Everything You Ever Wanted (And Needed) To Know About Beta Readers

Beta readers are one aspect of the writing journey that always comes with a lot of questions.

Looking for betas? Want to improve the experience? Want to be a beta reader? This post is for you. 

I’m gathering together pretty much every bit of information I’ve learned as an author working with betas and as a beta reader working with authors.  

We’ll cover: 

  • What beta readers are
  • What beta readers do
  • Should you pay for beta readers?
  • What to expect in the process
  • How to make the most of the experience
  • Examples of how to provide solid guidelines to get the feedback you need
  • How to be an effective beta reader

Note: This post will be tailored more to erotica writers and rapid-release authors, but a lot of it is still applicable to other genres and slower-release models. 

What Is A Beta Reader? What Do They Do?

A beta reader is someone that reads your manuscript before publication, before any professional edits, and preferably after you’ve done at least one self-edit. Their purpose is to give you feedback on big picture things—do your characters come across as you intend? Does your worldbuilding make sense? Are there glaring plot holes? Did they get bored and stop reading? etc.

A beta reader is NOT an editor*. They are readers. 

You should not be relying on them for line edits or copy edits unless that is something they specifically offer to you. 

I see a lot of people expecting a lot more from their betas than the job entails and it’s important to remember that everyone has their place in the book production process. If what you’re really looking for is an editor or a proofreader, then you’d be better off hiring a professional for that unless someone steps forward and offers you those services as a beta reader. 

Editing skills are a) not something everyone has, and b) not something everyone wants to provide for free. It’s not reasonable to expect every beta reader to be your editor.

*I will have a separate blog post that breaks down all the types of editors, their costs, and timelines. A link will be added here when it’s available.

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Are Betas Different From Alpha Readers And Critique Partners?

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Yes, but a lot of people use the terms interchangeably and aren’t aware of any differences.

Beta readers typically receive a completed manuscript that has undergone some level of polishing. They’ll be giving feedback on the whole picture of the story.

Alpha readers will be reading your first draft as you write it and provide feedback as you go. Their feedback will be more focused around initial reactions to events.

Critique partners can read at any phase of the process prior to the professional edit. CPs are other writers or writing-adjacent professionals. Their feedback will be more about technique and craft, as well as opinions on characters, worldbuilding, etc.

For a lot of erotica authors, the process has very tight timelines and little feedback prior to publication, so the chances of all three types of readers being present on a project are slim. If you have time to invest in a project, then getting as many of these readers on board as possible will help your story.

Should You Pay For Beta Readers?

Typically beta readers are volunteers.

There are a few reasons you might pay for a beta reader:

  1. You don’t know that it’s usually a free, volunteer role
  2. You don’t have a community yet where you can find volunteers or you don’t know how to find betas
  3. You have extra money kicking around to afford them
  4. You want to contract someone so they’re obligated to read to the end

There’s no right or wrong with this. If you’d prefer to pay for a volunteer service then that’s entirely up to you and your budget.

How Many Beta Readers Should You Have?

Minimum 3. I don’t care how short your piece is, 3 is a good number to shoot for. It lets you see trends in feedback and doesn’t let a single opinion drive your revisions.

If you’re writing longer pieces you need more. 

If you’re writing novel length (80,000+ words) books and are flexible with your release schedule then usually the more beta readers the better, like 20-ish (over two rounds) if you can swing it. 

I know that 20 readers might seem like a lot, but I have learned from experience and talking to A LOT of authors. People get busy and can’t finish, they ghost, they end up not liking it and don’t want to continue, etc. It is not uncommon to lose a third of your readers over the course of large projects. Having extra betas on board from the start helps to keep you on schedule and finish a round with more eyes on the ending.

How Many Rounds Of Beta Readers Do You Need?

Honestly, this will depend on the writer. How clean are your drafts? How confident are you in those drafts? Are you intending to hire editing professionals?

If everyone is happy on the first first and you trust that they’re giving you honest feedback then you’re good to go with one round. 

If your beta readers are pointing out some big issues then it would be a good idea to make your revisions and do a second round of readers to make sure those issues are cleared up with your changes. Repeat until the majority of your beta readers are in agreement that the story is good.

If you’re not sure what a “round” is, that just means each time betas read your manuscript from start to finish. You should be getting fresh eyes for each round, but if you have a couple particularly enthusiastic betas you can have some repeat eyes on subsequent rounds.

How Long Should A Beta Read Take?

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If I was telling you the answer to this from my other pen name I would tell you that for every 10,000 words you should give your beta readers one week to read.

Some beta readers will be very fast and devour your story in a couple of days. Others have shit going on and other things occupying their life that aren’t you and will need extra time.

If you are on a tight deadline then you will need to be very clear about that in your recruitment so betas can decide if it’s a project they’re able to take on. They don’t want to ghost you over unclear info and you don’t want to be ghosted, so be sure you know what you need from them and when.

The more flexible you are on timing the more betas you’re likely to attract.

Why does it take so long?

Beta reading should be taking longer than for-fun reading because your betas should be critically consuming your manuscript and providing feedback along the way. Even pausing to write occasional comments can mean your read time doubles.

Can you send a whole book to someone and ask for it back in a weekend? Yes.

Would that be mega stressful for everyone involved? Also, yes.

Will most people be able to accommodate schedules like that? Probably not.

Please give yourself and your beta readers a little time to breathe with your projects. Plan ahead as best you can. Everyone will be happier for it.

How Do You Find Beta Readers?

The simplest answer is to ask. 

Whatever social media you have, put up a post and request betas**.

Writer friends are a skilled option, but do keep in mind that their schedules are likely to be pretty packed with their own book work. It’s totally okay to ask, but they shouldn’t be your only source of readers.

Some people use friends (non-writer ones) and family (I don’t recommend this and neither do most of the people I’ve conferred with in the past), but you definitely want to get the opinions of people who read your genre and strangers are more likely to be honest since they’re less worried about maintaining a relationship with you.

If you provide a positive beta reading experience then people are much more likely to stay on board and be willing to read future projects for you. This is how you build up your team. Keeping around the betas who read in a timely manner and provide constructive feedback is going to make future work much more pleasant.

Even if you already have a dedicated team of beta readers it’s a good idea to add fresh eyes once in a while. Just because you have willing readers on board doesn’t mean their schedules will align with a project, so you’re likely to have to add to the ranks on occasion.

You can also ask writer friends if they have any beta readers they’d recommend. If you’re a newbie that doesn’t have a writing community yet it can be a frustrating experience. Find useful hashtags and look for opportunities to build your community. Join discord servers and facebook groups relevant to what you write and read. Make friends and communities will open up to you.

**Please be aware that making a recruitment post is likely to mean that the pay-to-read people and the beta exchange people will find you. They’re looking for vulnerable authors who are desperate for readers. I recommend paying beta readers only if you’re not able to find volunteers. While beta exchanges (I’ll read your manuscript if you read mine) aren’t inherently bad, you have to be mindful of your time. If you take on reading a dozen manuscripts just to get beta readers then you’re not going to have much time to write. 

What Information Should You Provide When Recruiting Beta Readers?

What genre and sub-genre is the story?

Who is your target audience?

How long is the story and what is your deadline?

What is the story about? Tell them about fun tropes, the gist of the main plot, and relevant content warnings.

What To Expect In The Beta Reading Process

  • It’s very likely you’re going to get ghosted by at least one beta. It’s happened to me, it’s happened to every author I’ve ever talked to about this, so make sure you’re prepared. The longer the project the more likely you are to have a ghost.
  • A lot of betas are newbies to the process and they’ll rely on you to explain what you need and to give them guidance so they know how to help you. That means you need to know what you’re doing even if you’re a newbie yourself. 
  • You might want to argue about feedback or get the urge to fight with your betas over it. Don’t do it. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. If you want to fight, take a break. Accept what feedback will help your story and ignore the rest.
  • People are probably going to fall behind. You have to get good at communication to keep everyone on track.
    If you have a specific schedule you’ll need to help people stick to it. Please check in BEFORE a due date. That gives people time to finish if they’ve gotten sidetracked and you’re not put behind schedule.
    On larger projects a weekly check in can be very helpful.
  • People are probably going to tell you things that you will NEVER be able to unknow about them. Their responses to things will reveal stuff. Sometimes that stuff is hilarious and endearing. Sometimes it reveals that someone is a racist/misogynist/all around garbage person. Buckle up.
  • Your feelings are likely to get hurt. We writers are a sensitive bunch about our stories and it’s going to happen at some point. BUT if a beta is being a genuine dick and not giving you constructive feedback, you can drop them for your own well being.  
  • A good beta is worth their weight in gold. Treasure them.

Sending Your Work To Betas

My personal preference is a Google doc with commenting power. You can give your manuscript to someone in any form – Word doc, etc. but I would ask your betas if they’re comfortable with your preferred option and be sure they understand how to use it.

It’s better to provide individual copies for each beta reader so that other people’s responses don’t influence them.
For example, if they can all see everyone’s comments and someone says they’re confused about a section, everyone else is less likely to say anything because it’s been pointed out already. It’s important to know how many betas share an opinion because if everyone is telling you the same thing, that means you should do something about it.

If you have a shorter piece then it’s easy to send the entire thing to betas at once. If you have a full length novel then it can be a more comfortable and digestible experience for betas to break it into chunks. Whether those chunks are separate chapters, sets of 5, divided by word count or acts, etc. they can help your readers pause and provide feedback more consistently and you’re also not handing over your entire novel to someone who might ghost.

How Do You Get The Feedback You Need?

You have to ask for it. Beta readers are not mind readers.

Get specific about what you’re looking for.

If you give no guidance you’re not likely to get a ton of information back. Questions can prompt betas to think about different aspects of the story.

You can ask as often as you’d like—at the end, after each chapter, after sets of chapters—but the longer the piece the more likely people are to forget details if you wait until the end.

Here are some things to consider asking about:

  • Is the relationship/friendship/rivalry/etc. between various characters believable?
  • Do the world building elements make sense? 
  • Are they satisfied with the ending?
  • If they picked your book up at random, would the first few pages convince them to continue reading?
  • What are their first impressions about each of your characters? How do those impressions evolve over the story? How do they feel about the various character arcs? 
  • Are the sex scenes sexy? 
  • Is there any part of the story that made them want to stop reading?
  • Were any parts confusing for them?

Also feel free to ask about key scenes to make sure you’re evoking what you want from it. Whatever you need from your betas, be clear about it so you get your feedback and no one’s time gets wasted. 

I like to provide a set of questions to my beta readers (at the end for short pieces, and after chapters for longer ones) in addition to giving them commenting power. Comments as they read are excellent for providing you with snapshot reactions and key spots of confusion. Then your questions will be there to guide them to think about things they might not have considered while they read. If they covered it in the comments, great, if they didn’t then you’re prompting them for additional valuable feedback.

How To BE An Effective Beta Reader

So, someone’s asked you to beta read for them. How can you be sure you’re going to do a good job?

The most important thing to consider is whether or not you think you’ll actually enjoy the book you’ve been asked to read.

  • Is it a genre you read regularly?
  • Does it have tropes you enjoy?
  • Does it contain squicks you’d rather avoid?

You don’t want to enter a big commitment on the assumption you’re not going to have a good time. Beta reading is work, yes, but it should also be fun. If someone asks you to read a mafia erotica and you only like reading fade-to-black fluff, maybe rethink accepting to beta.  There are other ways to support an author if that’s something you want to do.

If you’ve accepted a story to beta read, be sure to consider the following:

  • Make sure you have time to read. If your availability changes please communicate with your author. Do NOT take on a project you know you won’t be able to finish in the allotted time unless you’ve already discussed these limitations with the author.
  • Don’t let authors take advantage of you. If they want you to provide services beyond reading and giving your opinion then you’re allowed to say no. If you have the skills and want to provide them to that author for free, go to town, but don’t let them force you.
  • Be as honest as possible. Also be kind in your feedback while still being constructive. It’s better for an author to hear something from you before a book is published than to keep quiet about an issue and have reviewers tear a book apart after publication.
  • If your author doesn’t give you guidance for what feedback they need, ask them. If they do give you guidance, be sure to do your best to provide what they’re looking for.


Wrap Up

The beta reading process can be a roller coaster. I hope that this post has helped expand your understanding and that it will improve your experience with betas or as a beta reader.

Be honest. Be organized. Be clear about what you need. You’re going to rock this.

Please do let me know, either here in the comments or on social media, if you have additional questions. Good luck out there <3

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