Beta Readers

by Joe Moore

Recently, we received an email from Beth MacKinney, one of a TKZ friends, asking the question: “I’d like to know what guided questions an author can give to her beta readers to get the most helpful feedback from them.” I posted a blog on beta readers back in March, 2011. Below is a revised version of that blog to answer Beth’s question. Since many of my TKZ blog mates also use beta readers, I’m sure they will chime in with additional thoughts and tips.

A lot of writers including myself rely on beta readers to scrub our WIP and find all the plotting holes, mistakes, and general stuff that doesn’t work. So what is a beta reader? Should you go looking for one? How do you find and qualify them? How do they differ from a critique group? What are the things to look for in their feedback?

The term beta comes from software designers who use the term alpha and beta for different stages of program development. Alpha is the rawest stage—incomplete and untested—and beta is still under development but a small number of copies are released to the public for testing. In novel writing, this might be the first completed version of the manuscript where the author has made at least one pass through to edit and tweak.

A beta reader is someone whose opinion you value, who’ll take the time to read your manuscript in a timely manner, and who’ll give you an honest assessment of your work. For starters, I would mark off your list of potential beta readers anyone who is related to you, works with you, or lives in your immediate neighborhood.

Should you utilize a beta reader(s)? It depends on whether you’re working on your first unpublished manuscript or are further along in your writing career. Most beginning authors are searching for anything that will build up their ego and confidence, and keep their hopes alive. And most new authors have manuscripts that are littered with flaws and mistakes—it’s part of the learning process. Weak or unqualified feedback from others can cause a new writer to become confused and/or discouraged. And their hopes and dreams can be crushed by negative feedback. Or their egos are so artificially inflated that negative criticism can cause friendships and relationships to crash.

At the same time, established authors know the value of real, honest, sincere feedback and will react in a professional, business-like manner. Beta readers are a solid tool toward writing a better book.

In recruiting beta readers, try to line up at least three to four that are willing to take the time to not only read your work but give you constructive feedback. It’s also good to mix male and female readers. In general, try to find age-appropriate readers that are familiar with your genre. A female teen may not give you the feedback you’re looking for if your manuscript is male action/adventure. If you write YA, a retired senior citizen might not be the best choice, either.

Try to choose beta readers who are not acquainted with one another. And they don’t have to be your best friends. In fact, casual acquaintances could work better since there might not be a hesitation that they will hurt your feelings if they don’t like what you’ve written. There’s a good chance they’ll take the whole process more seriously than a relative or close friend.

Don’t ask your beta readers to line edit your manuscript. Tell them to ignore the typos and grammar issues. What you’re interested in is: Does the story work? Does it hold together? Are the characters believable? Can you relate to them? Are there plot contradictions and errors?

Beta readers differ from members of a critique group in that they measure the WIP as a whole whereas groups usually get a story in piecemeal fashion and focus in on a chapter at a time. Most critique groups also deal with line editing.

So once you round up your bevy of beta readers and send them your WIP, then what? Start by listening to their feedback. If your beta reader has a problem or issue, chances are others will, too. And most important is when numerous readers raise the same issues. That should be a red flag that there’s a major problem to address.

Other tips: Don’t be defensive. Sure, we all love our words—after all, they’re hard to come by. But comments from your beta readers are meant to be helpful and constructive. Don’t take offense. Take what they say to heart. Think about it for a while. Consider that they have a valid point and are not trying to tear down your writing.

Finally, always remember that it’s not personal. If it is, you chose the wrong beta reader. Regard the feedback as if you were giving input to a fellow writer.

How about the rest of you guys. Do you use beta readers? Are you a beta reader for someone else? Any additional qualifiers to choosing a beta reader?

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14 thoughts on “Beta Readers

  1. Over the course of time, I’ve nurtured a group of betas who I know will tell me what I need to hear. I gift them each time with something (e.g., an Amazon gift card) for the service they offer.

    One way to find beta readers is by attending a good writers conference, getting to know people, and offering to exchange completed manuscripts with them.

  2. Joe, I already break your first rule as my mother and mother-in-law are both my first go-to readers. As both are ex-teachers, however, they have no hesitation in giving critical feedback:) Then I have a fellow mystery writer and friend and members of my writing group. One of the hardest aspects I find is having people who can read your manuscript and give feedback in a timely manner (especially with deadlines). My agent is really my final, ultimate beta reader. He always picks up stuff that no one else does and, as I’ve mentioned before, he’s usually right!

  3. Good post, Joe. Especially your point about how critique groups are often NOT a good source of beta readers. A beta reader has to be able to look at and give feedback on the WHOLE of the book, not piecemeal development. And you are also right in pointing out that not all writers really WANT the tough analysis a good beta reader will offer.

    I think beta readers will become increasingly important in publishing because the quality of line editing in traditional houses has declined so much in the last ten years. In the good old days, the main job of an editor was to beta-read, analyze a finished manuscript for problems and maybe offer some help. But today’s editors now are pressured to concentrate their energies on acquiring new projects rather than nurturing books or careers. And writers are increasingly expected to turn in pub-ready manuscripts.

  4. Good post, Joe, but I break the rules, too. My husband is my beta reader. He was my college English teacher (talk about broken rules) and is now a newspaper reporter.
    Don’s good about telling me when the story lags and I wander off course with long descriptions. I usually follow his advice — except when he wants more blood and bodies. I don’t write those kinds of mysteries. I’m lucky to have an excellent editor who really goes over my manuscripts.
    Totally agree with you about critique groups.I’ve heard people say some incredibly cruel things under the guise of “being honest.”

  5. Book clubs are a good way to go, for beta readers. They regularly read books and are used to giving their opinions about the content. If you can sit by anonymously, so much the better if you can take it, because there will be less inhibition in comments.

    A friend of mine did this recently, and her feedback was great. Her biggest issue was not being sure how to direct the beta readers, who knew they were betas, but didn’t know exactly what she was after. Still, several group “red flags” came out, and the entire experience was very helpful.

  6. Joe –

    I find good beta readers invaluable. They are hard to find.
    Your guidelines for feedback are excellent: Does the story work? Does it hold together? Are the characters believable? Can you relate to them? Are there plot contradictions and errors?

    I find it difficult to find folks that can provide this type of ‘big picture’ input. I don’t find eager and reflexive “you’re telling here, not showing” and “I think you need a comma here” particularly useful beta feedback. Those may be legitimate observations but it is not the input that will help me assess if the tale/characters are alive on the page.

    good post!
    (btw – I am available for consideration of future beta exchange. Mystery/suspense/thriller series with medical elements)

  7. I have several of those betta readers. It has not worked out so well. I see why they also call them Siamese Fighting Fish. Between the pages getting soaked and the Betta’s attacking each other every time they’re in the same tank it’s not what I’d hoped for.

    But obviously it’s important, because there is a major musical movie about it in India.

    Sigh…how will I ever figure this stuff out really.

  8. Sorry to be a day late, but I actually have two kinds of Beta Readers I work with:

    Cheerleaders and Bullies.

    My cheerleaders have one job: Keep me writing. When I hit a wall or run low on steam I turn to them to tell me that I can do it, that the plot’s fun and amazing and they want to read more and PLEASE just write a little more. I know, in the back of my head, that they probably don’t mean a word of it.

    I don’t care. I mean, honestly, not every cheerleader on the sidelines of a game really believes that their team can do it. Part of the job is to ~act~ like they can. “It’s okay! We’re only down 21 points with 10 seconds left. We can DO IT!!!” So I know that when it comes to critical issues my Cheerleaders are not going to give me helpful feedback. But they do help me do something else: Get the crap on the page.

    Then I’ve got my Bullies. They know I can take a good beating and they dish it out. “Why on earth would they split up again?” / “Seriously, she’s with him?” / “Wow… it took you 300 words to say she was annoyed?” They bring the hurt and for that I love them.

    Hmm… post Wisdom Teeth surgery pain meds might be getting to me. I’m not sure I like the way that all sounded….

  9. My best beta readers are authors. They know how to point out big picture problems. I’ve had less success with beta readers from book clubs. They read a book for entertainment, not to critique it. So their suggestions while good are low in number. Readers with a background in English of some kind are definitely worth their weight in gold even if they are a family member.

  10. Anyone willing to devote his/her most valuable resource–time–to reading my stuff is a friend. It’s up to me to decide which criticisms or compliments are spot on, and which aren’t. James Scott Bell is right to acknowledge readers’ kindness with gifts.

  11. Good post, Joe. I haven’t asked for Beta readers because I hate to burden someone with reading my entire book for this purpose, and because I’d want a fast turn around time.

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