A “Beta Reader”, as they’re known, are the unlucky people who get to read your unpublished, half-baked, amateur novel and provide gentle, critical, actionable feedback that makes it perfect.
It’s no wonder most people have bad experiences with Beta Readers. The most common complaints are:
- the Beta Readers don’t read the book
- the Beta Readers give very vague, directionless feedback
I’ve had a lot of success with my Beta Readers and I figured out some do’s and don’ts of making the relationship successful.
1. Make sure they want to do it
After I finished my first book, I ended up going with seven Beta Readers, if you count my wife. I’d say I made mostly good choices, but had a few misses. The group was: my wife (moral support), a good friend who doesn’t really read books (cheer-leading), an avid reader and English teacher (writing!), a philosophy professor (smart!), 2 friends who read a ton (real readers) and a paid service beta reader (a pro!). You’ll notice there are no writers in there, which is probably the biggest limitation of my pool, but sadly, I don’t know any writers in real life.
Generally, everyone gave pretty good feedback. Very surprisingly, the best feedback came from the people who took it seriously. People who were genuinely interested in helping me gave me wonderful feedback. People who, perhaps, felt like this was more of a chore to get through gave mostly lackluster feedback. I learned that not everyone wants to do this and you shouldn’t force people.
2. Treat the process as what it is – a massive imposition on people who are doing you a favor
When I selected my pool of readers, I didn’t sugar coat the exercise for them. I told them that they are signing up for work, I will need hours of their free time, and it’s reading an unpublished, unpolished novel that they need to give feedback on.
I bribed all of them, heavily.
Some got presents, some got free dinners, some got bottles of booze, but at no point did I mistake which direction the favor was flowing. I was not doing them any favors by allowing them the “privilege” of reading my book. They did me a favor and they all got repaid in full for all the great work they did. Even if they gave less than stellar feedback, they are helping me, not the other way around.
3. Give very clear instructions
As an extension to number two, I was very clear in what was required of them if they agreed to do this. It’s not just read my book and say “hey, nice job”. They were all instructed to write down what they felt, what worked, what didn’t, who they liked, where they were bored etc. Again, I was very clear that they needed to sacrifice hours of their very busy weeks to help a friend. The level set was very helpful, I had one of them say they just couldn’t commit the time I was looking for. Great. No harm, no foul, no hurt feelings, and I completely understood why they couldn’t do it.
I provided them things to think about after each chapter:
- Were you bored at any point in the chapter?
- Did any scenes work / not work for you?
- Were any points confusing?
- Was there anything you specifically liked?
- Was there anything you specifically disliked?
4. Figure out how to sort through feedback
Here’s the rule I used (I didn’t invent this, many people have pointed this out before me) – if I got one piece of feedback, it’s subjective and open to debate. If I got two similar pieces of feedback, the book changed, regardless of how I felt about it. The challenge was understanding the feedback, even when my Beta Readers didn’t.
For instance, the majority of the feedback was on two secondary characters. The comments were all over the place, but that didn’t matter, they were thematically the same.
Some people said they were underwritten, some said they didn’t like the personality, some said their should have been more of them. Doesn’t matter. I messed up two secondary characters. It’s not the beta readers job to fix it, it’s mine. None of the feedback was the “same” exactly, but it was all thematically the same.
5. Beta Readers can get defensive!
This took me by surprise, but I learned never to argue with Beta Readers. Overwhelmingly, I just took their feedback and moved on, however there was one instance where one reader thought a line of dialogue was out of character. I didn’t agree. They got offended! I guess they took their feedback pretty seriously! It turned out fine, but I learned to say “thank you very much” and move on. If I didn’t agree, I’d ask more questions like “can you say more about that” or “why did you feel that way” but I stopped telling them whether I was taking the feedback or not.
6. I found the paid beta reader experience wonderful
I also paid to have a professional beta reader review my work. I used http://yourbetareader.com/, who I found through Google. She was terrific. She gave valuable feedback, it was well organized and concise and it went into greater story detail than the “non professionals” (she also found the secondary character to be underwritten). She had a couple great notes on how to wring more emotion on the story. I guess I don’t know if every paid beta reader is great, but she was, and I’ll definitely use her again.
Overall the Beta Reader experience was pretty helpful. There was some good feedback and it was great to hear how normal people reacted to my story. Fortunately, none of them pointed out anything that required massive rewrites and I was able to accommodate the feedback pretty quickly.