So you’ve just completed the draft of your book, and you’re anxious for the next step. You know it needs work, but you’re unsure what’s wrong. Maybe you’re too close to the book. You know there’s an issue, but you aren’t sure what the issue is. You’ve heard about beta readers, but you don’t know who they are, what they do, or where to get them. Relax. Put the book aside. Go back to it a few days later with fresh eyes and revise as needed. Regardless, beta readers are good to have, and that’s what today’s topic is about.
What Are Beta Readers?
It helps to think of beta readers as your first set of eyes. They’re the readers before you get paying readers. In the gaming world, you have beta testers, and so in the writing industry, you can find the same. When a beta tester plays a game, it’s to make sure the game runs smoothly without any bugs or other problems. If bugs and problems are found, the beta tester reports these to the developer, and the developer fixes the issues. With beta readers, you’re getting the same thing. You send the book to beta readers, and they tell you where there are issues in your book. These issues could be plot holes, inconsistency with characters (which could be anything from description not matching in different parts, to a character acting out of character), slow parts that need to be trimmed, or parts that need more description. You may even have ideas about problems in the book, but you’re not sure if they’re actual problems, or if they’re problems of your own making because you’re too close to the work. You can either point out these issues and have the beta reader see if they should be fixed, or wait to see if the beta reader picks up on these issues themselves.
Direction for beta readers is important. Make sure to tell your beta readers not to point out editing errors such as spelling and grammar (your copyeditor will fix these issues). You don’t want your beta readers focusing on correcting those and missing out on the glaring issues of the book. If you have an idea about areas you want the beta reader to focus on, mention it. Kathy Pooler has some good insights about asking beta readers to focus on specific areas. Some areas that would be good to focus on:
- Character development – are the characters believable? Do they develop naturally? Do they ever act out of character?
- Plot holes – do you notice any plot holes?
- Description – are there places with too much description? Places without enough description?
- Dialogue – is dialogue believable? Is there too much telling of facts characters should already know stuffed into dialogue?
A lot of other questions can also depend on the book you’re writing, and how you feel about the specific work. If there are areas that you feel out of touch with, or uncertain about, ask you beta readers to focus on that and tell you what they see. Of course, you don’t want to point out a specific passage, because that may make them hyperaware of that specific scene, and they may see issues they wouldn’t normally see. Instead, if the scene you’re worried about is a fight scene, or a romantic evening, you could ask “do the fight scenes flow well?” or “are any of the dating scenes awkward?”
Ask Questions and Be Ready for a Critique
At the end of the document, it’s a good idea to ask them any questions you need answered. This gives them time to read the book without focusing specifically on issues you may have; this can interrupt their read-through. The Book Designer brings up a good point in their article by Corina Koch Macleod and Carla Douglas on beta readers. They tell you not to take feedback personally. A lot of authors (new and seasoned) have a hard time with criticism. It’s natural to feel a bit of pain when someone points out something that’s not working for them as a reader. This is especially true if you’ve put a lot of emotion into a specific scene they’re not in love with. Be gracious, thank them for the feedback, but don’t dismiss what they’re telling you. If you’re too invested in the book at that moment, set it aside for a few days or even weeks, and then attack the specific scene with fresh eyes. Try to see where the beta reader is coming from, and if there’s anything you can change to fix the issues they saw.
Give a Deadline!
For the love of all that is good, GIVE A DEADLINE! Beta readers are people, and crazy things happen in people’s lives. They may not expect to take a month or longer to read your book, but it does happen. It’s important to give a beta reader a deadline for their critique. Ideally you will have enough readers on your team that if one or two don’t meet the deadline, you can still move forward without their input. Be sure to ask them beforehand if they can read X amount of words in X amount of time. If they can’t, then you can work with them or move along, that’s your choice.
How Do You Choose Beta Readers?
I’ve worked with authors who like to choose a mix of authors and readers who’ve enjoyed their books. Of course, you’ll want to choose people who will give honest feedback; people who want to see you succeed and not just get the earliest copy of the new book as soon as they can. Choose people who will be honest without being destructive. When I worked in an office job dealing with clients, sometimes we had to give them bad news. Our boss would ask, “did you give them the warm fuzzies today?” She was basically asking if we made them feel appreciated and happy even though we gave them bad news. Writers tend to be the types that want to hide under a rock when they get criticism. If you’re not, you’re a rare creature. But having a beta reader that says, “This part needs more work with description” is loads better than someone that says, “this part is absolute crap.”
Do You Send the Book One at a Time, or All at Once?
Send your beta readers their preferred reading format and send all the copies out at once. Then you can comb through the notes and see what issues are relevant, and if it needs fixing, how best to fix it. Another good thing about sending the copies out all at once, is you can compare the notes your beta readers give you and see what issues pop up the most.
It’s important to remember that beta reading come before you have copyediting done. A lot of writers will have their book edited, then send it to beta readers, fix issues, and then send it back for the second (sometimes final) pass on their book. But there’s an issue there: those new parts, or reworked parts, haven’t gone through the first pass of copyediting. Things that you’ve changed may change the integrity of the first edit. Maybe you’ve developed another sub-plot. Maybe you’ve changed a character arc. Maybe you’ve changed a character name! Maybe you’ve changed the setting. Copyeditors work with fine details as well as glaring grammatical errors. If the fine details have changed, your editor is going to have to make sure those little details match through the entire book all over again. Don’t give your editor gray hairs, and save yourself the extra money. Beta readers first, please!