How Much Should You Revise Your Work Before Sending it to a Beta Reader?
Are you thinking about sending your story or novel to a beta reader? It can feel really daunting to share your work with someone else to get their thoughts – but direct, specific feedback on your writing is the best way I know of to improve!
Whether you’re just thinking about approaching a beta reader or you’ve already got someone lined up to read your work-in-progress, one big question is how “done” your story should be before you send it to them. Should you send a first draft, a polished piece that you’ve proof-read repeatedly, or something in between?
Before we dig into that, let’s get clear about what exactly we mean by “beta reader” – and what they can do for you.
What is a Beta Reader and What Do They Do?
The term “beta reader” is inspired by “beta testers” in the software industry: people who try out a not-yet-published form of a product (in this case, your book!) before you share it with the world. Beta readers help you work out any “bugs” with your story, like plot holes, wonky pacing, or under-developed characters.
The first time I came across the term “beta reader” was in the fanfiction world, a couple of decades ago. These days, it’s just as widely used in relation to original work – particularly in the self-publishing world.
Of course, beta readers have always existed for unpublished works of all different kinds, even if they weren’t called that. In my teens and 20s, my writing group friends gave me regular feedback on my writing, and when I studied for my creative writing MA, we “workshopped” one another’s writing. It’s completely normal and expected for authors to have this kind of support during the development of a piece: famously, The Inklings (including J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis) used to meet in an Oxford pub to read and share feedback on one another’s work.
The type of feedback you get from beta readers will depend on a lot of factors: the stage your project is at, how much time the beta reader can devote to feedback, what type of feedback you’ve asked for, and so on. But in general, you can expect beta readers to do some of the following:
- Point out areas of the story that confused them or didn’t work for them.
- Tell you what they liked best about your book and what is working!
- Let you know about mistakes that they spot (e.g. a character’s surname changing halfway through, a journey taking an hour when it should take three). Keep in mind here that a beta reader isn’t an editor: they’re not going to pick up on everything.
- Give their overall impression of your work.
There’s often a default assumption that beta readers aren’t paid – but the use of paid beta readers is becoming more common.
If you’re in a writing group or you’re working with a friend as a beta reader, you might well swap manuscripts with them, both offering unpaid feedback on one another’s work (not necessarily simultaneously, as one of you may well be further along with their project than the other).
You can also hire a paid beta reader, and this could be ideal if you’re looking for more thorough feedback or faster feedback. This is typically a lot cheaper than hiring an editor, though obviously you won’t be getting the detailed, professional assessment of your work that you’d receive from an editor.
Another option for more thorough feedback is to pay an editor for a developmental edit of your book. This is what I do with my novels. There’s absolutely nothing stopping you from using beta readers and an editor: you could, for instance, get beta readers to give you feedback on a fairly early draft, before revising your work and then paying an editor.
Should You Send a Beta Reader Your Very First Draft?
In general, you should avoid sending beta readers your first, rough draft. Unless you’re quite experienced and have a writing process that results in a very solid first draft (e.g. you like to outline in detail and you tend to stick closely to your outline) then your first draft is probably going to have problems you already know about. You don’t want all your beta reader’s efforts to go into telling you about those things.
In some cases, though, it might be appropriate to send a beta reader your first draft, or part of it, in its raw state. Perhaps you’re experimenting with a new idea and you’re not sure whether to take it further. Maybe they’ve asked for your draft material!
If you’re paying a beta reader (or editor), I’d definitely recommend getting your work to a good second draft state before sending it.
Sending a Second Draft (or Very Solid First Draft) to Your Beta Reader
So you’ve completed your first draft and you’re diving into rewrites – the first stage of editing. This is your chance to fix any plot holes you’re aware of, make sure your protagonist has a satisfying character arc, cut out weird tangents that you thought were going somewhere but didn’t, reorganize your material if the first draft was a little scrappy, and so on.
At this stage, you want to avoid overpolishing your work. If you’re redrafting endlessly, trying to get things perfect before seeking a beta reader, it’s going to be really difficult and daunting to take on feedback like “these chapters slowed the story down a lot” or “this character needs a stronger arc” – you’re just not going to want to do that level of revision!
What to Expect from Your Beta Reader
All beta readers are different. Some will be very effusive and encouraging – they’ll love your work and they’ll let you know! That can be really helpful if you struggle with confidence about your writing or if you’re mainly looking for a beta reader to support you in keeping going.
Other beta readers will offer more of a critique, pointing out the areas where your novel or story isn’t quite working yet. They may not say many positive things – that almost certainly doesn’t mean they hated your piece! Some beta readers will just assume that if they don’t say something about a particular chapter/area of the piece, you’ll know that means that it was fine and there was nothing wrong with it. But some will work hard to point out all the things they loved, as well as things you could change.
Big Picture vs Detailed Feedback
In terms of the level of feedback, some beta readers are “big picture” people who will give you general points about the plot, characters, pacing, setting, and so on. Others will be much more detail-oriented, maybe picking up on typos and clunky sentences, but not having much to say about the bigger picture of the story. Both types of feedback are helpful – and it can be useful to have a few different beta readers who naturally gravitate to seeing your work at different levels.
If you’re working with a paid editor, they should let you know in advance what kind of feedback to expect. For instance, they might give you a detailed written report breaking down their feedback into areas like “plot”, “characters”, and so on. Or they might go through your manuscript chapter by chapter, giving specific feedback relating to each scene. (Some will do both!)
Letting Your Beta Reader Know What You Want
When you’re approaching a beta reader or editor, it’s fine (and helpful!) to ask for what you want.
If you’re looking for big picture feedback but you’re not worried about the odd awkward sentence or weird spelling, say so.
If you’re hoping for feedback that hones in on any pacing issues, because you know that’s something you struggle with, tell them.
If you’ve had some bad experiences with feedback in the past and you want someone who’ll be kind and encouraging, please speak up. Tell them you’re not looking for lots of criticism or nitpicking, but instead you’d love them to point out the bits that are working for them – and perhaps gently suggest some areas where things might not be quite clear.
Not all editors or beta readers will be able to accommodate what you want – but they’ll hopefully at least be able to tell you, “I’m not the best person for this.” And they may well be able to recommend someone who’s a better fit.
Finding the Right Beta Reader for You
It’s a huge (and often scary) thing to let someone read your work when you know it’s not yet ready for publication.
Some writers find it easiest to approach someone they already know: perhaps a personal friend, a fellow member of a writing group or book group, someone who’s taking a writing class with them, and so on. My beta readers have generally fallen into those categories.
Other writers feel more comfortable asking for feedback from a relative stranger. That way, they don’t need to worry that a not-so-great experience with the beta reader will impact an existing relationship.
You can also work with multiple beta readers, and you may want to do this at different stages of the drafting/revision process. Perhaps you’ll ask one trusted friend to read a fairly early draft, you’ll revise it based on their feedback, then you’ll send it out to more beta readers (potentially paying for beta reading at this point).
Working with beta readers can be incredibly helpful as you write successive drafts, letting you bring out the very best in your story, and pointing out any areas where some tweaking is required. You want to find a good middle ground where you’re sending a complete, solid draft … but not one that’s so well-polished already that you’ll be loath to make potentially big changes.
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
If you're new, welcome! These posts are good ones to start with:
My contemporary fantasy trilogy is available from Amazon. The books follow on from one another, so read Lycopolis first.
You can buy them all from Amazon, or read them FREE in Kindle Unlimited.