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 — how we knock on the door and make the introduction.
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.”
For more detail about the briefing, check the next article in this series: How to brief a beta reader for amazing results.
There is also a chapter on how to prepare your briefing in Use the Power of Feedback to Write a Better Book.
In the meantime, what are your experiences with beta reading?
Featured image via Bigstock/Javier Brosch.
Rose Hartley says
Thanks for this post, Belinda. It’s very timely for me! Before I give my manuscript to a beta reader I might first beta read for someone else, so I know exactly what I’m asking of someone. I think it helps to have a few specific questions for the beta reader in mind as well – for me, it will be “Yes, the protagonist is flawed, but do you still care about her?” because that is what I am most anxious about.
Belinda Pollard says
Glad the timing is right for you, Rose. 🙂 And so true that we learn what we want from a beta read by beta reading for someone else… and vice versa. Both tasks build us as beta readers, and also as writers, as we learn to think analytically about what’s working and what isn’t.
Effrosyni Moschoudi says
This is an excellent post Belinda! I have had no experience as yet as a beta reader but hope to start helping out a couple of author friends soon and I can’t wait. I do believe that it is unfair to pick up a book for beta reading (or for a review) when the genre is not to your liking but I think it can work if you like the genre but you are just not too familiar with it. If you are an avid reader, I think by instinct you will still know what works and what sits wrong with you. I have currently given out my WIP to 5 beta readers (all precious author friends) and so far, I am very pleased with the feedback I have received. There have been many corrections and suggestions for changes. I feel very grateful for their commitment and I did notice a) that it worries them that any negative feedback might hurt me b) that if they haven’t done this before they feel unsure about their performance. I have made sure to clarify from the start that we are all new in this together and that only honesty can help me. I don’t see how false praise or keeping negative impressions to oneself can ever help anyone evolve.
Belinda Pollard says
Effrosyni, thank you for another insightful comment. I can tell that you are already on the right track when it comes to briefing your beta readers, and building a positive two-way relationship with them.
The friendship aspect of it is very special. Somehow, we get to know a person at a different level when we have critiqued their book, or been critiqued by them. Trust is built, when we do it carefully and in a way that honours others.
Best wishes for your writing and beta reading! 🙂
MM Jaye says
Excellent post, Belinda! I’ve been beta reading for about four months now, and it’s mostly genres other than my genre of choice (romance). What I soon realised would be a trap I could easily fall into, was to read and evaluate expecting the story to meet the standards I expect from the books I pick up as a reader in terms of pace and “voice”. When you agree to beta read a book that targets an audience you don’t normally belong to, I feel you either step back and see it through different eyes, or if you think you can’t, then simply don’t agree to beta read. I find this to be a very tricky part which can result in delivering a very wrong message to the writer; one that won’t do justice to his or her book.
Beta reading is a responsibility one must not take lightly. It’s so much more than just a free book to read for pleasure and review; the right comments, delivered in the right way can seriously affect the end result and the book’s career.
Belinda Pollard says
So true, Maria. It’s very hard to beta read in an unfamiliar genre, and you’ve pointed out some very important issues. Each genre has its own expectations.
A set of beta readers who take their job seriously can be a powerhouse for an author. The book can be a much better and more successful book for that feedback.
Thanks for your thoughts. 🙂
Brian Parkin says
Thanks, Belinda, for an interesting post.
I’ve been a Beta reader a few times now and I think I err on the side of being “nice”. The only time I was not, was when somebody plagiarized JK Rowling’s work and obviously so. I had to tell them that I couldn’t continue to read their work past the first few pages.
I generally tell them how easy or difficult it is to read and whether I couldn’t put it down, or read it in one sitting, for example. I tell them about the strength of their characters and whether they were believable to me; whether the plot made sense and flowed. If there were sections that I particularly liked or disliked, I say so. I offer suggestions about characters or the plot and sometimes, even the title. This usually generates some cross talk until we both understand what each other means. I generally like to be a Beta reader because I can appreciate how much effort goes into producing their work. I have about another 5 or 6 chapters before I sit down and proof read etc.
Belinda Pollard says
Sounds like you’re doing a good job, Brian. It’s not easy being a beta reader, but it can be very satisfying, as you say. Best wishes with your own projects!