I’ve seen a lot of posts and articles about how to be a good beta reader. As a person who does a lot of beta reading, sometimes for strangers, I’d like to see more tips on how to be a good beta writer, i.e. how to make use of, and interact with, a beta reader.
A beta reader reads the second draft of your manuscript and provides feedback about things like plot, characterization, and structural issues. They don’t proofread, offer line by line commentary, or suggest that you write an entirely different book. Beta reading is usually a free service, often a like-for-like exchange.
I think it’s best to find someone who regularly reads in your genre so that their feedback is based on typical reader expectations. Having a Romance reader tell you that your Sci-Fi novel doesn’t have enough sex isn’t going to be helpful. Contrarily, the Sci-Fi reader won’t notice that your Romance characters don’t have any chemistry.
In my experience, other writers give the best feedback. Relatives and besties care too much to be honest, and just-readers don’t have the framework to explain what they may have felt. Whenever I can, I use beta readers who write books I like or who like my books.
It’s okay (good, even) to let your beta readers know what kind of expectations you have for them: how much time they have, what level of feedback you want, how much criticism you can stand. Don’t say you want a harsh critique when that’s not true. Be honest. Some writers have a questionnaire they’ll send along, which can be helpful in guiding the beta reader in giving the right level of feedback. I’ve always liked this list someone once gave me:
- What confused you?
- What bored you?
- What didn’t you believe?
- What did you think of the ending?
Allow enough time for the reader to finish AND for you to do something with the results. If you tell me feedback is due on the 1st because you’re publishing (or submitting) on the 8th, then I know I’m wasting my time. Beta reading is intended to reveal areas of your book that need re-work. If you’re just going to correct a few typos and shrug off the rest of the feedback, get a proofreader, not a beta reader.
Yes, we’d all like to get back the “It’s perfect, I wouldn’t change a thing” response, but those responses are ego-gratifying, not useful. Plan time in your schedule to do at least one full editing pass post-beta reader feedback before moving on to proofreading.
Sending your manuscript
The “beta” part of “beta reader” means second, as in you’re sending your second draft. Do not type “the end” on Tuesday and send me your doc on Wednesday.
I do three editing passes before sending to beta readers, but I pants and don’t edit as I go. If you plot and edit as you go, you might only need one, but there should be at least one. I think of my three passes like this: identify, fix, confirm. In the first pass, I identify problems. In the second pass, I fix them. In the third, I confirm they’re fixed and that my fixes haven’t created new ones. Then I send it off.
You may be asking yourself why you need a beta reader if you’re going to identify and fix your problems yourself. A beta reader is fresh, disinterested eyes. They see what you can’t see—all the things that make sense to you but won’t to someone else, the parts of the plot you forgot to put on paper, the character you adore because you know they have a soft center but who comes across as irritating to everyone else.
A beta reader is NOT there to identify things that ought to be clear to a person who already has extensive knowledge about the book (namely you). They also shouldn’t be expected to wade through text that’s hard to parse due to typos and a complete lack of editing. Yes, there will be some mistakes. No, they shouldn’t be in every sentence.
First, do the best you can on your own, then send it off.
Receiving the feedback
Immediately thank the beta reader. They spent a lot of time doing this, whether you like the results or not. They deserve to know the feedback was received and appreciated.
“Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I may have questions once I’ve had more time to process it fully, but I wanted to let you know that I got it and that I really appreciate it.”
Send it immediately. Send it before you read the feedback in case the feedback is heinously bad, because it’s true whether you like the feedback or not.
Now read it. Think about it. For a while. Then, if needed, CLARIFY with beta reader. DON’T try to convince them of anything. The person you need to convince is your next reader, not your last one.
If the quantity, quality or tone of the feedback wasn’t to your liking, then don’t work with that beta reader again, but acknowledge the effort anyway. It may be that somewhere down the road you’ll appreciate the feedback more than you’re able to right now.
Good beta readers are worth their weight in gold. Be a good beta writer.