What are Beta Readers?

Today we are going to take a step back from book marketing and publishing discussions and focus this article on the craft of writing novels. I had never heard of “writer twitter” or “book twitter” until a little over two months ago, and I only wish I’d found it sooner.

“Writer twitter” isn’t about tweeting your novel to advertise it B2C, though you can certainly do that there. However if you just did that, you’d be overlooking its true value which is in the interactions with people who make up the community. Writer twitter is everything from a digital support group for authors who need encouragement to an opportunity to get in front of literary agents and publishers. In this self-defined segment of twitter is an absolute wealth of knowledge and experience accumulated by authors of all backgrounds and ages.

Their combined wisdom is a treasure for new authors, as the writers in the #writerscommunity freely use the twitter hashtag to help their fellow authors and share their expertise. That support may come in the form of a silly gif of kermit the frog to show solidarity – that author problems are in fact utterly relatable… or it may come through as a thoughtfully architected DM.

I met Audrey Henley through twitter and she agreed to be a guest on my Writer’s Community blog for a topic that is a really important part of the writing process, but can be intimidating for new authors:

Beta readers

What is a beta reader you ask? A beta reader is a person who reads your novel and offers you critiques on it. Often, it’s a fellow author, but it doesn’t need to be. Sometimes authors will swap manuscripts and offer commentary on each other’s work. Beta readers are another set of eyes that can look at your manuscript and offer their perspectives: these readers may find errors or plot holes that you yourself missed. But how does a new author find beta readers and communicate with them? What should a new author expect from the process?

To find someone experienced on the topic, I decided to reach out to the the one place I knew I was certain to find a writer with great insight about the beta reader process: writer twitter.

Enter Audrey Henley – who very awesomely agreed to do this interview with me today. She’s a writer from Minneapolis who has been writing ever since she was really young. She has experience working in production at a small press and operates her own amazing blog, which I will link to below!

I put out the call on twitter… and here’s what she answered:

About Beta Readers:

Q. Hi Audrey, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview! First, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Why did you decide to be an author and where are you in the journey?

A. Hi there! I’m a Minneapolis-based writer and work in production at a small press.

I’ve always been a book worm, and since I was homeschooled when I was younger, I had more time to read than most. In high school, I started digging out old Poets & Writers and Writer’s Digest magazines from the free pile at my local library. I feel very lucky that I grew up in a time and place where young adult literature was rampant and information about the publication process was accessible.

I’ve stubbornly wanted to write and work in publishing for as long as I can remember. I kept trying to start writers’ groups in high school and college, but very few people seemed interested in long-form like I was. The wary looks people offered me whenever I talked about writing only added ink to my pen!

I started writing my first novel the summer after I graduated high school. That one took two years to draft, but my work in progress only took six months.  I’ll soon be querying that, and I’m currently brainstorming my next project.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about your current work in progress, “That Bright Beautiful World” (working title)? 

A. Sure! Ten years after nuclear war, sixteen-year-old Hayden spends his days wistfully looking through a periscope lens. He’s usually lucky to catch a dust storm, but on the same day bunker-wide protests erupt over a lack of supplies, Hayden spots Brita, the first outsider they’ve seen since locking the vault ten years ago.

Q. I saw on your website you went through two major revision passes on your current WIP. Did you use the same set of readers both times around?

A. No. I find it best to work with a new set of readers with each round of revision. Readers with fresh eyes won’t remember previous versions, so they’ll notice discrepancies that repeat readers might miss. Repeat readers are also likely to miss any nuanced word choice changes that will affect tone, as they’ll be tempted to skim chapters that haven’t had more large-scale changes.

Q. When you first decided to have beta readers look at your work, were you nervous at all?

A. Yes, but I think I was even more excited to have feedback. It was for a college writing class, and the work was very personal. The professor was quite wishy-washy with how much to share, so I kept giving people chapters and chapters to read. After several of these classes, I realized that workshops were not designed for novels! By the time I had exchanged manuscripts with a true critique partner, I felt ready for honest feedback from someone else who was serious about long-form fiction.

Q. How did you find your beta readers? How many did you work with?

A. Twitter! Even the two beta readers I know in real life connected with me on Twitter after a local writers’ conference. We lived in the same area, but we wouldn’t have met without the internet. As I mentioned earlier, I haven’t had a ton of luck meeting other serious writers by happenstance. But there is no lack of enthusiasm for writing on book Twitter. It’s been a game changer for me.

I believe I have had around a dozen readers. I had two of them read a very, very early draft and suggest structural changes. I exchanged my manuscript with a few readers after a #CPMatch* Twitter event, and I’ve given this latest version to some of my most trusted critique partners.

*#CPMatch is a Twitter hashtag where you pitch your book, not to agents, but to other writers in hopes of finding a critique partner.

Q. What was the best advice a beta reader gave you?

A. Don’t second guess yourself and what you have written and always do what works best for you first and foremost or everything will feel forced.

Q. Can you describe how the interactions went? How did you communicate with them? (e-mail, twitter, slack, in-person)

A. With my two IRL critique partners, we meet in each other’s homes, drink tea, and chat about our novels. We’re often as much of a support group as a critique group.

With readers I’ve only met on the internet, most of our interactions take place over email and with GIFs on Twitter.

Q. How much time do beta readers typically take to read your manuscript? Do they read and critique the whole thing or just certain chapters?

A. Most often, we’ll exchange full manuscripts, but I’m pretty flexible toward what my beta readers would prefer.

There’s something really great about getting feedback on early drafts if you’re able to find a reader you trust. These readers can look for plot holes and larger structural issues without yelling about every comma splice. If they point out a character who doesn’t need to there or a plot hole the size of Lake Superior, it can save you a lot of words down the road.

Q. If a new writer was nervous about working with beta readers for the first time, what advice would you give them?

A. Remember that writers and readers are, on the whole, kind-hearted people. There are readers out there who will LOVE your story. Share it with them!

Q. Was there any negative experience working with a beta reader? If so, how did you handle it?

A. Yes, but they’ve been far outnumbered by positive experiences. And in fact, most “negative” experiences were either a lack of communication or a simple lack of compatibility. Once in a while a reader will never get back to you, but that’s just part of the process.

Always exchange chapters before committing to an entire manuscript! It’s important to build trust and get a sense for each other’s feedback styles. Some writers like compliment sandwich feedback (compliment/room for improvement/compliment), while others want blunt, uncushioned feedback (Change this! Here’s why). And some people are geared toward offering or receiving one or the other. 

Q. Overall, would you recommend working with beta readers to new authors?

A. Absolutely! It’s the best step you can take to level up as a writer.

Q. What are your plans for the future?

A. To keep writing and connect with other writers.

That concludes the interview. Thanks again to Audrey for graciously taking the time to answer these questions and – in the process – hopefully help new writers that may have been interested in working with beta readers, but were unsure where to start or what to expect!

Follow Audrey on Social Media!
Instagram @howaud_henley
Twitter @AudHenley 
& Don’t forget to visit Audrey Henley’s website!

Thank you for visiting Bestseller Trailers. If you enjoyed this blog, please read my other writer’s community articles. Best of luck on your writing journey!

Do you have experience with beta readers? Leave a comment below and share your experiences!