What is a beta reader?

A beta reader, at the behest of an author, reviews and provides feedback on a work of fiction before it is submitted to agents or publishers. Beta readers, like “beta testers” in the software industry, look for inherent flaws in a product before it is released. Beta readers might be authors’ mothers, siblings, friends, neighbors, blog followers, writers’ group members, or Facebook friends. And just as beta readers’ roles vary, so does the quality of their feedback.

Some authors end up feeling deflated by beta readers providing feedback on commas and misspellings when they really need feedback on plot holes and character discrepancies. Others have relied on a trustworthy group of beta readers for years and find their input invaluable. But the reality is that many authors waste a great deal of time trying to find betas who provide productive feedback.

You often get what you paid for

The majority of beta readers don’t have the background or experience for the job. They may provide encouragement and camaraderie—which certainly has merit—but likely won’t be able to point you in the right direction with your manuscript revision process. Of course, beta readers typically provide their service free of charge, which can be valuable to authors with limited resources. But, as often is the case, you just might get what you paid for.

A professional editor, on the other hand, is a much surer bet for quality feedback, and here’s why:

  • Because we’re not your mom, friend, sister, brother, or cousin. There’s no emotional attachment to you or your work. As a mom myself, I can’t imagine providing unbiased feedback on either of my daughters’ work. Even with the best of intentions, my impression of what I’m reading would undoubtedly be colored by my deep knowledge (and love) of the author.
  • Because there’s no conflict of interest. If not a family member or friend, many beta readers are writers’ group members or other authors. Like it or not, sometimes it’s difficult to separate the work they’re reading from the work they’re doing themselves. And if plotting or characterization is not a strong suit in their own writing, it’s unlikely that they’ll catch it in your work.
  • Because we’re more concerned about your work than your feelings (which doesn’t mean we’re not nice about it). Professional editors are contracted with and compensated for providing a service. It’s their job to provide feedback on both strengths and weaknesses. Professional courtesy and demeanor is essential, and you won’t find successful editors who are overly sweet or overly cruel. They just won’t last in this business.
  • Because many beta readers know there’s something wrong with your protagonist, but have no idea what it is. Content editing can sometimes feel like trying to recall a word that’s on the tip of your tongue. A beta reader might recognize that something’s off, but not know exactly what that something is. Editors worth their salt have years of training in apprenticeship and are masters at teasing out the problem and putting words to it.
  • Because many beta readers aren’t sure how to fix the problem (see above). Even if beta readers tease out the central issue, they may not have experience in suggesting how to address it. As Rodgers and Hammerstein put it: “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” Professional editors not only point out where the holes are, but give guidance on how to fill them.
  • By all means, seek out a variety of readers to review your work. But if you’re looking for a reliable beta reader to provide quality feedback, try a professional editor. Many editors provide “critique” or “first read” services for authors early in the revision process and “developmental” or “content” editing for authors further along in the process. Be sure to submit a sample of your work and discuss expectations with your editor as you proceed.

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