UPDATED JULY 2, 2017
Writing is not a solitary endeavor. Not by a long shot. When a writer finishes a draft of a story, it is usually impossible for them to be objective about what they’ve written. Beta readers take a recently completed story and view it with a level of objectivity that the writer does not possess.
But if you’ve never worked with a beta reader before, you shouldn’t jump in blindly. Beta readers can help you bring focus to your story in ways you never imagined. But they can also be less-than-helpful if you’re not specific in your directions. Worse, they can be downright problematic if you’re not careful.
In this article, I’ll go over the four things every writer should know about beta readers before involving them in your project.
What Is a Beta Reader?
If we’re going to talk about beta readers, it might be a good idea to “level set” and make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. Rather than reinvent the wheel, let’s take a look at Wikipedia’s definition, which I think is about as good as it gets. Here’s a screenshot of the relevant section. Click the link or pic to be taken to the article.
If you’re going to take anything away from that definition, please let it be the following terms:
- Non-professional reader
- Reads with intent to improve
- Before public consumption
I’d like to add one additional criterion that is absent from the Wikipedia definition:
- Ideally a writer themselves
Why? Because you want people who are able to not only point out what isn’t working in your story, but also offer educated advice on how you might improve it. Yes, my writing skill improves every time I write something. But it improves by leaps and bounds when I work with beta readers who are better writers than I am.
Now that we’ve come to some agreement as to what beta readers are, let’s take a look at the four things every writer should know before they start working with a beta reader.
1. Know How To Find Beta Readers
Social media is great for a lot of things, one of which is calling a lot of people to action all at once. That ability is highlighted when it comes to putting out the call for beta readers. Hopefully you’ve spent some time building a writer’s platform before you’ve gotten to this point. If not, don’t worry. There’s still time. You’re a little late to the game, but better late than never showing up! Had you been building a platform, you would have also been cultivating key relationships with other writers and potential readers. These relationships will greatly assist you in finding potential beta readers. So if you haven’t already gotten started, now’s the time! Put yourself out there. Get to know people. Hell, maybe offer to beta read some of their stuff too! Beta reading works great as a mutual relationship, and sometimes you need to give in order to receive.
If you’re just starting out with beta readers (an assumption I’m making here), then you’re going to want to cast a wide net at first. Put out the call and (within reason) take what comes. People probably aren’t familiar with your writing skills, and you’re probably not familiar with their reading skills. So when you’re fresh out of the gate, you’re probably going to have a lot of “hit or miss” when it comes to the quality of the readers you find (unless you have specific recommendations from friends).
One last point I’d like to add in regard to finding beta readers (thanks to Thomas Weaver’s comment below!): Make sure the beta readers you’re accepting are people who actually enjoy reading within the genre you write. Nothing is worse than getting negative feedback from someone simply because they “don’t get it.”
2. Know How To Communicate With Beta Readers
I add this to the list because you need to be prepared for it. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of ways to communicate with people around the world. But if your primary form of communication is email, then you need to ask yourself whether or not you want your personal email address floating around. If you’re ok with this, and you probably will be for some of your readers, then fine. But remember what I said about casting a wide net? If you’re just starting out, you’re going to be communicating with a lot of strangers, and there is no cosmic safety net that appears just because you’re dealing with other writers!
So, be logistically prepared to handle the email you’ll be sending and receiving. And, follow these DO’s and DON’Ts:
- DO understand you’re dealing with people you don’t know personally. Be courteous and respectful.
- DO understand that people are DOING YOU A FAVOR by giving you their most valuable commodity: time.
- DON’T expect them to do YOUR work. It’s not their job to write your story.
- DON’T expect them to be miracle workers. If you hand them a turd, beta reading isn’t going to make it a diamond.
- DON’T be an asshole. The writing community is a small one. We know who all the assholes are, and we periodically tag them to track them in the wild.
3. Know What To Give Beta Readers
You just have to send them your story, right?
Not so fast.
In essence, yes. That’s all they need. But think about what you’re trying to accomplish. You’re looking for concrete, specific feedback that will improve your story. Moreover, you’ve (hopefully) set a publication deadline for yourself, so this can’t just be an open-ended process. This may be the engineer in me, but I’ve developed a process around beta-reading. Here are the 3 things I give all of my beta readers:
- A Deadline
- If you send your story off without telling the person when you expect the feedback, don’t be surprised when they don’t treat it like a priority. These are people who are volunteering their time to help you improve your work, and they have lives and responsibilities of their own. Know by what date you need the feedback and be courteous enough to communicate that date to your beta readers. Ask them to inform you if your deadline isn’t achievable. This will avoid misunderstandings and heated email exchanges later. It will also tell you if you need to find more readers.
- The Work-In-Progress
- This is a no-brainer, right? But keep in mind that the format you’ve chosen to write in may not be the format your reader reads in. There are many people out there who don’t have access to Microsoft Word or Pages for Mac, so be prepared to create multiple formats for your readers. I’ve mentioned in other posts that I use Scrivener. Scrivener allows me to “compile” my document to any format imaginable with a single click. I strongly recommend giving Scrivener a try if it’s not already in your tool box. They have a 30-day trial…and that’s 30 “real use” days, meaning if you go 5 days without using it, you haven’t lost 5 days of trial! Can’t beat it.
- A Questionnaire
- Remember what I said about “concrete, specific feedback” earlier? The reality is you’re not going to get it unless you ask for it. You’re going to receive your fair number of “THIS IS AWESOME!” as well as “I didn’t like it at all,” though the latter will usually come through as “it’s not working for me.” Jodie Renner, at the Killzone Blog, developed the questionnaire I use with my readers. This has become invaluable to me, because it makes your readers think before giving you feedback. I’m not saying you should use this questionnaire (though, as I said, I use it), but I strongly urge you to ask your beta readers open-ended questions that help improve your story.
I’ve listed 3 things to give your beta readers. Now I’d like to tell you about something you never give your beta readers: MONEY! Under NO circumstances should you agree to pay a beta reader. That’s simply not how it’s done. If someone approaches you to beta read your work and tells you they’ll do so for a fee, run in the opposite direction.
4. Know What To Do With Their Feedback
So, you’ve managed to round up some beta readers, your lines of communication are open, you sent them your story and questions, and now their feedback is pouring in to your inbox. What do you do with it all? How do you organize it?
First, let’s talk about what you’re probably going to receive: a hodge podge of text files, Word documents with “Track Changes” turned on, emails where they’ve copied your questions (and their answers) into the body of the email, and emails where they’ve numbered their answers from 1-15 and didn’t include the corresponding questions. In other words, you’re going to receive everything under the sun, because each of your beta readers is a unique little snowflake. <–EDIT: I hate that “certain people” have recently hijacked the term “snowflake”. Please forgive the usage. This was written before it was common practice to use the term as an insult. I’m shooting for a little levity here, not insult. And it really sucks that I have to point that out.
Take a deep breath and start looking over the feedback, in whatever form it’s returned to you. But don’t do anything about it right away. You need to let it sit and “percolate” for a little while. Criticism is a funny thing: no matter how prepared you are to receive it, you’re NOT prepared to receive it. So read it and allow some time for the initial sting to fade. Also, the feedback is invaluable, but it will be worth even more when viewed in comparison to the rest of the feedback you receive.
Once you’ve received all the feedback you expect to receive, go over it all one more time. This time, pay special attention to common problems identified by your readers. Personally, no matter how many copies I send out, if two or more of my readers identify the same issue, then it’s an issue regardless of how I feel personally. Here’s the thing you need to get through your egocentric writer’s skull: your readers are not wrong. Issues raised by two or more of your readers are real issues. You asked for their opinions. Don’t shrink away when your readers actually share them.
I start a document (I use Google Docs) to track feedback. I’ve found a spreadsheet works best for this because of its grid-like nature, but use what you’re most comfortable with. This is going to be a living document, so you don’t want to fight with the technology when you have bigger fish to fry. I create three columns. In one column I list all of the items that were commonly identified (i.e. two or more readers expressed concerns about the same thing). In the second column, I list items that may have only been identified by a single reader, yet I find them intriguing enough to explore further. In the last column, I make note of any “solutions” to the problems as they come to me.
Once all of the feedback is in my hands, and has been recorded in my document or discarded as a “stylistic preference”, I go to work on implementing the changes. Sometimes (rarely) I’ll send it out for another round, but I’ve found this to be less and less necessary as my skills improve.
One question I receive frequently from followers is “can beta readers replace professional editors?” You may be surprised to learn that my answer is “Yes. But it depends.”
Not all beta readers are created equal. Some have a mastery of the craft and language (and time/willingness) to work closely with you to improve your work and your craft. I’m blessed to have a person like this in my life. Only you can know for certain if you have a relationship like this. I don’t subscribe to the blanket statement “beta reading is not editing” that you’ll hear repeated time and time again. In truth, most often it isn’t. But it can be.
One final word of advise: Be up front about your expectations. I recently had a beta reader rate an unpublished version of a story on Goodreads, because they weren’t fully aware of the purpose of beta reading. This was my fault, because I wasn’t explicit in my instructions, and I didn’t properly vet all of my readers before sharing my work. A quick email later and the issue was resolved, but the entire situation could have been avoided had I been more organized going into it.
Now go forth and find beta readers!
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