Author Pearl Tate asked me to beta read her latest novel in the Quasar Lineage Series. Great! I thought. What do I need to do? So, I set out to investigate the best way to give useful and meaningful feedback to an author.
What is a Beta Reader?
Wikipedia defines a Beta reader as an unpaid test reader of an unreleased work of literature or other writing, who gives feedback from the point of view of an average reader to the author. A Beta reader is not professional and can, therefore provide advice and comments in the opinions of an average reader. This feedback is used by the writer to fix remaining issues with a plot, pacing, and consistency. The beta reader also serves as a sounding board to see if the book has had the intended emotional impact. Typically, a beta reader reviews a draft that has gone through at least one revision.
What A Beta Reader Isn’t
A Beta reader is not a proof-reader, who usually only looks at grammar and spelling and is a paid professional. A beta reader is not a critique partner, a trained writer who test reads from the perspective of an author.
How To Get the Best From Your Beta Reader
When you’ve written your manuscript and carried out at least an initial edit, it’s natural to want to find out whether what’s in your head has translated onto the page.
You’ll probably find that lots of people offer to read your manuscript, including friends and family. Just because they offer doesn’t mean that they are a suitable beta reader though. Let’s face it, using your spouse, mum or best friend will generally not result in especially useful feedback, other than ‘it was great’, or ‘I enjoyed it’. They may well spot typos, but they may not read your story on a deeper level and owing to a sense of duty, may well skim read to give you fast feedback.
Ideally, you need someone that’s impartial and unbiased. Also, it’s helpful to use someone familiar with your subject matter or who is in the target market. It’s no use asking someone that either hates or never reads fantasy if that’s the genre that you write in. Someone that is a regular reader too will have a better understanding of what makes a good book much more than someone that hardly ever reads.
You also need someone reliable, willing to commit several hours of their time and able to complete the task within a relatively short time-span. It’s probably not going to be much of a help to you if they can do it in three months.
Once you have your beta readers in place give them a deadline 2 to 3 weeks ahead or whatever is realistic (but not too far ahead) to meet and discuss their feedback.
Check how they want to read the manuscript as not everyone likes paper, some people prefer a screen. Don’t forget that you need to be able to track changes and insert notes so don’t use a PDF. Google Docs and Microsoft Word offer the facility to do this.
If your book is about a particularly exotic location, it can be handy to have a beta reader who knows the location well. Likewise, if your book is in a specialist field, you need someone with knowledge and experience in that field or at the very least, a strong interest in it.
It’s also important to be specific about the feedback you would like. You may want to give them some questions to consider during or after reading the manuscript, but don’t overwhelm them. For example:
- Would you like them to proof-read the manuscript?
- What did the title make you think the book is about? Did the title fit with the story they’ve read?
- Did it hold their attention from the beginning? Why or why not?
- Which character did they most relate to and why?
- How would they summarise what this book is about?
- Did they get bored at any point? Why and why not?
- Were there any parts that frustrated, confused or annoyed them?
- Did they notice any discrepancies in the timeline, locations, characters, or facts of the story?
- Did they guess the ending? Was the ending satisfying? Why or why not?
- Did they find it easy from the beginning to work out whose story this is (or if the intention is not to know straight away who it is – ask the opposite question?)
The general advice is to use at least three beta readers in case they raise the same issue. The difficulty in analyzing beta feedback is deducing whether it’s one person’s opinion or whether there is something in their feedback and you need to make a change. Using a minimum of three helps to see if the same feedback comes up multiple times. Try not to have too many though because it can make your head spin when you receive too much conflicting advice.
When to Use a Beta Reader
The first readers to read your story will be alpha readers. Those are your most trusted advisors who will tell you whether you’re onto something. Beta reading should happen before or after developmental (story) editing because you need time and openness to incorporate their ideas into your story. There’s no point in employing beta readers once you’ve carried out or paid for line editing, copy editing, or proof-reading. By this time, you’re polishing your novel.
How to be a Useful and Meaningful Beta Reader
If you know the author, it can be difficult to create distance and objectivity but there are some things that you can do to ensure that the feedback you give is helpful.
- Understand the Author’s Goals for this round of feedback.
- Let them know if you’re not in the target audience.
- Keep a notebook next to you at all times and make notes as you read through the manuscript.
- Provide macro and micro feedback – i.e. a general overview as to the plot and characters, voice, etc. but also specific examples and suggestions as you go through the manuscript.
- Try to work out and understand the character’s motivations – if it’s not clear, tell the author.
- Ask yourself – did the main character change? If not, why not & point out to the author.
- Use the list of questions in the ‘How To Get the Best From Your Beta Reader’ section above.
- Point out what the author did well.
- Be brutally honest.
Where Can You Find A Beta Reader?
One way is to ask for volunteers from your writers’ group. On the plus side, they already understand the process of writing and can give feedback from that point of view. However, they too, could find it hard to be objective since they want to support your efforts and may already be familiar with the story. You need someone with fresh eyes to read your manuscript, so ideally, they would not have read it before.
There’s also a big author community on social media, especially Twitter so if you do want a fellow author, it may be worth investigating with some of the fellow authors if they would be willing to set up a two-way arrangement where you each beta read each other’s work.
There are also many on-line beta reader groups including those on websites like Goodreads and Scribophile to name a few.
For a small fee, websites like Fiverr also offer a beta reading service, although I would say generally you shouldn’t need to pay. As above, many authors would be happy to set up a mutual agreement for free.
However, it is something to consider if you have written characters outside of your culture and don’t have a suitable beta reader that could advise on that. A sensitivity reader could then read your manuscript with a special view towards representation, possible cases of stereotyping, mischaracterization and bias in how you portray their culture. Using an appropriate beta reader here can add a lot of value and insight to your manuscript.
Acting On Your Beta Readers Feedback
First off, you don’t have to act on every piece of feedback. Of course, listen to feedback, but keep it at a healthy distance and analyze it critically before you do anything with it. Don’t forget you’re the author and you need to stay true to your vision.
There are a couple of things to watch out for, firstly lazy feedback. This is when the person feels, out of a sense of duty, that they must give you some feedback. More than likely, they’ve skim read your manuscript and their feedback is generic at best.
The other type of poor feedback is when the reader doesn’t articulate well, they may say they didn’t like a certain character for example, but not give you any concrete feedback about why and what would have the character more realistic, likable, authentic and so on. The problem is that these types of comments can if you’re not careful, spin you, as the author into crisis. Again, this is where you need to be very careful and discern whether it’s simply one person’s opinion or whether there is something that genuinely needs to change. Many times, if you’ve only received that feedback once, the issue is with the beta reader, their frame of reference, their likes, dislikes, and biases, how they’ve interpreted something etc. and not how you’ve written something. In that case, you thank them for their feedback and move on.
Don’t go and rewrite the whole of your manuscript based on one person’s opinion!! If several people raise something, then maybe there’s something in it and you need to review that aspect.
Do respond to feedback that resonates with you. Make sure you have a clear understanding of what the reader means so you can do something productive with it.
Beta Readers – Useful or Useless
So the answer to the question depends on who you use and how you guide them in giving you feedback. It pays to do your research into what to get out of your beta readers and invest time in finding a suitable circle of them. If you can accomplish this, then beta readers can give you great insight and provide useful and meaningful feedback at story developmental level. Get it wrong though and it can waste your time and even spin you into crisis, if you let it!
Now over to you. Add to the comments below about your experience of beta readers and any of your top tips to get the best out of them!
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