Learn the Ropes: Tips for Finding Your Perfect Beta-Reader Match

Wondering how to find beta-readers to help you make your manuscript the best it can be? We've got some "beta-dating" tips for you. Chime in with your own advice!

Are you looking for someone who just gets you? Someone who completes you or complements you? Someone who builds you up, but won't be afraid to give you constructive criticism because they want you to succeed and be happy? 

Sure, I could be talking about a potential significant other. I'm lucky to be married to just such a guy. But today, I'd rather talk about beta-readers—those kind souls who help us make our manuscripts the best they can be before we send them out into the wide world.

The YA Buccaneers' theme this month is Blind Date, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the search for the right beta-readers is kind of like the dating process. With some people, you'll click right away. With others, you might be amazed at what they bring to the table. And with still others, you might be surprised to learn how wrong they are for your work—even if you're friends first. (And of course, once you find a great beta-reader, you'll want to stay together forever and ever!) 

So this is my beta-dating guide. Chime in with your own tips, so we can all find the best people to take our WIPs to the next level! 

Put Yourself Out There

If you're in a writing program or class, you have a batch of ready-made critique buddies at your disposal. If you're not...you may have to step outside of your comfort zone. (Think of this as the "going out to a bar" or "making an eHarmony account" part of the dating process.) Ask around online. Join an organization such as SCBWI; my local chapter occasionally holds meetups for people seeking critique partners, and I can't imagine that's unique. Talk to your writer friends about who reads their work, and get referrals. Or just ask a friend flat-out. There are tons of writers just like you who are searching for that special someone, and you might be the one who needs to make the first move. 

Ask the Right Questions

Just like not every person will be compatible with you on a romantic level, not every other writer is right to read your manuscript. Once you have some leads, it's getting-to-know-you time. Here are a few questions you might ask about the readers you're considering using: 

  • Does this person write in or understand your genre?  
  • Are they willing to read within your time frame? 
  • Do they prefer to give global comments, line edits, or both? 

It might not do you any good to show your sci-fi WIP to someone who only likes contemporary or historical fiction. Sending your work to someone who can't read it for four months won't help you if you have a deadline in two. And there's nothing worse than getting back a carefully line-edited manuscript when all you really wanted to know was whether the overall plot and character arcs felt satisfying. Hashing out these details beforehand will save both of you time and hassle. 

Know What You're Looking For

Related to the last step: it also pays to do a little soul-searching yourself. What are you hoping to get out of a particular beta-read? Do you need help identifying plot holes? Are you concerned about your characters' emotional arcs? Is there a particular subplot that's not working, or a specific element (say, an ethnicity or sexuality that's not your own) that you want to be sure to get right? 

I have a writer friend who's an ace with plot. She's great at bouncing around ideas for fixing problems and propelling events forward. I have other beta-readers who are relationship gurus. If there's a wrong note or interaction between two characters, they'll find it. Maybe you know someone who's an expert wordsmith, but a bad plotter. That's the person to contact for a late-stages polishing read, rather than an early draft critique. My point? You might call on different beta-readers for different purposes, and knowing your own goals up front will make the process better for everyone.

Take It Slow

Not entirely sure if you've found your perfect match? There's nothing wrong with testing the waters. Send the first few pages or chapters and see what kind of feedback you receive. You might love the person's notes from the get-go and immediately want to send them the whole book. You might discover that you need to give more guidance as to the type of comments you're looking for—notes on character development or plot holes, for instance, rather than grammar tweaks. Or you might learn that the person's critique style just doesn't mesh with your needs. It's always better to find this out early on. 

Know When to Look Elsewhere

Need someone with a specific skill set, educational history, or personal background that none of your current readers possess? Return to step one and start searching. Does this WIP have a problem you've never dealt with before? Use your beta-dating skills to pinpoint who in your network might be able to help you solve it. (For instance: Your pacing's a mess, but you just read Friend A's latest book and it was brilliantly paced. Maybe she can help you sort out your manuscript? It's "put yourself out there" time...) 

And finally, remember that a beta-reader partnership doesn't have to last forever. If you're no longer getting what you need, it's okay to move on. Just be nice about it. Don't burn bridges. 

Bonus Tip: Give as Much as You Get

Don't be a writer who takes, takes, takes. Unless you're paying someone to read your manuscript, it's generally nice to offer to read something for them in return. They might never take you up on it—or they might actually welcome the help down the line. Then, you'll get to say thanks in a tangible, meaningful way. Plus, carefully and thoughtfully beta-reading other WIPs can aid you in improving your own work! 

Whether you're a one-critique-partner kinda gal or you're constantly interested in getting fresh eyes and a fresh perspective, it never hurts to be smart about who you're trusting with your WIP. Do you have additional tips for finding great beta-readers? Share in the comments! 

Happy dating!