I’ve heard horror stories of people receiving snarky and offensive beta reports on their manuscripts — the kind of thing that can crush your soul. I’ve also known of beta reports that were so fluffy and insubstantial that they were a waste of everyone’s time.
Beta readers are those superheroes who read the manuscript for our novel, memoir or non-fiction book, and give targeted feedback to help us improve it. (Check out What is a beta reader? and the rest of my beta reader series for more.)
Some beta readers are just a bad match to a particular writer or book. But often, that’s not the cause of those disappointing beta reports.
What’s the secret to getting a beta report you can actually use? I’ve found that the key is in the briefing. A thoroughly briefed beta reader, even one who is inexperienced or lacks confidence, can often give useful tips, if they know exactly what you want.
Today we’re looking at the general attitude of our approach. (Next in this series we’ll look at some very specific requests you can make… subscribe to this blog using the form at the end of this article, and you’ll know when the next one lands.)
1. Be grateful
Your beta readers are doing you an enormous favour by critiquing your manuscript. It’s a commitment of their time, energy and talent.
It might take them anywhere up to 20 hours work (depending on the length of the book and how much of a report they’re giving). That’s a VERY big favour being squeezed into a person’s busy life.
Treat them with honour in the tone of your briefing, and thank them sincerely.
2. Be helpful
These are some ways you can make it as easy as possible for them to do the job for you.
a. Provide it in the format that’s easiest for them to read
Ask them how they’d rather read it. Do they prefer a Word doc, or a Kindle or epub file? Give them what they want, within your budget and abilities of course.
It’s not hard to convert your manuscript to an ebook. It doesn’t have to be beautiful, as it’s not the for-sale version. See this simple tutorial from Molly Greene for creating a Kindle .mobi file using Word and Calibre. I write in Scrivener myself, and use its File > Compile function to very quickly create both epubs and mobis.
Some people prefer a print out, and it will depend on where you and your beta readers are in the world whether it’s feasible to supply that. I’ve even heard of people setting up a print-on-demand book so they can provide a paperback to their betas. It’s not a route I’ve chosen myself, but I guess if you have the ability, it might even be cheaper than photocopying or printing at home!
b. Allow them plenty of time if you possibly can
I aim for six weeks with my beta readers, although sometimes there are deadlines that compress the schedule. Negotiate with your readers on the time frames they can work with. Remember it might be as much as 20 hours work. So allow for them to fit that in around Life.
c. Give them a manuscript that is as “clean” as possible
It might be an early draft, but still re-read it yourself and give it an edit, fix the outrageous typos etc. Make it as pleasant to read as possible. An advantage to this is that you’ll get feedback on more important things than typos!
3. Be sensitive
We’re usually so paranoid sending out our manuscripts that we forget one important point: most beta readers are nervous too!
Critiquing someone else’s manuscript, even if a person has done it a hundred times before, can be nerve-wracking. That’s amplified for a first-timer. Yes, there is the occasional beta reader who is cool and collected all the way to the core, but in my experience, they are a rare critter.
As writers, we’re often so busy thinking, “What if they think my manuscript is rubbish?” that we don’t notice the beta reader is thinking, “What if I hurt their feelings and they never write again? What if they think my comments are stupid? What if I’m not a very good beta reader???”
I’m reminded of what my mother used to say when I went to parties full of strangers as a kid. “Look for someone else who needs someone to talk to, and soon you’ll forget to feel uncomfortable yourself.” It works for beta readers too — if we make them feel relaxed and safe, it not only helps them, it takes our mind off ourselves. 😉
Look for ways to brief them that make it clear their opinion is valuable, different to everyone else’s opinion, and valuable because it is unique. Let them know you’ll be getting multiple viewpoints and combining them all — that helps take the pressure off.
4. Set the tone
The best way to minimise the risk of getting either cruelty or fluff is to set the tone yourself in your briefing.
You could try saying something like: “Please be honest about anything in the manuscript that isn’t working for you, and please be as detailed as you can. I’d rather hear it from you now than from 27 one-star reviews on Amazon later. But if you notice strengths of the manuscript, please also let me know what those are and why you think they are currently working, so that I can be sure to retain and develop them in the next draft.”
As I said, next time we’ll look at specifics. Subscribe using the form below so you receive an email when that article is published.
In the meantime, what are your experiences with beta reading?
Featured image via Bigstock/Javier Brosch.