3 ​​ways beta readers can improve your manuscript

By Angela Slatter.

In your travels as a new writer, you’ve probably heard the term ‘beta reader’ but you might not quite know what that means. So, what’s a beta reader?

A beta reader is someone who reads through your completed manuscript and gives their feedback. So, not just someone critiquing a chapter or a chunk – they read the whole enchilada!

The idea is modelled on the concept of ‘beta testing’ in software design. Basically, it’s taking the manuscript out for a test drive to see how – if – it runs the way you meant it to. It’s the phase in which you’re looking for ‘bugs’ – does the story hang together properly? Are the characters believable? Does the plot proceed logically? Are there any hanging arcs – that is, any story threads that haven’t been wrapped up by the end? Is the setting clear and convincing? Does your book work?

A fresh perspective

A beta reader can help offer you a fresh perspective in terms of seeing the things that you can no longer see in your own work. It’s a sad fact that the more time we spend perfecting our manuscripts, the less able we often are to spot the issues that might be perfectly – glaringly! horribly! – obvious to someone else. And it’s a much better idea for that someone else to be a beta reader rather than an agent or editor you’re hoping to impress with your book!

Does your character change names three times throughout the story? Is your setting inaccurate in terms of terrain? Is the season inconsistent or the architecture contradictory? Your beta reader is someone who can help you catch the careless mistakes we all put into our manuscripts because we’ve worked on them for so long that we can’t see the wood for the trees.

I continue to use beta readers 17 years into my career as an author because they help me pick up mistakes and offer useful suggestions about things I might not have thought about.

You need the feedback

We perceive writing to be such a solitary pursuit – and it is in many ways – but there’s a point where we need to talk to other people about what we’ve written. However, it’s true that not every writer uses beta readers. Some writers are at a point in their careers where they send their work directly to their publishers. But I still find having an ‘outside brain’ or two incredibly useful, even if they’re pointing out I’ve used the wrong version of ‘peeked’ or ‘peaked’. I’d rather catch those mistakes before the book goes to my publisher!

Seeking feedback is one of the best things you can do for yourself as a writer who wants to keep learning and getting better at your craft.

Woman smiling, receiving feedback from a beta reader friend.

So, here are three ways a beta reader can help improve your manuscript:

1. Structure – or for want of a nail
There’s an old proverb: “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse, the rider was lost. For want of a rider, the battle was lost.”

I often think about structure in similar terms – if your novel’s structure isn’t solid, the whole thing falls apart. So, if you struggle with structure, you might want to first take a look at the Fiction Essentials: Structure course before sending it to your beta readers.

You might be absolutely certain you know what needs to happen next in order to move the story forward, but sometimes you get tunnel vision and don’t consider any other possibilities, which means your story can become a bit stagnant.

For example, when I was writing my second novel, Corpselight, one of my beta readers suggested that I had a rather large part of the action in the wrong place. He pointed out that if I wanted to maintain the tension in the story, I had to move my characters to a hiding place rather than just let them go to the spot they were headed before they were attacked. He was absolutely right. I restructured the book and it greatly improved – the pace is faster and the escalation of the suspense is far more intense.

Quote by author Graeme Simsion about beta readers from 'So you want to be a writer' podcast.

2. Characters – they don’t sing if they’re only in your head
In your mind, you’ve written a fascinating, engaging, complex character that you’re more than half in love with. However, that might all be in your head – you’ve spent a long time creating this person, you know them inside out, but you might not have managed to get that onto the page.

You know that moment when you’ve been telling a friend about the person you’re dating? You’ve built them up but when your friend meets your romantic partner you can see in their expression that there’s a disconnect between what you’ve said and what they’re seeing? The same thing happens with characters. You find yourself howling, ‘But they’re wonderful!’ Then your friend/beta reader sits you down, makes you a cup of tea, and gently shows you how many holes are in this persona you’ve created. That not only are they not likeable, they’re not engaging, often because they’re impenetrable – the reader can’t see who they are, why they behave the way they do, what they want and why they’re doing what they do in the story.

I know I was lucky some time ago to have a beta reader say that one of my characters (one I could not get to work properly on the page) was too perfect – so there was no contrast in their personality. If a character has no faults then they have no inner struggle to overcome, which means there’s a lack of tension in the story. A lack of tension, means a lack of suspense, a lack of ‘what will happen next?’ to draw the reader along.

To know you’ve got your characters right before sharing them with your beta reader, you may find the Fiction Essentials: Characters course helpful.

3. Setting – a white room is a boring room
Your beta reader can advise as to whether or not the setting of your novel has come through clearly – or whether they felt like they were watching talking heads sitting around in ‘white rooms’. That is, there are insufficient signs of setting so the reader can’t imagine the environment the characters are in or moving through.

You need the setting to be solid and clear because it adds to the reader’s experience of the story and it’s a critical part of convincing a reader that the story is ‘real’. A beta reader will be able to let you know when you’ve shifted characters’ locations without letting the reader know; when you’ve added contradictory details about the setting.

I once started a short scene with dialogue where the characters were talking about how it was dawn, then finished the scene by having a character walk out into the night. That was not my intention – I’d had what a Doctor Who fan might call a ‘wibbly-wobbly temporal embarrassment’. A beta reader pointed that out, and yes, it’s way better to fix things like that before they go to your agent or publisher. You really don’t want something like that slipping through the editing process at the publishing house and getting into the print run!

And here’s another thing: being a beta reader for other writers helps you to become a better writer as it makes you more aware of your own bad habits when you’re seeing them in someone else’s work!

About Angela Slatter

Angela Slatter is an award-winning author of several books including All The Murmuring Bones and The Path of Thorns. She also teaches creative writing for the Australian Writers’ Centre. She has a PhD and an MA in Creative Writing and has written two instalments in the Brain Jar Press Writer Chaps series, You Are Not Your Writing & Other Sage Advice and What To Do When You Don’t Have A Book Coming Out & Even More Sage Advice.

Browse posts by category
Browse posts by category

Courses starting soon


Nice one! You've added this to your cart