Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Beta Readers: Is My Story Any Good?

Every writer dreams about happy readers. They’re called “fans.” Those wonderful supporters provide the motivation for all fiction writing. We writers crave approval and fans feed our egos. They put money in our pockets, so we can continue writing (even if we live on Top Ramen and string cheese). Fans also help us sell books as they spread the word.

My biggest concern when I am writing a book is simple. Will fans like my story?

It’s a scary thought that I might toil for months, putting together hundreds of pages detailing a fantasy world, only to discover that nobody wants to read it. Fortunately, wonderful folks called “Beta Readers” give me essential feedback along the way. I capitalized the term on purpose, because these people are that important to me.

Beta Readers (called “BRs” from this point forward) are hard to find. Good BRs possess unique characteristics; understanding fundamentals of writing, love of literature, brutal honesty, genre specific knowledge and they willingly invest their time to help me improve my story. Are they family? With one exception, family usually struggle with bias for, or sometimes against, the writer-dad/spouse/child/etc. Fortunately, my wife has never hesitated to point out my flaws, and she’s an avid reader, so she makes a great BR.

What about fellow writers? Most of my BRs are not writers. Writer friends have good intentions, but they struggle with a tendency to inject their personal writing styles into their opinions. Yes, I am guilty of that when trying to help fellow writers. It’s tough to suppress.

Is there a formula for good Beta Readers?

You bet! I look for avid readers in my target genre who agree to be completely honest with me. If something sucks, I want to know why it sucks and if it’s worth fixing. They also know my competition and will often "rate" my story against future competition.

One big mistake writers make with BRs is having them search for SPAG errors. To tell the truth, the single best feedback a Beta Reader can provide is their impression of plot and characters. Did the book catch their interest right away? Were there slow parts? Did they like the ebb and flow of action (pace)? Did they connect with the characters? Are they excited about a sequel? Those elements make for a good story. The mundane SPAG errors will be corrected by some anal-retentive copy editor whose boring existence comes down to proper placement of a comma or formatting ending quotation marks. Leave the “periods” to the copy-editors and build an exciting world with dynamic characters. The rest will take care of itself.

Tom Clancy said it best in a Writers Digest interview I read. He was asked about the most important skill in writing. He didn’t say punctuation, spelling or grammar. He said it was the ability to tell a good old-fashioned story. I want my Beta Readers to tell me if my story meets Tom Clancy’s test. Does it capture and hold their interest? Do they want the sequel? If my Beta Readers help me achieve those goals, then fans will love the story, even if a few typos make it into print! Thank you to my Beta Readers. You know who you are.


  1. Thank you! I'm going to attach your link to my Beta Reader Cattle Call. You said it best when it comes to what I'm looking for in a Beta-Reader. I want to know what they hate, where it slows down and absolute honesty, so I can become a better writer and improve my books! ~Kat~

  2. I agree especially with beta readers needing to be avid, well-read readers--and honest, too.

  3. Good beta readers are definitely hard to find, but when you have one, you hang on for dear life! My critique partner is also my beta, and I fulfill the same role for her. It's great to have someone honest to help your story be the best it can be. Excellent post!

  4. Great post! I would agree with everything with just one query. I'm not sure a close family member can ever be the best BR. Granted if you know they'll say it as it is then you're half way there but they can't do that other thing that's important - the sense checking. Family members know how you speak so they subconsciously fill in the gaps as they read. So I might ask a family member (unlikely though!) for an overall sense of flow and pace, as you suggest, but I would be wary of their opinion on character and fluency. This is of course with no disrespect to your wife - reading for a spouse is a labour of love!

  5. Thank you for this. I'm at the point now where I desperately want someone else to read my work for that all important feedback. My search is already on!

  6. Hi,
    This is interesting not only for writers, but also for readers. Some time ago I saw a post in which beta readers were wanted recently and I applied, so I have reviewed my first two beta novels to the authors, and I really didn't know what we were expecting from me, because I'm not able to correct the text but I think I can say if a story and its characters work (at least for me) and why.

    It's interesting because the feeling you have when you read beta novels is not the same as when you just "read", and it is also a great way for writing down my thoughts and practice my writing (I'm Spanish and I'm trying to read/write/listen more in English).

    1. Hi Isi,

      Great point. The beta reader's point of view should probably be a writer's first concern if the writer wants to attractive the best assistance.

      Thanks for your interesting perspective...Dean.

  7. Would I be asking too much for you to read my blog? It's titled Mystery Writings. The writing I put up is kind of spontaneous, so don't expect it to be super good or well organized and thought, because that process takes weeks for me. Please comment, I'm 14 and inspired to be an author and would like some feedback/hints on writing and improving my writing. I would really like to know if my stories are worth the effort.

  8. Hi Mysteryguy,

    Couple points in response to your request.

    First, I did read your blog, and it looks like you have a fun story in development. It obviously needs editing and dialog development, but you did warn me that you have not yet produced your best product.

    That brings me to the second point. When you ask anyone for an opinion of your work, and it is less than your best effort, then the feedback you get means very little. I suggest you complete your story, edit it until you feel it is the very best finished product you can generate, and, only then, ask others to give you a review. You will learn a lot more this way because each criticism will be educational, rather than telling you something that you already know.

    Third, beta readers are wonderful people who are willing to give you some of their time. If you, respect their time by only giving them your best effort to read, then they will be happy to read for you many more times. If not, beta readers may decline to read for you in the future.

    Good luck with your writing career...Dean.


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