I’m a big fan of beta readers, and especially of MY beta readers. Their feedback helped make my light memoir, Dogged Optimism, a hundred times better than the first draft.
Beta readers are the volunteers who critique our manuscripts during the writing and self-editing process. I use them all the time, not as a replacement for professional editing, but as a companion to that process.
I love this quote from Margaret Atwood, who has won some of the world’s biggest literary prizes:
“You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.”
Her “reading friend or two” are beta readers by another name. When I worked in-house for a publisher, we used our own version of beta readers, and many of the best writers in the world use beta readers.
Using beta readers doesn’t make you an amateur. On the contrary — it’s a sign of a professional writer.
This post is part of a series of articles on beta readers. You can find the others by clicking here.
The difficulty with beta readers…
Two of the biggest causes of bad beta reading experiences are:
1. choosing the wrong people
2. not giving them enough guidance about what we want.
So today I’ll show you how I briefed my own beta readers for this most recent project.
But I’ll put it in the context of how I chose the people in the first place.
Right at the start, let me say that I do NOT have the whole beta reader thing sewn up. I keep learning each time I do it, even despite 20 years as a developmental and structural book editor.
BUT I’ve been refining my own process in the past couple of years, and I want to share those learnings with you in the hope they’ll help you get a better result, too.
In an earlier article, I talked about the time I spent building relationships with a range of specialist beta readers for my mystery/thriller Poison Bay.
I don’t generally ask complete strangers to beta read for me. Some people have had success with strangers, but it’s not for me.
I had to assemble a different beta team for the memoir, because it’s in a different genre. It’s called Dogged Optimism: Lessons in Joy from a Disaster-Prone Dog, and it’s non-fiction – a light memoir, but with glimpses into some of the sadder moments that occurred during the dog’s long life.
It started out as a series of amusing anecdotes about the dog’s various catastrophes, but as I wrote I discovered that I couldn’t tell her story without telling some of my own story. And so it got a bit deeper and broader. I couldn’t find a way to write it without mentioning some very difficult moments, such as the sudden death of my father. It was a struggle to know how to include that stuff in a mostly-humorous book. I was concerned as to whether I was going too far/not far enough with those elements, so I was vitally interested in the feedback my betas could give.
It’s also a particularly Australian story, full of our wildlife (especially the dangerous critters), the way we live and the things we talk about. I needed international feedback so that my book could retain its Down Under flavour without becoming unintelligible to people from other countries.
TIP: Think about the bigger issues surrounding your book and how it fits into genre expectations and the global publishing environment. Whether it’s a novel or non-fiction, each book will have its own complications. How do those issues influence who you might ask as a beta reader, and what you might ask them to do?
Who I chose
I won’t mention names here, but that’s only because I don’t want my delightful beta readers to have a thousand people hammering on their door tomorrow asking for a beta read! (I have, however, honoured them in the front of the book.)
I invited 6 people with these characteristics:
- Pet lovers. Anyone who doesn’t like animals is likely to find Dogged Optimism puzzling at best, and at worst, irritating.
- People interested in personal growth who could evaluate whether or not the manuscript was encouraging.
- People with an interest in reading, writing and publishing.
- My team included 2 Aussies, 2 Americans, 1 Canadian and 1 Brit.
- Three were people I met on Twitter and then got to know over time as we commented on each other’s blogs.
- The other 3 were friends from my work, my travels and my public speaking club.
- I had known them various amounts of time – the longest was 20 years, the shortest period was 2 years.
TIP: Social media does lead to genuine and sometimes strategic friendships, but in my experience it takes time to build the relationships that generate quality beta reader exchanges.
TIP: Is it possible that you’ve known someone for ages who might be a good beta reader, but you just haven’t thought of them yet?
I was working to a very tight schedule, with an editor booked and the goal of a pre-Christmas release. I could only offer my beta readers one week to get their report back to me, which is incredibly fast. They are busy people doing me an enormous favour. And it takes a lot of energy to read and respond to a manuscript.
So I invited 6 people – more than I’d usually ask – in case not everyone had time to give me a report.
All 6 did in fact get back to me (what absolute heroes!). Several gave me shorter reports than they normally would, due to the time constraints, but between the 6 we covered all the issues I needed to discuss.
There was a difference of opinion among them regarding one key point of the manuscript. Having a broader range of reports helped me to weigh that issue in a more balanced way.
TIP: If you ask a few extra people, you’re still covered if they’re not all able to respond in time.
TIP: If there’s an important aspect of your book that is troubling you, consider inviting a few extra beta readers so you get a better cross-section of reactions.
My schedule kept slipping. I kept updating my beta team with an ETA on the manuscript. I tried to make it as easy as possible for them to say no if the new timing didn’t suit them. I set up a group email so I could send out a notification quickly while in the hair-tearing phase of manuscript completion, but I also apologised for the impersonal nature of the group email each time I did it.
TIP: If you are on a tight deadline, keep your beta readers posted when you first realise your schedule is going to slip. If you let them know in time, they may be able to rearrange things.
I put together a series of questions in a two-page Word document and emailed it to each one with a personal message (no impersonal group email this time!).
I tried to construct the document to:
- Provide enough background to help my beta readers with their responses, without overwhelming them with too much extra reading.
- Make it as simple as possible for them to answer, so it didn’t waste their time.
- Make it as straightforward as possible for me to process the responses, because I had only a couple of weeks to do a complete rewrite. The questions had the effect of pre-organising their responses according to theme.
I set it up as a table in a Word document, with a row for the question and then another row for the answer.
- I explicitly gave them the freedom to answer as many or as few of the questions as they wanted, and to write as much or as little as they wanted.
- I listed the questions in descending order of importance, so they could just stop when they ran out of time.
- I invited them to be blunt, because: I’m used to being edited; I’d rather hear unwelcome news from people who care about me than a bunch of disappointed reviewers; and I needed them to be fast — it’s faster to be blunt than tactful. (If you ask for bluntness, don’t kid yourself that it won’t hurt. Our manuscripts are our babies. Even very gentle criticism can hurt, if we’re not fortified to receive it. I’ll write more about how to make the most of a beta report another time.)
- I gave a clear deadline, stated a second fallback deadline so they knew the outer boundaries, and gave a clear reason as to why I needed it so fast – my own deadline with my editor!
Click here to see the list of questions that I sent to my beta readers. Feel free to use it for inspiration in writing your own questions.
Two of my beta readers typed their responses into the Word doc. The rest wrote their responses in a separate format, but followed the general list of my questions. Some answered all the questions; some only a few. I was pleased they felt free to take their own approach to it.
I’m not inclined to prescribe a list of questions every author should ask their beta readers. Each book, author and beta reader is unique and every project has different strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities. In fact, it can be useful to do a quick S.W.O.T. analysis of your book to help you decide what questions you need to ask.
These are some topics you can think about mentioning:
- “Big picture” or fine detail? Which kind of feedback do you need at this stage? Which kind does your beta reader prefer to give? Be aware that most humans are good at either one or the other, and even those who are good at both can rarely do both simultaneously, because they have to activate different sections of their brain to do it. Also see my article about pitfalls of asking beta readers to do copy editing.
- Ask them what they liked about the book and why. Many beta readers forget to mention this because they’re focused on helping you make the book better. If you know what was good you can avoid getting rid of it, and their encouragement gives you the will to keep going when the negative comments are making you want to toss the whole book in the bin. (Yes, you’ll feel like that. Yes, it’s normal. Yes… you’ll recover!)
- Characterisation – did they feel like they got to know your characters? Were they convincing? Were they consistent? (Good questions for fiction, but they even apply to memoir. Those people you know like the back of your hand are now “characters”! Yikes!)
- Dialogue – realistic? Effective?
- Grammar, spelling and punctuation – anything you’re consistently getting wrong?
- Word usage – anything irritating? Repetitious? Disruptive?
- Description – too much? Too little? Did it make sense? Could they visualise settings and people?
- Parts that were too long? Too short? Too boring?
- Was the opening strong enough? Did the book begin in the right place?
- Anything they hated?
- Anything they found confusing?
- It’s also a good idea to add an “anything else?” question at the end. I’ve discovered that’s often where the gold is found! They will think of things that haven’t occurred to me.
- Another generally good idea is to ask if they have any suggestions for how to fix a problem they identify. You might not end up following their suggestion, but I find it often triggers an idea for another solution.
I strongly suggest that you ask if they’d be willing to provide a comment – one or two sentences – that you can use in your marketing. I didn’t do this with my first book and I wished I had. Other people’s opinions really do matter to book buyers, and this is your ideal opportunity to get marketing quotes ahead of publication.
- Make it easy for them not to provide this if they prefer not to.
- You can check how I’ve used excerpts from my beta reader’s comments in the book description on Amazon. (Click the “read more” dropdown to see it.) I had to be stern with myself and cut the length to keep the book description as punchy as possible. It was hard, because I loved the way they’d written their pieces! Even what I have is probably still too long, but I’ve converted it to bullet points and added a line above and below the section, to try to entice a shopper to at least browse for key words.
- The same excerpts appear on the back cover of the print edition, beneath the blurb.
- Click the “look inside” feature to see where the full version of each testimonial appears under the heading “Praise for Dogged Optimism”.
- In the print edition, this “praise” page appears right at the front, before the title page. A lot of books now put it here, so that it’s the first thing a person reads when they pick up your book in a bookstore.
- I’ve tried to give my beta reader’s books as much exposure as possible. I want to boost their careers as much as I can, as a way I can thank them beyond the mere words.
I received amazing feedback from my beta readers. It challenged me, showed me possibilities, encouraged me, and empowered me so I produced a much better book in the rewriting phase.
What is your experience with beta readers? Have you had success in selecting and briefing your beta readers? Any tips to share?
Featured image via Bigstock/jorgophotography