Beta Readers vs. Manuscript Critiques

This post was also shared over on the MS Edits blog. Check out that site for tips on writing, editing, and querying from a team of freelance editors.

You just finished writing the last page of your story—congratulations! Whether you pumped out a NaNoWriMo victory or spent the last five years agonizing over your dream book, you now have a full manuscript sitting in front of you. Give yourself a pat on the back; you deserve it for making it to the end. Now what? You want to make your story better, but you’re still too close to see its weaknesses and discern whether readers would enjoy it. It’s time to get an outside opinion.

If you take your work seriously, you should show your story to someone other than your mother or best friend. Run far away from anyone who has an obligation to tell you that your story is great as is! No book will be ready for publication without major revisions, so you need to hook up with someone who can give you informed feedback on what to fix. Most writers turn to one of two people: a beta reader or a profession editor.

What’s the difference between the two? When should you pay to have an editor provide a manuscript critique, and when is it smarter to stick with a beta reader? No single answer fits every writer, so here are some guidelines to keep in mind.

A beta reader knows books and agrees to read and react to your story.

A beta reader…

  • …is usually someone you know well or trust.
  • …is often another writer but sometimes just an educated reader.
  • …must not be afraid to be honest.
  • …is unpaid, though writers often exchange reading favors.
  • …reacts to the story as a reader.
  • …typically doesn’t check grammar.
  • …may comment on characterization, dialogue, and pacing if you ask them to.

The primary job of a beta reader is to let you know what a reader would think of your book. A good beta reader will tell you what they liked about your book but will also point out anything that they found confusing, unbelievable, or dull. Because personal tastes vary, it’s a good idea to get two or three reliable opinions when working with beta readers.

An editor is paid to shape stories into books and will give specific, structured feedback.

An editor…

  • …is a trained professional, often someone you don’t know.
  • …has an eye for what readers want as well as for the standard of quality writing.
  • …knows the elements of good writing well enough to tell you not only where your writing is strong or weak but exactly why it is that way.
  • …knows your genre well enough to make sure your book fits its context well.
  • …gives you, after a careful reading, a multi-page analysis of major story elements—characterization, dialogue, plot, pacing, continuity, style, etc.
  • …recognizes and notes consistent issues with your style and grammar in a constructive way.

There is a time and a place for both beta readers and professional critiques.

Without knowing you, I can’t tell you which option is best for your situation. Take a close, honest look at your goals, experience, and resources. Then, make your choice with these scenarios in mind.

Use a beta reader…

  • …when an established fellow writer is willing to trade manuscripts with you.
  • …when an acquaintance you trust has a good eye for story and style.
  • …when you’re on a tight budget and want to know what to improve on your own.
  • …when you’re looking for readers’ reactions before or after you self-edit.

Use a professional editor…

  • …when none of your acquaintances have the experience or knowledge to give your manuscript a thorough, quality critique.
  • …when you’re an unestablished author and aren’t sure what to do after your first draft.
  • …when you doubt your own editing skills and want your repeated mistakes pointed out.
  • …when you want a professional opinion before you pursue publishing.
  • …when you’re planning to self-publish and won’t have an agent or publisher to advise you on the shape of your story.
  • …when you have the budget to push your writing to the next level.

Being good at storytelling and grammar doesn’t mean that you won’t need help with your book.

I should know—I’ve had training and experience in writing style, advanced grammar and syntax, and the shaping of stories, but I still miss problems with my own writing. Even though I’m a trained editor, I still plan to get outside help when I get a little farther along in my fiction manuscripts. Depending on my budget, I might decide to fall back on some trusted beta readers who graduated from the same writing program as I did. Whether I work solely with the beta readers or also turn to a professional for a manuscript critique, I know that solid feedback is a crucial step on the road to a finished book.

Do you suspect that you want a professional manuscript critique? Talk to me—I’m happy to chat about my process as an editor and take a peek at your first chapter. If I’m booked out or don’t work in your genre, I’ll do my best to connect you with another experienced professional who would be a great fit for your story.

Is working with beta readers a better option for your situation? Follow my blog—I’ll soon be posting tips on finding and working with a great reader.

Comment below if you’ve worked with a great editor or beta reader in the past; other readers and I would love to hear about your experience, and your critic will thank you for the praise!

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