How to run a perfect beta read

I recently finished the best beta reading experience of my career. It ran smoothly, my beta readers were thorough, turn around was quick, and on the whole results were as good as I could ever hope.

So today I’m paying it forward by sharing my approach to running a beta read so that you can have as positive an experience as I did.

What is a beta read?

For the uninitiated, a beta read is the process where a writer shares their manuscript with a reader or a group of readers who then provide feedback. This process comes before professional editing, or if you’re a self-publisher and on a budget, sometimes substitutes for professional editing entirely.

How many beta readers do I need?

Before you begin, you’ll need to gather a group of beta readers. You’re target should be around 7 to 15 beta readers.

Since beta readers are rarely professional editors, they’ll often pick a theme such as grammar, character, or simply their enjoyment level and comment on that throughout. So it’s best to have a group of beta readers, and the more you have, the broader and more valuable your feedback will be.

Add to this that several beta readers who sign up to read for you likely won’t even start reading. They may have overbooked themselves or life otherwise got in the way, so you’ll want a cushion for those who inevitably don’t make it through.

Having a large group of beta readers ensures that enough will finish to offer comprehensive feedback. 7 to 15 seems to be the sweet spot, but I wouldn’t gather more than that because it can quickly become a logistical nightmare.

How do I find beta readers?

There are several tactics to gather a killer group of beta readers. It starts with an easy to use sign up form, incentives, and a pitch delivered to the right groups.

Create a beta reader reward

Start by figuring out what you can offer your beta readers in return for their help. They’re basically working for free, so it always helps to sweeten the deal. I’ve given away free books, stickers, bookmarks, and hand-made postcards.

Whatever you choose give away, make sure it’s something you’d like to receive and doesn’t break the bank. We’re not trying to get one time beta readers, we’re trying to build a dedicated group of long term fans.

Here’s my thank you gifts for my last beta read. I made them by hand and they cost me a total of about $50 and included a thank you card, a sticker I designed, and some bookmarks. 

Build a form using Google Docs

Now that you have your reward figured out, you’ll need an easy way for beta readers to sign up, and for you to keep track of them. Google Docs is perfect for this because it’s free, and sign-ups export to a spreadsheet.

Create a form using google docs and ask for all the info you’ll need. You’ll want to ask for names, emails, and addresses (so you can send them their rewards).

I always throw in a few questions to filter out beta readers I don’t want. For example, if my book is horror, I ask how much they enjoy horror and for them to list their favorite horro novels. If they don’t enjoy it, then their feedback likely wont be very good, so I don’t invite them along.

Here’s my last sign up form as an example. As you can see, it doesn’t need to be fancy to work well.

Write a pitch

You’ll want to attract people who will be your target audience, so take some time to write a short blurb. This hook should attract readers to your story. You’ll also want to explain the process and time frames of your beta read.

You’ll use this pitch everywhere you reach to people, including on your signup form, so make sure it’s as clean as you can make it.

Invite readers to sign up

The internet is surprisingly full of people who want to help writers publish. You just need to know where to find them. When you reach out, use your pitch which should contain several links to your sign up form.

Here’s how I look for beta readers, in the order I search. I will work my way down this list until I’ve gathered enough readers to do a proper job.

  • Previous Beta Readers – If you’ve ever held a beta read before, then start by reaching out to those who already helped you. If you treated them right, they’ll often jump on the opportunity to beta read again.
  • Newsletter & Blog – If you have a newsletter, mailing list, or blog, send out a message asking for beta readers. Fans will often enthusiastically support you by beta reading.
  • Social media – Be sure to reach out to your social media following. If you’re on twitter, let the #writerscommunity know about it. There’s also a beta reading community on Reddit. If your piece is short, you can try /r/DestructiveReaders, which is great for short stories or single chapters but will also have a thread where you can ask about beta readers. I’ve also reached out to /r/scifiwriting and other subreddits. There are hundreds of other places to look, don’t be afraid to dig around.
  • Friends, family, and co-workers – If all those other options fail you, there’s always the old standby of people you know irl. Don’t be afraid to ask them, but also don’t be hurt if they’re the flakiest.

As you can see, there is a world of people out there waiting to become your beta readers. All you need to do is come up with a good pitch, and send them to your signup form.

How do I run a beta read?

Once you’ve gathered your team of beta readers, you’ll want to start the process right away. The longer you wait, the more likely people will drop off early.

The three things I find most important when it comes to running a beta read are communication, incentives, and tracking readers progress. The only tools you need to cover all of this is email and Google Docs.

Why Google Docs?

One of the most difficult challenges is in running a beta read is delivering and receiving your manuscript. Some readers use Word, others Scrivener, others Open Office, but all can use Google Docs for free. So there’s a very low barrier.

When you send files such as Word, etc, you’ll find yourself waiting for periods of time for the comments to come back. Then when they do arrive, you’ll either need to compile all the documents together, or go through each one by one. All of this is a headache and can sometimes be demotivating.

I’ve since stopped providing Word and Open Office docs to each reader and instead only provide a single Google Doc which all readers share. This way, all feedback is in the same document, beta readers can see and respond to each other’s feedback, and you know exactly how far through the document each reader is at a glace.

Communication

After you have your Google Doc ready for beta readers to comment on, you’ll want to be a communication guru. Write regular updates informing your beta readers of what’s going on in the process.

This regular communication is necessary to help motivate readers to come back to your story after a few days away. Remember that they have lives, and sometimes your writing isn’t the most important thing they’re dealing with, so gentle reminders go a long way.

But even more effective that this are small incentives, in our case, badges.

Badges

The best way to motivate people is to gamify the beta reading process by offering achievement badges. This is just like when you win a badge in a video game. Here’s an example of my bages in action.


You’ll be amazed how well these badges work. All you need to do is come up with a list of achievements beta readers can unlock that you can easily track. Let them know about the badges and give them a timeframe.

When I announced my badges, beta readers immediately started reading and commenting on my story. Afterward, several let me know how it made the process more fun for them.

Tracking

One of the problems with sending out a giant word doc is you’re in the dark for the whole process. It sucks to sit and wait blindly without knowing if people are even reading.

With the Google Docs, this isn’t an issue at all. And with the Google Form, you can add more ways of manually tracking how far through the process each beta reader is. This helps with sending rewards, keeping track of who’s lagging behind, etc. Good tracking keeps things running smoothly.

Follow up

When the beta reading process is over, don’t leave your beta readers in the dark. Be sure to follow up with thank you gifts, and reach out to them periodically to let them know the status of your story now that they are done with it.

Chances are, your beta readers are pretty invested in your work at this point, and they’ll appreciate knowing everything that’s happening.

So that’s my process reduced to a single blog post. If you want more detailed info, I have great news! I’m writing a book on beta reading called Running a Perfect Beta Read: The Indie Author’s Guide to Harnessing Incentives, Technology, and Communication for an Out of This World Beta Reading Experience. Sign up for my Perfect Beta Read newsletter to be notified when it’s released.

Writers Life

Think about 20 different ideas

Winnie the Pooh Thinks

Narrow it down to one.

Think some more.

Outline maybe… Or just start writing.

“We’ll, that idea sucks. Time to rewrite.”

Expand on everything!

Expand

Oops. Expanded too much. Cut it down.

Write! Write! Write!

Almost done, don’t get burned out.

The last chapter isn’t working. What did I do wrong?

More rewrites!

Share with beta readers. (quietly die inside)

Get their feedback.

editor

Rewrite some more. Does it never end!??!

Walk away from it for three months.

Read someone elses novel, feel inadequate.

die inside

Read it, see if it’s as good as you remember it (it isn’t).

Rewrites!

Editors, agents, proofers, publishers.

Promotion… nooooooooooo!

no

And start again.

The sweet sorrow of finishing a novel

I’ve nearly finished writing Grim Curio. 92,000 words written, and when it’s done it’ll be just shy of 100,000. That’s pretty damn close.

I’m a little sad to be at this point. Grim Curio has been a very rewarding book to write. I’ve expanded my skills and pushed myself as far as I can.

Even so, I’m ready finish. Writing Grim Curio has been exhausting. So while I’m sad to see the experience drawing to an end, I’m also relieved.

It's a Roller Coaster of Emotion in here

To celebrate this milestone, here’s three takeaways from my writing process.

I found my own voice

It seems to me that a writers voice is always evolving. But for the first time I feel the voice I’m writing in is my own.

While I enjoy the narration of Discovering Aberration and The Gin Thief, I think it’s fairly obvious that I was emulating the style of the Victorian Era (drawing heavily from Jules Verne).

With Grim Curio, it was just me. 

I improved my pacing

Pacing is critical. Bad pacing can cripple an otherwise great novel. I’ve struggled with pacing before, especially with Discovering Aberration‘s drawn out introduction and drastic shift in tone.

But with Grim Curio I feel like I nailed it. Beta readers seemed to agree. Now I’ve got to carry that structure to future works.

Layered Story

While my other novels are straight forward adventures without too much subtext to dive into, I feel like I’ve added a depth to Grim Curio I’ve never written before.

Grim Curio can be read as a straightforward post apocalyptic story, but there are layers and layers here that I weaved into the narrative. Some of my beta readers picked up on these deeper themes, others were content to read it at a surface level.

The fact that both were possible and both sets of readers reported high levels of enjoyment tell me I did something right there. Go me. Gotta pat myself on the back sometimes. God knows I pile on the criticism enough.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Lot’s more coming in the weeks ahead. I’m getting back into my regular blogging schedule again now that things are calming down. Keep an eye out, and if you want to be notified of any future releases, sign up for my mailing list.

Become a Beta Reader

Calling All Beta Readers – Read Grim Curio Before Anyone Else

Hello dear readers, it’s that time again. Beta readers, assemble! Who among you will rise to the challenge and beta read Grim Curio before it’s submitted to contests, agents, and publishers? To become a beta reader, follow the link below and fill out the short form.

Become a Beta Reader [link]

Become a Beta Reader

The beta reading period is quickly approaching, with a targeted date of Tuesday Jan 2nd for the first three chapters to be handed out. If you want to be a part of the process, sign up now! Beta readers will receive a free copy of Grim Curio upon release, and I’m going to try to come up with another way to thank you, maybe a t-shirt or something — I’m open to ideas.

About Grim Curio

The story of how the world ends begins on a near barren planet within the last and only city on earth, along a narrow empty street, dusk sunlight casting the toxic air in rainbow streaks of red, purple and green. This story begins and ends with James.

James is rogue veil researcher. He seeks evidence that will prove parallel realities exist, hoping to save humanity from the caustic, dying waste the earth has become. In order to make this discovery, he will cross paths with violent teenage nihilists, scientists attempting to cut a hole in the fabric of reality, a researcher hell bent on following the rules, a politician struggling to maintain order and stability, and many more strange and dangerous people.

When the fate of Refuge is at stake, can these disparate people with conflicting goals band together to survive or will their discord be their downfall?

What does a Beta Reader do?

A beta reader is one of the greatest people living on the face of the earth. They receive chapters from the Grim Curio manuscript, read it, answer questions and leave feedback, then return their notes to me. We’ll talk about the novel, about your opinions, and laugh at my stupid grammar mistakes. In the end, you’ll get a signed copy and another gift yet to be determined.

Do I have to read all of Grim Curio?

Nope. If life gets in the way, or if you just don’t want to keep on beta reading, you can drop out at any time. Beta reading is purely optional, but in order to receive any of the beta reader gifts, you must read and offer feedback for at least 85% of Grim Curio.

What if I’ve never edited anything before?

That’s fine! All you need to be is a passionate reader. If you live for science fiction and fantasy novels, then you’re the perfect candidate to become a beta reader.

How much feedback should beta readers give?

As much or as little as you’re willing to share. If you want to write a full-page critiquing each chapter, that’s great. If you only want to share a few sentences on how you feel about the material, that’s great too.

 

What is the process, in detail?

The process is pretty straight forward.

  • Receive 3 chapters starting with chapter 1
  • Read through, comment, and answer a few specific questions within a timely manner (3-5 days)
  • Return chapters and notes back
  • Receive next 3 chapters, etc.
  • Enjoy an occasional Skype call where I thank you profusely and we chat about the novel

Can I invite my friends to be beta readers too?

Please do. The more the merrier.

Quick Overview On The Many Kinds of Editors

Behind the scenes of favorite books can be a complicated place, especially when you’re talking about editors. There are so many stages of editing, so many kinds of editors as well as generous readers who give up their time to offer their opinion on works in progress. So if you’re among the many readers who doesn’t know the difference between a Developmental Editor, Proofreader and Beta Reader, this post is for you.

We’re going to break down editors into three categories, Editors, Beta Readers, and Alpha Readers. Editors are your professional brand of book doctors who get paid the big bucks to gut manuscripts before their published. They come in many varieties, and we’ll address the nuances below. Then there’s Beta Readers who are more or less hobby editors who volunteer their time to read manuscripts before they reach Editors and offer their advice. Finally, there are Alpha Readers who come early in the process often in the form of critique groups, writing workshops, etc.

For a more detailed overview on these publishing heroes, read on.

Editors

Editors are professional readers, critiquer’s and proofreader’s. They are paid to offer their expert advice to an author in order to make the authors work more marketable (also better).

There are many kinds of editors including: acquisition editors, copy editors, line editors, content editors, and more. Rather than rewriting what’s already been written hundreds of times online, I’ve founds another source to do that work for me. Below is a quote from a blog post from The Helpful Writer. They do a great job of calling out the differences without diving too deep. You can read their complete, original post here.

Acquisition Editor

Most of you already know, or at least heard of, the AE. Generally, they are the ones picking up the books for a publisher, and the go-to for the author while prepping a book for publication.

Developmental Editor

Used by big publishing houses, and often ghost writers. You can find a few freelancing DEs. They are best with non-fiction writing, but can be hired by fiction writers. Their primary function is to ensure a book moves in a forward motion, watching plot and characterization. Think writing coach.

Content Editor

The very big publishing houses have Content Editors, the one overlooking all the plot, characterization, voice, and setting.

Copy Editor

The copy editor specializes in grammar, punctualization, fact-checking, spelling, and formatting. The Copy Editor is used most often in journalism publications, but utilized by some smaller publishers.

Line Editor

Also known as a Copy/Content Editor, often employed by the small – medium publishers, and self-published authors. They do it all – grammar, fact-checking, spelling, formatting, plot, sentences, characterization, setting, punctualization, and voice. They go through every inch of an MS, word by word, line by line.

Proofreader

Many get a proofreader and an editor confused. A proofreader is the one who goes over your MS after an editor. They look for the glaring mistakes missed, generally in punctuation, spelling, and formatting. They look for the glaring mistakes that may have been missed during edits.

Beta Readers

Hey guys, I’m back! Let’s talk about beta readers. Beta readers are the salt of the earth readers who want to be a part of the process. And they’re awesome. They volunteer their time to read early access, unkempt, unpublished manuscripts. They then share their thoughts with the author in the form of notes and/or interviews. If all goes well, a better book is birthed kicking and screaming into this cruel world.

The beta reading process for me is a structured, chapter by chapter read through. My beta readers are given chapter deadlines and are asked to answer a series of questions to send back to me. Occasionally we may have one on one conversations where they share their deepest, darkest secrets… ahem, thoughts on my novel. It’s the semi casual version of Editing!

Want to become a Beta Reader? Send me a message through my contact form, and let me know. I’ll add ask you a few questions and potentially add you to the list.

Alpha Readers

To boil it down, Alpha Readers are to Beta Readers what Beta Readers are to Editors. Hows that for a flashback to the SAT’s? To clarify: Editors are a professional grade arsenal of long-range weapons. They get paid to read at a professional level. Beta readers are avid readers willing to share their thoughts. They’re your infantry.

Alpha readers, on the other hand, have access to some or all of the early versions of chapters, they may read it in order or random bits and pieces, and they are not beholden to schedules or deadlines. They come earlier in the process than Beta Readers, often before much of the book is even written. They are your spies.

For me, Alpha Readers help determine aspects of the novel while I am writing it. They share input during the drafting process. You can include in this group writing partners or workshops. Lately I’ve been using /r/DestructiveReaders for my alpha reading process (learn about how I used this community to improve my writing skills). Some readers there are professional writers, other amateurs, still others just readers wanting to share their input.

If you want to be notified when chapters are available for alpha reading, reach out to me through my contact form and let me know. I’ll email you whenever a new chapter is available to alpha read.

Conclusion

So there you have it. In short, all forms of editors are great but each serves a very different purpose. If you’re a reader who wants to get involved, find what works best for you and offer your services to an up and coming writers. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled. If you’re an up and coming writer, keep an eye out for these kinds of readers and learn how to utilize them. It’ll be highly worth your time.

Mari Helin-Tuominen