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Beta Reading: How Being A Beta Reader Has Made Me A Better Writer

Beta Reading: How Being a Beta Reader Has Made Me a Better Writer

image of test pilot as analogy for beta reader

The beta reader is the author's test pilot (Photo: NeONBrand via Unsplash.com)

A beta reader is to a book as a test pilot is to a planes.

Beta readers help identify any pre-production flaws in the machine and so aid the development of a much better end product. 

Beta reading is a process much loved by indie authors who have discovered it. But many still don't realise the advantages that can be gained both from having their own manuscripts beta read, or from being a beta reader for other authors.

British psychological thriller writer Jo Ullah explains how her passion for beta reading grew from her own experience of having her debut novel beta read, and how she's now become a keen beta reader for fellow writers.


headshot of Jo Ullah, novelist and beta reader

Novelist Jo Ullah shares her love of beta reading

When I finished my first novel all I really wanted was someone to read it.

I needed a reader, or preferably readers, to tell me where it worked and – more importantly – where it didn’t.

As writers, we all like the sound of our own voices. We just love (and sometimes hate) what we’ve written, otherwise we wouldn’t do it, would we? Whatever we feel about our writing it is undeniably passion. For that very reason, it’s hard for an individual to see when their writing just isn’t working for the reader.

That’s where beta readers come in.

I was very lucky and persuaded several people to beta read my manuscript. I was even luckier that some of those people were prepared to give me tough love and express just what wasn’t working for them. During this time, I started beta reading other people’s manuscripts, this is what I have found.

Different Ways to View and Work on Someone’s Manuscript

  • cover of The Locksmith by Jo Ullah, for which she used beta readers

    Beta readers helped Jo Ullah make her debut novel the best it could be – and it was picked up by Kindle Scout!

    Get a hard copy and write on it with pen or pencil to return to them when completed.

  • Download it as a Word doc on your computer, directly highlighting the text and adding in comments as you go. I have found it easier to divide this into two, giving interim feedback at the midway point and then writing up my overall impression on completion.
  • Via Google docs. I’m currently beta reading for someone via Google doc.

There are pros and const to each. On the computer, I can use the built-in docs tools to highlight text and leave comments, but if in Google docs, the document is shared, so I can see what other beta readers have remarked on. . Personally I would prefer to be recording my own reactions to the writing without being influenced by someone else’s views. Also the author will need to know how many beta readers see a complication with or feel confused about how a particular area was written. Unless an author’s beta readers write ‘me too’ next to a comment how will they know this is a shared insight?

How to Be a Beta Reader

  • Constructive criticism
    I expect you have all heard the Yeats quote ‘tread softly because you tread on my dreams’. This is a good thought to keep in your head while beta reading. Say it like it is, but do it politely.
  • Balance
    Try to balance some good with the bad. Find something you found particularly wonderful about the writing to balance things that didn’t work for you. Everyone needs a bit of stick/carrot balance.
  • Notes
    Keep notes as you go along regarding the story arc, or other larger impressions that don’t translate as a margin comment, or you may find you have forgotten some of these thoughts as you get further into the narrative.
  • Genre
    Some people advocate only beta reading in your genre. Personally I have read inside and outside of my genre. I find that interesting prose works in any category.
  • Timing
    Read the manuscript regularly so as not to lose the flow of the narrative. Set aside an hour a day if you can.
  • Feedback
    If possible, give interim feedback, or at least the occasional nod that you are still reading their MS. It’s hard, as an author, waiting for feedback.

Why I Like Being a Beta Reader

I believe that beta reading is helping me become a better writer.

I have learnt so much from reading others' writing – from the common mistakes we all make, to some lovely writing ideas and techniques.I also enjoy seeing the creative process in its raw state.

Reading other genres teaches me about their mechanics to some extent, and helping others should make it easier to find beta readers for my own books.

Where to Find Work to Beta Read

  • If you're an ALLi member, requests for beta readers on our members-only Facebook forum
  • Word of mouth with your writing friends
  • Facebook groups

I recently joined a Facebook group called BetaReader Connect in which authors post up requests for readers. I put the question regarding IP protection to Jonas Frid,  who created and moderates the group. Boiling down his answer, he feels that most authors are too consumed with their own work to steal the work of others, and the very fact of sharing your manuscript with others gives you a group people who can provide proof of ownership. Jonas is also the founder of www.betareader.io, a system for authors and beta readers, a system that allows authors to share their work securely and see their beta readers progress through it in real time. It’s still in its early prototype form but worth a look.

I have also signed up on the mailing list of www.betabooks.co with a view to finding beta readers (in return for a fee) for my next novel. I haven’t applied to beta (or ARC) read for them yet, but I most likely will do.

OVER TO YOU What has been your experience of beta reading, either as an author or as a reader? Do you have top tips or cautionary tales to add to Jo's post? Join the conversation!

#Indieauthors - here's how to become a better #writer by being a #betareader: read @JoUllah's case study of her own experience as both author and reader Click To Tweet

From the ALLi Author Advice Center Archive

Author: Jo Ullah

I grew up in a quite rural location in the boarder lands between Somerset and Dorset with plenty of time for dreaming. As I was unable to read books because of dyslexia, my mother read to me until I was ten. She had a strong taste for horror and mystery, with a naturally spooky mind excited by all things supernatural. These things I gladly inherited and transfer into my writing and sometimes my artwork too. Find out more about my work at my website: www.joullah.com.


This Post Has 5 Comments
  1. All excellent points.

    My own experience with this left scars on both myself and the beta readers. I crawled under a writer’s block for years afterwards. (sad smile)

    I’ve made a come back. I’ve been accepted by a couple of small publishers (even if things didn’t work out so well with the first). I’ve made it through professional edits, thanks to some wonderful editors. I’ve actually come to enjoy the editing process. I’ve gotten the courage to start looking at and revising Stealing Myself From Shadows and The Hand and the Eye of the Tower, those manuscripts once the subject of the tragic beta reads.

    I’ll admit, I’m still timid about beta reading. Your article gives me a lot to think about, what to look for, and how to avoid the kind of melt downs which sent me scuttling under writer’s block. Thank you.

  2. I wish with all my heart I would have had a beta-reader in 2011 when I put my first western frontier eBook on Amazon to fix the grammar mistakes, punctuation, and have an extra set of eyes to read what I had been so proud of. But it was years before I came across a beta-reader article, and understood why I was getting bad reviews on Amazon on my eBooks. The fact is, bad comments don’t go away. They are there forever. Even after an author, fixes all the mistakes in his book, it will take time and positive comments to over shadow the bad comments, in order for more people to feel your book is worth buying, reading and enjoying. Most of all, giving a positive comment.

    A beta reader, Grammarly.com and reading my book out loud, a week or two, after I have finished editing it in Word, is my best formula I use before uploading it on Amazon.

    many people will volunteer to be a beta-reader, but you want one who loves to read and hates poor grammar mistakes.

  3. My first beta read was only recently, for a memoir written by someone I have never met. It was hard work, but it was rewarding. I learned a lot. My betas, who read my stories, are also invaluable.

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