When to Hire a Beta Reader

 In Editing

You’ve written your novel! Well done! Many people sit down at their desk to write a novel and then immediately stand back up to see what’s streaming. But not you! You persevered and you’ve woven your ideas and words into a story!

But now you’ve been hearing about beta readers (perhaps in my article “What’s a beta reader and why do you need one?”) and you are wondering if you should hire one. Here are five different scenarios when it makes sense to hire one or more beta readers.

Sunlight streaming through tall trees. Text: When you are the only person who has read your novel.

If you are the only person who has read your novel, you need to find a person (or ideally, people) to also read your novel and give you feedback. There’s no way around this. Even though you’ve spent untold hours with your manuscript, you need other people to read it.

This is true if you are looking for an agent to represent you. Agents get thousands of emails a year from writers interested in representation. If the agent is the first non-author to lay eyes on your novel, I can almost guarantee that they will reject you.

This is also true if you are self publishing. Don’t rush to publish. I can guarantee that if you publish and you are the only reader thus far it’s likely that you won’t add many people to that tally.

Why? You are too close to your work. You might be the best editor in the world for other people’s novels, but can you objectively edit your own work without outside feedback? Unless you are the exception that proves the rule, you can’t.

Sunlight streaming through tall trees. Text: When your friends and family are the only people who have read your novel.

As I discuss in the “What’s a beta reader” article, people who know you will say nice things about what you’ve written. While this is buoying, they probably won’t mention the things that would have stopped them from reading if they didn’t know you. Your Aunt Donna means well, but she’s never going to give you the honest truth.

A good beta reader will let you know your novel’s strengths, but they won’t stop there. You’ll get insight into what isn’t quite up to snuff. And, depending on the beta reader, they might provide some suggestions to improve things.

Sunlight streaming through tall trees. Text: When you think you know what your novel is about, but want to see if someone else thinks the same thing.

I once heard an author tell a story about how she wrote a very weighty novel about a couple in love. She was bowled over when an early reader called to say, “You novel is the funniest thing I’ve read this year.”

You might think you’ve written a novel about a space race, but if you get feedback from your beta reader that they loved the intimate portrait of two astronauts and their hidden love, it’s time to take another look at your manuscript. If your beta reader is far from the mark of what you were thinking you’ve written, send your manuscript out to a few more beta readers. If they are all enthusiastic about the love story rather than the space race, you can keep that in mind as you revise.

Sunlight streaming through tall trees. Text: When you have a sneaking suspicion.

Maybe you wonder if you spent too much time describing the monetary system in the world you built. Maybe you have a hunch that you have too much dialog. Maybe you are wondering if people are interested in a horse who travels through time. Perhaps you wonder if you wouldn’t benefit from a few more rounds of self-editing before looking for an agent or entering a pitch contest. If you hire a beta reader, they will let you know. Because beta readers, unlike regular readers, have seen many prepublished drafts, they have insight into how much more editing you might need.

Beta readers also tend to read a lot of novels, so they know what works and are better able to compare a draft to a finished product. They will probably have an idea if you’ve hit the sweet spot with your explanation of the the heist’s downfall and could give you their estimate about how much revision is in your future.

Sunlight streaming through tall trees. Text: When you aren't yet ready to pay for an editor.

Hiring a substantive editor or arranging for a manuscript critique is a spendy endeavor. Beta reading is a more affordable option. While you won’t get the in-depth feedback from a full edit or critique, you will get some answers to your questions and those answers might illuminate your next steps.

Beta reading also takes much less time than a full edit or critique. Because the feedback is more abbreviated than in a substantive edit, beta readers often can return your work quickly.

Sunlight streaming through tall trees. Text: Why hire more than one beta reader?

Not every story is for every person. Say your beta reader doesn’t love exposition using found correspondence between two people long dead. If your novel happens to have a plot point that hinges on that very device, then your beta reader is going to react differently than someone who adores that plot wrinkle.

A good beta reader knows what doesn’t work for them and is able to differentiate their own reaction from whether your plot device works in the context of your novel. If you’ve got a good beta reader, you’ll get good feedback, even if they aren’t the biggest fan of stories that start in the middle. However, if you have more than one beta reader, you will get a range of reactions to your novel, which will help you judge what’s working. If your beta readers come back asking several questions about the amount of time your main character spends baking pie, it’s time to take a look to see if you can slim down those descriptions. But if all three of your beta readers are happy with the level of dialog, then you can turn your attention to other editing things.

Beta readers can help you shape your story. By hiring a professional when you find yourself in any of the above situations, you can better plot your next steps.

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