The Beta Reader FAQ

Good morning. Welcome to the end of another week. We’ve been talking beta readers all week, and I thought it would be useful to collect some info and put together an FAQ.

When do I use beta readers?
A beta reader comes in after you’re done writing, after the editing and revision process, and before you send it off for submission or publication. Yes, their comments may lead to more revisions, but that’s part of the process. Bringing them in any earlier is like asking someone taste dinner while it’s still cooking – they won’t get the full experience you want them to have.

Is a beta reader an editor?
No. They’re a reader. Sure, you can say that editors also read, but an editor’s job is to edit (it’s in the name) and a beta reader’s job is to read (it’s also in the name). A beta reader may catch some stray proofing errors and maybe point out a janky sentence here or there, but a beta reader is best used when they read the near-done manuscript and can speak to their satisfaction and understanding of what’s on the page.

Is a beta reader supposed to read an early draft AND a later draft for comparison?
No. This isn’t comparative. The beta reader “tests” out your fiction, functioning like a proto-audience to see how it would be received assuming it was a book available for purchase. It’s not up to them to track the progress of an MS, they need to look at the most finished manuscript and draw their conclusions.

Do I pay a beta reader?
Yes. Whenever someone is doing a job for you, you pay them. And not in the quid pro quo way of “you read for me, I read for you” because I can’t put reading in an envelope and use it to pay my phone bill. It may be tempting to work out an exchange, because that’s easier (read: cheaper) than paying someone to read, as if that task isn’t important, or it’s somehow wrong to treat your work professionally and pay for services.

It comes down to a decision and statement as to how seriously you take your work. If this isn’t something you want to see published, if this is just something you’re doing for the heck of it, don’t pay the beta readers and everyone can have a good time just reading this thing you wrote as a hobby.

But if you’re going to pursue publication, if you want more than your immediate circle of people to experience your work, when you don’t pay your beta readers, you’re saying either their time and help isn’t important, or your manuscript isn’t that important. Are you sure that’s the message you want to convey?

How much do I pay a beta reader?
Enough to cover the time spent reading your work, so first determine how seriously you’re taking this publishing effort, then price accordingly. The absolute bottom amount and starting point? Don’t go any lower than $25 – enough to cover lunch with some pocket money left over. Work your way up from there.

How many beta readers do I need?
Try for an odd number of them. A pair might offer more critique, but having an uneven number of readers can function in a sort of confirmation if for example 2 out of 3 of them identify the same part of the story as confusing.

Where can I find beta readers?
Social media. While it may be tempting to wrangle friends and family into reading your work, there’s an underlying bias – your spouse can’t be objective, especially when you’re the one who does the grocery shopping and they totally love cheese. Finding people you don’t know, who aren’t going to blow smoke rectally or lob soft critique at you, will help make your MS better. If social media isn’t enough for you, try a website like this one.

Are you sure that seven beta readers aren’t better than a developmental editor?
There are many articles online that suggest a group of beta readers can be a substitute for an editor, noting that beta readers don’t get paid while doing the same critical work. If that doesn’t seem exploitative and sounding like the Huffington Post, nothing in this FAQ will likely dissuade you from parsimony. Beta readers may be able to spot a problem, but the editor will spot the problem and help you correct it (and ideally show you how to prevent it from happening in the future).

What sort of questions should I ask a beta reader while they’re reading my MS?
If there are spots in the fiction where you’re not sure if the writing is unclear or weak, where the story doesn’t feel ‘right’, or you think it may drag or have other problems, start there. Here too is a list of questions:

i) Did you find the tension of the story to develop at a reasonable pace?
ii) Were any of the action beats unclear?
iii) Did the resolution fit the climax?
iv) Were there any strands of plot left unresolved?
v) Did the main character’s [insert issue here] come across as impactful to the plot?
vi) Was the story pacing reasonable, did any sections of the book come across as rushed?
vii) In the introduction, was the world developed enough for you get a sense it was a tangible place?

Steer questions away from using words like “opinion” and “feel” as you’ll get responses too predicated on what the reader likes and who they are rather than specific-to-the-text opinions.

How long should a beta reader take to read an MS?
Many articles will tell you that turnaround should be measured in hours or less than a week. This may be possible, but given that people have jobs, kids, bills, other responsibilities, and beta readers often go unpaid (sensing a theme yet?), don’t expect people, especially ones you don’t know, to drop everything to read your MS when they may be trying to get a small child to focus on flossing or not wanting all the Lego in the universe ever. A week to 10 days is not a bad base amount of time for a reader to work through a text.

What sort of feedback can I expect from a beta reader?
Ideally, you want responses that highlight areas that need more work or story bits that didn’t make sense. Hearing that “they liked it” or “it was good” isn’t going to help you get the MS out the door to wherever you want to send it. And that’s because what’s good for them isn’t necessarily good for me or that lady over there smelling the inside of her shoes (I have a cousin who does that. I saw her do it once at an anniversary party.) “Good” is nice to hear, it’s flattering, but it’s not helpful when an MS is at the stage where beta readers are called in.

How do I communicate with beta readers?
Email. You can do it via other means, but I like email because it gives you a hard copy you can print out and refer to when you need it. If you go via Skype or GChat or smoke signals or semaphore, whatever it is people use, you may not remember all the things you need to.

Hope that FAQ helps, I’ll see you guys next week.


Posted by johnadamus


I am conflicted about the $25 thing. And I don’t think it is just beta reading. If you expect me to read and give feedback on an entire novel and you’re giving me $25 that feels like a slap in the face. Buy me lunch, fine. But don’t give me $25 and expect that now you can treat me like your employee and demand a super quick turn around time. Either let me donate my time and be thankful for my generosity, or pay me for my time, like what it is actually worth. I have turned down a $20 for computer help many times. It totally changes the dynamic and makes the person “paying” (because $25 for 10-25 hours of work depending on the book length is insultingly low) act like they are owed the world.

I do know that there is a high level of value to paying something in order to have the thing feel of value and there are some studies that show that if you experience the pain of paying you value the thing you get far, far more.

$25 was a starting point. I’ve expanded the sentence so it should be clearer.

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