scene. She seemed embarrassed since it was a romance and her husband wouldn’t read it for her. (Lame!) Her request email was along the lines of *blushing* “ignore the romance stuff, is this close to how a guy thinks?” From there author #1 sent me a spicy paranormal romance. It was good but I absolutely hated one scene. It felt forced and didn’t make sense. The Hero was acting completely out of character and I pointed this out and gave some suggestions. Turns out she hated the scene too but needed a way to get the Hero to go somewhere. The next version was awesome. Now I’m reading everything…  — Read More »

Gene Lempp

Interesting ideas. I’ve been looking “long term planning” wise to having beta readers, well other then my wife and one good friend – you know, someone that doesn’t protect the relationship in their comments to a higher degree. This post gives me a new angle to consider.

Thanks, Jami – always the best 🙂

Julia Tomiak

My first beta readers were the girls from my book club. They were nice, probably too nice, but that gave me the encouragement to continue working on the project. Since then I found a critique partner through an agent’s website and did exactly what you suggested – we swapped the first few chapters, provided feedback, and assessed the relationship from there. I’m sure I’ll want a few more eyes on my ms before I start the query process, and this post helped me get ideas about where to find them! Thanks!

Julia Tomiak

Also, I think it helps to use beta readers you know only through writing/social media connections – they are more likely to be honest than your friends and family, who want to protect your feelings.


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Jadzia Brandli
Jadzia Brandli

So I’ve found a site that’s great for in depth critiques, chapter by chapter, and I am nearly halfway done with my first revision of my MS. But I wanted to get some big picture thoughts on the book, so I went in search of a beta reader.

I found my first beta reader and it’s only been a week. I am beta reading something for her as well and I enjoy her book and am giving her the feedback I would like to recieve from her, only, she tends to keep it short. Telling me what she liked and pointing out a thing or two that stood out to her, while I give more thourough thoughts. I’m wondering if we’re just not right for each other and if I should continue our beta reading relationship, or end it? :O I don’t feel like I’m getting the feedback I need. Maybe, as time goes on, she’ll be more willing to dig in deeper, but for now, I’m really confused.


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Hanako Stephens
Hanako Stephens

I’m having real issues FINDING beta readers and i’ve got a 70-80k word novel first draft to get beta read so i can edit it 🙁

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