Beta readers. What are they, and how do you use them? What if you beta read for someone but hate the book? What if someone begs you to beta read, but you aren’t comfortable? What if you get feedback from a beta reader that is not helpful or even offensive? How do you handle it?
I asked a few authors, readers, and reviewers for their thoughts on beta reading:
Minelle (reader, reviewer, and writer-for-fun): When I read as a beta reader, I try to think about the individual person I beta read for and his or her individual style. It’s like being a teacher because I differentiate based on the writer. You write a certain way. It’s like helping someone with a painting. We don’t want everything the same. So I read your stories a different way than someone who wants specific feedback such as whether I like the story or whether I think it will sell. I like giving input on things the author may have never thought about, but not all authors want that kind of response.
Autumn (reader and reviewer): I like how I can give my input on the story. And how I can help catch mistakes (even though I am just supposed to read) I try to make sure as I am reading it that I take notes. And if something doesn’t make sense that I ask the author for clarification so they can clear it up. Normally authors send a group of questions that they want answered and I give my honest opinion.
Dinah McLeod (author and reviewer): 100% honesty. It’s so important to know that the people you give your work to will let you know the truth, even if it sucks. Better to find out now than with an onslaught of bad reviews.
Renee Rose (author and reviewer): I just beg favors from other authors. I’m sure they’ll get sick of me eventually.
Tara Finnegan (author and reviewer): it’s very very important that your beta reader can and will be brutally honest, but it needs to be about the writing, story and characters. It’s no good if they are clouded by their judgements on the subject matter.
Celeste Jones (author): It can be a tricky relationship. I think it’s important to be clear with each other what you are each going to do. Is this a read or an edit? Some people get very touchy if you change their words, but others are fine with it. Important to be clear about expectations up front. Also, how soon will you get a response?
Saranna DeWylde (author): I look for honesty and someone who isn’t intimidated by me. I have a very strong personality and sometimes people find it hard to tell me news they think I won’t like. But what I don’t like is sunshine up my ass. Sure, I need to know what works and what they liked so I can keep doing it, but I also need to know what isn’t working and what I can fix.
I look for someone who reads in the genre I’m writing in, who will do what they say they’re going to do when they say they’re going to do it, and someone I know isn’t going to load my stuff on pirate sites.
Hm. A tricky relationship, indeed. Some examples of this tricky relationship include:
- Author A asking Author B to beta read. Author B hates the book and can’t finish it, but she doesn’t want to hurt Author A’s feelings by saying so. She does nothing. Meanwhile, Author A is frustrated because Author B promised to beta read but didn’t.
- Author C beta reads and gives feedback to Author D, only to find out the book is nearly ready for publication and can no longer be changed. Author C is frustrated because she spent a great deal of time giving helpful feedback.
- Author E asks Author F to beta read. Author F gives Author E feedback on how to make the book stronger. Author E is offended at the “criticism” and takes it personally.
- Author G asks Reader 1 to beta read. Reader 1 is Author G’s friend, and she doesn’t want to hurt feelings. She says, “Everything is wonderful!”, makes Author G feels great, and the book does not improve.
- Author H asks Reader 2 to beta read. Author H gives a long list of specific things to look for. questions to answer, and feedback requests. Reader 2 spends a long time answering all of the questions. Author H then publishes the book “as is,” without incorporating any of the feedback.
- Author I asks fifteen random people to beta read her book. All fifteen people read for her and give her completely different advice. Author I is more confused than before she asked for help.
- Author J asks someone to beta read for her. She gives a few focused questions, such as “Does this relationship seem realistic?” and “Does anything in the plot seem implausible?” Reader sends back the manuscript filled with corrections of capitalizations, em dashes, spelling, and punctuation.
In general, a beta reader comes into play once you consider your book complete. You have researched and plotted, written and reviewed. To you, it is ready to go. Now…a beta reader comes into play. Their position in the industry is less important, since they really are approaching the book from a reader’s point of view. Consider them your last polish before submission. If you are considering independent publishing, a real edit from a real editor is still an excellent idea. But if you’ve done all your homework it will cost you less. At Wizards in Publishing, we price lower for books that require less work. Most editors I’ve spoken to do the same.
Some people may use beta readers in multiple stages of their writing, some may ask for beta reading just before publishing, and some may not use beta readers at all. For Becoming Clissine, the upcoming first book in my Bastia series, I broke my personal record for beta readers: more than twenty, spread over the entire year I spent writing and revising! It’s a daring book that breaks a lot of rules, and I’m not generally known for sci-fi, ageplay, political novels, or dystopia. My first beta reader looked at Becoming Clissine nearly a year ago; the last one returned her feedback to me yesterday. (I love each and every one of you!)
When you ask for a beta reader or are asked to beta read, keep a few things in mind. Writing is a personal endeavor, and it’s easy for feelings and egos to get hurt in the process. These are a few tips I’ve picked up over many years of writing workshops, critiquing, teaching writing, and beta reading for fellow authors.
For beta readers:
- Clarify a timeline for reading. Generally, authors should give you at least two weeks to read and respond to their manuscript. As beta reader, you should set a date that is reasonable for you. If you don’t know when they need it back, ask. Otherwise, you may become frustrated to find out the author no longer wants your feedback.
- Ask authors what kind of response they want. Do they want a pat on the back for a job well done? Do they want intense critiquing of the tiniest flaws? (Hint: authors who ask for “brutal honesty” may feel a bit differently when actually receiving brutal feedback.)
- Request the format most convenient for you. When I beta read, I prefer to respond to the book as a whole rather than line by line. For that reason, I prefer an epub or mobi file so I can read on my Kindle. You may prefer a PDF or even a .doc or .docx so you make notations in the text.
- Enjoy it! You’re getting a sneak peek of a new book, and you may get to influence how the book will turn out. I love reading final versions of books I’ve beta read to see where my suggestions were implemented.
- Give a reasonable amount of time for the reading. Some beta readers may respond overnight, within a week, or after three weeks. If you’re not willing or able to wait as long as they need, it’s best for both of you to find another reader.
- Be respectful of your beta reader’s time and effort. If you choose not to use any of the feedback, still write a thank-you note and explain how you took the response into account. When I beta read for one author, I suggested that the book could include a certain element. She replied that it was originally in the book, but the scene had to be deleted. She did not include that element in the final version, but she still respected my opinion by giving an explanation.
- Give at least one or two focused questions for your reader. It could be something as simple as, “Did it pull you into the story and make you want to keep reading?” It could be more complex, such as, “Do you think a submissive partner would react this way?” Define the parameters so your reader has a sense of what you want. If your reader gives you pages of punctuation correction and you wanted advice on how to make your story more marketable, you’ve wasted both of your time and talents. Before you ask for beta readers, sit with your manuscript to figure out where you think it needs outside opinions.
- If a beta reader doesn’t return a manuscript to you, consider whether they may not have liked the story. Or consider whether their life may have gotten busy. Either way, check in after the agreed-upon time (another reason to clarify mutual expectations). I read for an author, had trouble following the story, and sat on the manuscript for quite a while. She messaged me and repeated that she wanted my honest opinion. She reassured me that she would not get upset if I said I didn’t like it. As gently as I could, I explained it was difficult to follow the narrative. I pointed out a few places where she could help the reader follow the action more clearly. Instead of getting upset, she thanked me and took my advice.
- Respect conflicting opinions and try to understand them, but remember your name will be on the book cover. Good or bad, the responsibility for decisions rests with you.
Most of all, be courteous, respectful, and appreciative! Beta readers are volunteers who enjoy your books. Be flattered someone likes your writing that much, and cultivate the relationship.
Go forth and beta! 😀