“Oh, you’re writing a book? You have to let me read it when you’re done!” If you’ve been writing long enough, you’ll probably have heard this a time or two. Little do they know that a book needs beta readers. But what is a beta reader and how can you shamelessly leverage their time and good will into making your manuscript the best it can be?
Because I am an engineer as well as a writer, I’m going to use the laziest possible analog for the technological age. A beta reader is exactly like a video game beta tester. They are the people that take your playable (readable) video game (manuscript) and play (read) through it, looking for bugs (terrible parts) so that you can fix them before they get seen by the general public/publishing industry. Now, one quick point of clarification: when I say “readable” I mean that the draft of your manuscript is complete with no missing parts that you haven’t gotten around to writing yet. A beta reader should be reading your best attempt at a complete story draft. Someone who is only reading incomplete chunks of your story is called an alpha reader, which is a subject for another post.
So who should you select for your beta readers?
1. Above all, you need people who are willing to (very generously) grant you their valuable time to both read and provide feedback on your manuscript. Because they are willing to do that, these people probably like you, which can actually be a problem. People that like you might not want to be brutally honest with you, so…
2. You want beta readers who are willing to be honest with you (brutally or not). If there’s a problem with your story, they are doing you no favors by holding back on it to spare your feelings. And even if they believe they are being honest with you, they are probably still holding back subconsciously. It’s understandable. They’re excited for you! You wrote a book, and they want to like it! It’s just a general hazard with any beta reader that you need to keep in mind.
3. You want beta readers to cover a wide spectrum of, well, everything. As writers, it is tempting to wrangle only our writer friends to beta read. Other writers are usually willing to “trade” beta reads of each other’s work, so convincing them can be easier. Writers also understand what another writer needs in terms of feedback, so their feedback can be more constructive, incisive, and to the point. But writers also love to over-analyze writing, and if you aren’t careful, you’ll end up with a story that only other writers will love. So have writers beta read for you, but also pick beta readers who have nothing to do with writing, and even ones who don’t normally read the genre your story is in. Non-fans of the genre will be the toughest sell, so you’ll get the harshest criticism, and if your writing can overcome that initial handicap, you’ll know you have something special on your hands.
So, now you’ve gotten your beta readers your manuscript and they are busily reading away. What do you tell them regarding feedback? Obviously everyone has a different style, but I always try to follow the following guidelines:
I DON’T: require my beta readers to give me feedback in a specific format or in a specific level of detail. Rather, I ask them to provide feedback at whatever level they are comfortable based on their schedule and their preferred style of reading. Some of them like to go so far as to line-edit your work (more so in short stories than in novels given the time commitment). Some prefer simply to give general impressions (“I liked this part but didn’t understand when the character did this. This detail confused me. What was even happening here?”). For me, the important part is that they don’t worry so much about the level of feedback that their experience of reading the story gets impacted. Ideally you want them reading your story like anyone else would.
I DO: ask my readers to have the reading and feedback done by a certain (reasonable) date. In my opinion it’s perfectly fair to do this as long as you explain it up front so that everyone’s on the same page (pun intended) and as long as you are willing to be flexible because obviously we all get busy. But if you don’t assign some (again, reasonable) date you’ll find yourself waiting for months, unwilling/unable to do major edits until all your beta readers are finished.
I DON’T: let my beta readers talk to each other until they’ve talked to me. I don’t want them to start cross-contaminating opinions. Treat them like suspects in a crime (but much more politely) and request feedback separately from each.
So now you’ve got your feedback. What do you do about it?
– Look for trends. Does everybody think the main character is a big jerk? Maybe that’s okay if that’s what you’re going for. But does everybody think the main character is such a huge jerk that they would have stopped reading if not for the fact that they promised you they’d read your story? That’s a problem. Conversely, if everyone has a different problem with the same aspect of the story, but they all agree it’s a problem, you need to look at it again. Don’t be afraid to follow up and ask for further clarification. I’ve had instances where every reader but one mentioned an aspect of the story that bothered them, and I specifically went back and asked that one person if plot point X bothered them at any point.
– Conversely, take complaints that only one person raises with a grain of salt. I’ve heard it said that if nobody can agree on the issues your manuscript has, you’re doing all right because you’ve gotten it down to the realm of personal taste. Everyone does have different tastes, after all, and they won’t all like every aspect of something you write, no matter how well it’s written.
– Lastly, remember that you, the author, have the final say. Beta readers are offering recommendations, not ironclad must-haves. The buck, or in this case the word, ultimately stops with you.