How to Find Beta Readers

If you don’t know a single fellow writer, where the hell do you get qualified feedback? For this question, I turned to some writer friends for their advice. First, though, I’m going to tell you what I would’ve done had I not gotten my MFA, where my thesis chair and thesis reader served as beta readers on my debut.

#1: Virtual workshop

If I didn’t go to graduate school, I would have signed up for a respected online workshop, such as those offered by Grub StreetSackett Street, or Gotham. You’re looking for a class where the participants will share their work. This gives you three opportunities: 1) you can get feedback from a bunch of people at once, 2) you can assess whose feedback you find most valuable, and 3) you can assess whose writing is at the level you aspire to. You only need to find one or two people you jibe with. Once the course is over, you can propose continuing to work together and sharing your manuscripts in their entirety.

#2: Freelance editor

Another option, for those with the means, is to hire a *qualified* freelance editor to provide you feedback. What are we looking for when we hire these people? We like to see that they’ve spent a good chunk of time working for a big publisher like PRH or HarperCollins before going freelance. (If you’re hoping to be indie published, look for someone with that kind of experience.) We like to see testimonials from authors/titles you recognize. We like data, if possible—how many of the manuscripts they’ve worked on have gotten their client an agent? We like the opportunity to speak with past clients. You get the picture. If you all are interested, I can write a future post with a list of freelance editors that my peers and I recommend.

#3: Online platforms

Let’s say a class or professional editor isn’t in the budget. That’s okay. If free is the only route available to you, here’s what I would do.

  1. Join a beta reader group on your platform of choice. (If you google “free writing critique groups,” a fafillion options will come up.)
  2. Post in the group that you’re looking for a critique partner for your novel.
  3. Look for people who also have a finished manuscript or something close to it. This suggests a dedication to their work and means they’re less likely to flake out on you than someone who’s only produced a chapter or two.
  4. Trade the first chapters of your books with the interested parties.
  5. Read your potential beta’s sample to assess whether they have the writing skills you need to get adequate feedback.
  6. Come to an agreement on the task at hand. e.g. How many pages of feedback do you both want? Do you need general feedback or an examination of specific elements (character, structure, pacing, plot)? What deadline do you each have in mind?
  7. Instead of paying for feedback, you’re going to assess your partner’s work in return. Do as good of a job as you are capable of, since that’s what you would like and expect from your partner.
  8. If the partnership goes well, keep in touch for future edits.
  9. You can form partnerships with more than one beta reader. You can work one-on-one with each partner or in one bigger group. This is how you form a writing community.

The important thing here is to take your time finding someone(s). You likely took several months and possibly even years to write your book, so be willing to take another couple months to find a feedback source of value. When I was an unpublished writer in need of feedback pre-MFA, I found that lots of people in writing forums spend more time lamenting about writing than actually doing the work. It’s hard to assess someone’s editorial prowess off of their Facebook posts alone, so try to suss them out before entering a medium-term agreement.

How did professional writers find beta readers before they were published?

When I polled some writer friends, here’s what they said they did.

“Online writing contests and communities is where I found critique partners, but some of my friends are also beta readers. I was big into Pitch Wars back in the day, which is now defunct, but I’m sure there are other good online groups out there. The Twitter writing community also used to be great before… you know, but there is still Facebook.”

– Margarita Montimore, author of Oona Out of Order and Acts of Violet

“Love this! I first found a beta reader through the blogging world. We both wrote about many of the same beloved books and then offered to be readers for each other’s WIPs. Then I connected with another through the NaNoWriMo community.”

– Saumya Dave, author of Well-Behaved Indian Women and What a Happy Family

“Great question! I’ve always been lucky to have writer friends to mutually ask, as well as non-writer friends who love to read and who have been open to reading my work. I was recently working with a coaching client who didn’t have writer friends, so we were looking at different writing groups and communities around her, which could also be a way to find people.”

– Julia Bartz, author of The Writing Retreat

“I asked my former writing professor if she knew of any students who would be interested in trading manuscripts. And then I actually went on Goodreads and created a post asking for critique partners.”

– Kirthana Ramisetti, author of Dava Shastri’s Last Day and Advika and the Hollywood Wives

“I first just asked friends – to be honest, I found non-writers helpful because it wasn’t something they had been asked to do before. I wanted “reader” response just to know if it “read” like a book of quality. Then I applied to short-term stuff like the Humber School for Writers (a big deal up here) [ed. note: Jenner lives in Toronto] and other even one-day programs where I paid to have a professional critique my work. That was 20 years ago – With TJAS, I asked three people I knew who loved Austen and they were happy to read.”

– Natalie Jenner, author of The Jane Austen Society, Bloomsbury Girls, and the forthcoming Every Time We Say Goodbye

Remember, if you’ve finished a first draft, you’ve already done the hardest part. Good luck out there!
This post was originally published on my Substack. You can read it here.