Beta readers are those wonderful people (often volunteers) who read and critique the manuscripts of our books. Chosen carefully, briefed effectively and “heard” with discernment, I regard them as the superheroes of self-publishing. They can provide forms of editing – especially in the developmental stages of a book – that many self-publishers miss out on.
Traditionally-published writers need beta readers, too. You’ll find that most successful authors have at least one and often a team of them, whether they are other writers, editors, or trusted advisors who read their work before it reaches the publisher.
Last time in our beta reader series, we talked about a wise general approach to briefing a beta reader. “Treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen” may or may not be my default policy with gardening, but I don’t advise it as the best way to approach beta readers! 😉 “Treat them like precious jewels and have a parade in their honour” is closer to the mark.
Let’s look at some tips for the logistical side of your briefing.
Logistics specifics (trying saying that five times fast)
I find it’s wise to be as specific as you can about practical details. (I’ve learned this the hard way, of course. 😉 ) You’ll be surprised how much we all pussyfoot around, afraid to be pushy or too directive, trying not to offend anyone… and then the exact opposite happens, and everyone ends up confused or frustrated or resentful, because of assumptions and lack of information! Aagh!
No one likes a bossy author, but the trick is to communicate. Ask them what they want, but let them know what you want as well, as it may turn out to suit them just fine, if only you’d asked.
If you are both new at this and neither of you really know what you want, that’s fine too. I usually find that just being honest and transparent with people gets much better results! There’s no shame whatsoever in newbies muddling through together — great friendships are often built that way. Even “old hands” can enjoy muddling through together.
Here are some specific practical details that you might discuss.
- When do you actually need their report? Think about it in the context of your overall schedule, don’t just pluck a date from the air. Then talk to them about how they are placed. Is a quick turnaround possible, or do they need more time? If you really do need it in a hurry, and they’re busy, perhaps they have time to do a quick read and “instinctive” response, without going into too much depth? Modify your request to suit their availability.
- Do you have a publishing deadline or a competition to enter? If so, how much time will you need to rework your manuscript in light of the beta reader’s comments and suggestions? Work back from the deadline date to figure out how much time you can allow the beta reader. I usually aim to allow six weeks for my changes AFTER the report, and six weeks for the beta reader to read and make their comments, which means giving it to them 12 weeks before deadline… but it’s not always possible. (If that sounds like a long time, maybe you and your betas are turbocharged and very fleet of foot, but bear in mind that I find MANY people underestimate how long it will take, and end up with a rushed rewrite that doesn’t do justice to the potential of their book. Just sayin’.)
- It’s often a good idea to set a timeframe, even if you don’t have an external deadline to meet. People who are given forever to get a job done will usually take, oh, round about that long. 😉 But don’t be bonkers about it. If you say, “I need it by next Wednesday,” and then you don’t publish it till 2042, and they’ve stayed home from work and neglected their children to get it done for you, it’s probably not going to create a sweet working relationship for the future!
Format to GIVE to them
Everyone has preferences for how they’d rather read. As we talked about in the general approach, do your best to provide a format they prefer. Communicate.
- Word doc? If you don’t have Word, you can usually create a readable file from Open Office, and you can even export to Word from Scrivener.
- A format for their e-reader? It’s surprisingly easy to create an ebook in a hurry using either Word + Calibre, or Scrivener.
- A printout? Some people still prefer this, so if that’s what they want, provide it if you can… but don’t be afraid to negotiate if printing and postage is too expensive for you.
- Something else I haven’t thought of? Talk to them about it.
Format to RECEIVE from them
When it comes to receiving their feedback…
- The first thing to consider is: How would THEY like to give their comments?? If you possibly can, let them do it the way they find easiest. But again, negotiate if there are problems for you.
- Would you prefer a separate text file, which they write up in Word or some other word processor?
- In the body of an email?
- Would you like them to use the “Track Changes” feature of Word within your actual manuscript?
- As notations on an ebook file if you’ve produced a .mobi or .epub for them?
- As written notes on a printout of your manuscript? (Don’t forget to provide the hard copy, or at least reimburse their printing costs, and pay for return postage.) If you’ve got beta readers in other countries, the hard copy might be a bit, well, hard to do. Paper is heavy, and manuscripts can be excruciatingly expensive to post.
- Again, it’s always good to let them go for the response format the prefer, if you possibly can. But having the discussion now will potentially avert problems later, and may just make your job easier if they’re happy to provide your preferred format.
Next time we’ll look at ways to ask for specific content in your beta report. (Subscribe to the blog using the form below, if you’d like to know when that article lands.)
What’s your experience with beta reader briefings? If you’ve been someone’s beta reader, what did you find useful? What makes it harder?
Featured image via Bigstock/Goodluz
Soren Summers says
Belinda, your beta reader series was invaluable when I was puzzling my way through the process. My readers even thanked me for providing a questionnaire, something I never would have considered before you mentioned it. Thank you for laying out all this advice so clearly (and generously!).
A quick, non-beta related question. I’m not sure when you turned off timestamps for your blog. It’s never troubled me as a reader either way, but have you received any feedback on the matter from other visitors? I’m building a backlog of articles for my own blog and have been unable to decide about providing the date of each entry’s publication.
Belinda Pollard says
Soren, I’m so glad the beta reader series has been useful. I really am quite a passionate believer in the power of a crack team of beta readers!
As for the issue of timestamps on the blog, I decided to turn mine off when I knew I couldn’t always blog weekly. My articles are designed to be evergreen, and if there’s a gap between them, they don’t look “stale”. No one has ever said they didn’t like it, although that doesn’t necessarily mean they do like it! It’s become quite a common thing to turn the date field off.
Best wishes with your books and your blog! 🙂
Soren Summers says
Wow, thank you for the prompt response! I see what you mean, removing timestamps certainly works in your favor then. My topics are more time-constrained so I suppose I’ll have to leave them up for now.
Thanks again, Belinda. I look forward to reading more of your great articles… and diving through those evergreen ones as well 😉
Great site. I’ve just been asked to beta read for the first time which is exciting and … scary for the reasons you mention. Has the next article in this series been published yet?
Have you considered a column for beta readers or do you have a good referral site? Jon
Belinda Pollard says
Thanks Jonathan. It’s been a busy few months, so that follow-up article isn’t written yet! However, I’ll put it on my list to do soon. Best wishes for your beta reading adventures. It’s a very valuable thing to do for writers. I’m trying to build a useful resource of articles here, as I definitely believe in the value of good beta readers.
My thanks, appreciation and an internet delivered hug for a good New Year. Jon
Marianne Wheelaghan (@MWheelaghan) says
Brilliant advice, which I am going to find very helpful in the not too distant future – I hope ;~)
I especially love your advice to “Treat them like precious jewels and have a parade in their honour”!
Thanks. Look forward to the next post in the series.
Oops – nearly forgot: the biggest shock I had with using beta readers was not so much what they said as how long it took some of them to say it. So, I agree, setting a time framework to work within for your beat readers is a very good idea – and 12 weeks sounds realistic, even optimistic! Thanks again 🙂
Belinda Pollard says
I know what you mean, Marianne. I’m hoping to be able to follow some of my own advice soon too! Gotta finish that manuscript first… 😉
I’ve had some superstar beta readers get back to me in a weekend in the past when I had a tight deadline (bless them) but I do think much longer timeframes are more reasonable. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂
MM Jaye says
Thankfully, my beta reading experience so far has been nothing but positive! The authors I’ve worked with I consider friends, and they’ve been very accommodating especially where the time frame was concerned, but also in terms of the format of the document they sent over. On my part, I asked them how they’d prefer to get my feedback (gradually or through a full beta report in the end) and I also made sure that all the points I raise are backed with arguments that–at least to me–appear solid. I’ve also been lucky in terms of feeling “pampered” afterwards. I was showered with thanks, even made the Acknowledgment page in a couple of instances. That was a lot more than I’d bargained for! So all in all, I find beta reading an extremely fulfilling experience, that also helps me evolve both as a writer and in terms of offering support.
Belinda Pollard says
Good tip, Maria. Sometimes it’s useful to have progressive feedback, for a variety of reasons. Glad you’ve had such a positive experience.