The Quintessential Guide to Selecting and Working With Beta Readers

With the brutal, thorough help of beta readers, you can achieve writing goals faster and more efficiently. LS Hawker offers a definitive guide to selecting and working with them.
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With the brutal, thorough help of beta readers, you can achieve writing goals faster and more efficiently. LS Hawker offers a definitive guide to selecting and working with them.

My first contract was a three-book deal with HarperCollins Witness Impulse. Like a moron, I told my shiny new editor I could pump out those second two books in twelve months, when my debut had taken eighteen. Math has never been my strong suit.

To make matters worse, my critique group accepted only 20 pages every two weeks (math again). I had to switch to using beta readers, which was scarier. It seemed like the difference between a few papercuts every few weeks to an ice pick in the jugular. But thanks to my ill-advised optimism, I had no choice.

Below is my definitive, quintessential guide to selecting beta readers. Let’s get right to it, shall we?

A beta reader should be...

  • a reader in regular life, preferably in your genre. The reader should know the genre tropes and conventions.
  • someone whose judgement you trust in general. Does this person date jerks? Answer emails from Nigerian princes? That’s a no.
  • scrupulously honest. Does this person point out when you’ve got kale between your teeth? Disagree with prevailing popular opinions? Tell the truth even when it hurts him/her? Winner.

Using Kids and Parents as Beta Readers for Children’s Fiction

A beta reader should not be...

  • one of your usual critique partners. If you’re in a regular critique group and this person has already seen one or more iterations of part or all of your manuscript, run in the other direction. That’s because this person already knows what you’re trying to do and is now blind to what works and what doesn’t.
  • your mom, or any other person who “just wants you to be happy.” I don’t really need to explain this one, do I?
  • a writer, if possible. Whatever the opposite of rose-colored glasses is, that’s what we wear, and we’re no good as betas. We tend to read books while muttering, “If I was writing this novel, I would…”
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To cull the weeds, here are some refining questions to ask:

  • Do you find flaws in published books regularly?
  • Can you be brutally honest with me?
  • Do you have enough time to go over the manuscript thoroughly?
  • Would you be willing to read the book again after editing?

Beta reading is an arduous, time-consuming task, so be willing to offer incentives, with the express caveat that this is not a bribe to be told how brilliant you are. In fact, it’s the opposite. You’re bribing them to kick your ass. Here are some ideas.

  • A signed copy of your published book
  • A mention in the acknowledgements section of your published book
  • Swag related to the book
  • A gift card

Clarify your expectations and needs. Below is my list of instructions:

  1. You’ll receive a Word document of my manuscript. All correspondence will be conducted via email.
  2. You’ll have four weeks to read and comment on the manuscript.
  3. Ignore bad punctuation, misspellings, missing words, or other errors. A copy editor will take care of those items. I’m interested in high-level comments only: plot points, characters, events, quirks, causes that DON’T BELONG. If anything feels false or out of place, make a note of it.
  4. Use the Comment feature in Word’s Review mode and mark specific problematic areas and offer any clarifying commentary.
  5. When you’re finished, please save the document with your name attached to the title, i.e., BOOKTITLE LS HAWKER EDIT.doc.

Let them know what to be on the lookout for. Below is a list, but you probably have your own of issues you routinely struggle with. Include them here.

Questions to ask beta readers:

  1. Were you clear on where and when the book was taking place?
  2. Where in the story did you first feel a pull to keep turning pages (if any)?
  3. Was there a point or points in the manuscript where you felt it was easy to lay the book aside?
  4. Were there any scenes you didn’t feel grounded in, not sure where you were?
  5. Did you notice any POV shifts within a scene?
  6. Did you find the main character sympathetic? Did you relate to him/her? Were you ever confused by his/her motivations?
  7. Was there enough scene-setting?
  8. Too much/not enough description of people, places, and things?
  9. At which points did you feel like you had to go back a few pages to understand what was going on?
  10. Did you notice any discrepancies in character details, settings, time, sequencing, etc.?
  11. Were any characters superfluous, unnecessary? Was it difficult to keep characters straight?
  12. Was the dialogue stilted or unnatural? Enough dialogue? Too much?
  13. Any plot points too convenient or coincidental?
  14. Were there any scenes that were lacking in tension or interest?
  15. Were there any genre tropes/conventions that were missing or incomplete? Any elements that seemed incongruous to the genre?
  16. Was the plot wrapped up to your satisfaction? Were there any lingering, nagging questions at the end that should have been resolved?

With your beta readers’ brutal, thorough help, you can achieve writing goals faster and more efficiently. Just watch out for the ice picks.

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LS Hawker is the author of USA Today bestseller and ITW Thriller Awards finalist THE
DROWNING GAME, BODY AND BONE, and END OF THE ROAD, published by
HarperCollins Witness Impulse. THE THROWAWAYS, her fourth novel, will be released
1/22/19 from The Vanishing Point Press. View book trailers and read about her
adventures as cocktail waitress, traveling Kmart portrait photographer, and witness to
basement exorcisms on LSHawker.com.

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