Navigating the Beta Reader Trenches

Good beta readers are an elusive bunch. They hide out in libraries, homes, workplaces, and coffee shops reading great books and talking about them. Sometimes they’re writers too, but one thing is certain: they’re not easy to find! Most writers I’ve worked with or talked to have had trouble finding and keeping amazing beta readers. Today I’m going to discuss what I’ve learned through my own experiences in the beta trenches and share what I’ve gleaned from others who’ve been there.

So you’ve finished writing, revising, and self-editing your novel or nonfiction. You’re ready to take the leap into the trenches to pan for your own proverbial beta-reader gold. Or maybe you’ve finished a draft and are thinking about skipping the whole beta reader step altogether. Let’s discuss what beta readers do, what you as the author should provide for your beta readers, and how you can prepare yourself to receive feedback on your writing.

Defining Beta Readers

Hold off on sending that email blast to every reader you know. First, let’s make sure you have a solid understanding of what beta readers are and what they do. To start, let’s frame our definition with what beta readers do and do not do.

Beta readers don’t . . .

Prescribe ways to improve your manuscript. Even if they do have the knowledge, as a beta reader, that is not their role. They are volunteering to evaluate your book as a reader, not a developmental editor. Yes, if they commit to a certain level of feedback, they should honor that, but you shouldn’t expect free, professional-level feedback. Think of beta reading as crowdsourcing. One beta (especially if they’re a friend or family member) is not enough. You need a variety of opinions, and you will always have a few crazy outliers in the bunch, so sift through all the feedback you receive to find the bits that will help you make your manuscript shine.

Copy edit your book. Even if your beta reader has a degree in English or daylights as a professional editor, unless they specialize in editing what you’re writing—they won’t know the technical ins and outs of your genre or topic. They probably won’t have access to the right style guide or the experience to apply it to your book. Beta readers examine the story, not the mechanics, and they are not a replacement for professional copy editors.

Read through partial drafts. Beta readers should receive your full, polished manuscript and engage with your materials as if they are “beta testing” it for publication. They will expect a few bugs, maybe a glitch or two, but overall, the story should be cohesive. If you want someone to provide chapter-by-chapter feedback as you write or revise your story, what you’re looking for are alpha readers, and they serve an entirely different function. Your alpha readers (or critique partners) are the ones to go to if you need help working out larger issues in the text before the book is polished.

Beta readers do . . .

Love reading completed manuscripts like yours. They represent a small sample of your target readers, they read your genre or topic regularly, and they want to beta read for the joy of it and to help make your book better. Some beta readers are professionals that charge. Most will likely be volunteers. The best beta readers have reading goals that align with your work. Do they read solely for entertainment? Well, your book is ripe with interesting and engaging characters or plots. Do they read to learn something new? Your book is educational or eye-opening in some way. Do they read to solve problems or draw conclusions? Your book can provide this sleuth the challenge they crave.

React emotionally or logically to the characters, arguments, plot points, and themes of your manuscript. Beta readers will point out things that confuse them, comment on characters or concepts that irk or excite them, and provide general feedback that will allow you to develop a revision plan to improve your book. They may point out egregious inconsistencies or sensitivity issues at your request.

Point out embarrassing typos if needed. Some beta readers can’t help but point out or correct obvious errors when they notice them. If this is something you want your betas to do, make sure to outline specifically the kind of suggestions you want. Be careful, though, because your grammar-savvy friend may not be aware of the style conventions required for your book. Make sure to limit these kinds of changes unless you’ve requested specifically that your reader proofread for you.

Surviving the Beta Reader Trenches

Now that we’ve defined what beta readers are, what does it look like to work with them? It’s not always as simple as attaching your manuscript and hitting Send. Establishing clear expectations, putting your pride in its place, and creating a system for compiling the feedback you receive will serve you well during the process.

1. Establish Clear Expectations

What do you want from your beta readers? As a beta, the most frustrating thing is receiving a manuscript with no expectations, information, or follow-up. Why should your betas set aside time to read your book? Before you ask anyone to read your book, compile and decide upon the following:

A short blurb (200–250 words) describing your book. Include the genre, word count, a maturity rating, and the main character and conflict. This is not a synopsis, it’s a snapshot for potential readers. For instance, if you’re writing a “chosen one” plot, and a potential beta doesn’t like that sort of story, they should be able to tell based on your snapshot that they wouldn’t be a good fit. If your book is 100,000 words and the reader can only make time for 40,000, the blurb will let them know. The worst kind of beta feedback is from a reader who wouldn’t have picked up your book in the first place, so the blurb should help readers know what they’re in for.

A ballpark turnaround time or date. Since your beta readers are probably providing feedback for free, don’t demand that they finish a book-length manuscript in a day. Choose a reasonable amount of time based on the length and complexity of your book (two weeks for a short story to two months for a long novel is my rule of thumb), and then include that with your blurb.

A description of specific feedback you need. Ask yourself what part of the book or the writing process you are struggling with the most. Is there a scene you just hate but can’t figure out how to make it right? Is there a character whose decisions seem unfounded or off despite your efforts to get inside their head? Form these concerns into questions, and then compile a questionnaire. If you were sitting with someone as they read your book (please don’t actually do this with any of your betas), what questions would you ask them?

2. Put Your Pride in its Place

When reviewing beta feedback, our pride can often get in the way. If we think too highly of our work, we can disregard helpful feedback that might be disguised as harsh criticism. On the flip side, if we think too little of our work or our ability, our pride will react violently to negative or even positive feedback, discourage us, and could even shred our desire to fix the parts of our manuscript that need to be fixed. Here are a couple ways to put your pride in its place:

Never argue with your beta readers. Never. Argue. With. Your. Beta. Readers. If you don’t understand a comment they made, sure, ask for clarification. If your beta is giving you verbal feedback, it’s fine to listen and have a conversation. But do not tell your readers that they understood something incorrectly or that they misinterpreted your message. This is a waste of your time and the reader’s. If your readers are misunderstanding, this is excellent feedback, because it tells you that something is broken in your story. Focus your energy on figuring out what you can correct. Even if you disagree with most of a reader’s feedback (it’s to be expected sometimes!), there might be a nugget or two of truth to uncover and apply in your revisions.

Don’t respond to feedback until your beta reader has finished the book. If you’re sharing your novel on a platform like Google Docs that sends you a notification every time your reader comments, turn off those notifications! Leave the responses for the end of the book unless you’ve specifically agreed to have a dialogue with your reader. A beta reader’s experience should be as close to a real reader’s as possible. Your future readers will not have you to explain things to them, so refrain from doing it for your beta readers. Your words should stand on their own, and if they don’t, a good beta reader will express their confusion or misinterpretation. To keep myself from being tempted, I usually send my readers Microsoft Word documents and request that they return them with their comments. I have no access to their feedback until they are done. Do what works best for you, and don’t read over your beta’s shoulder.

Create a plan for readers who don’t come through. To account for the readers who may never get back to you, send out your book to more betas than you think you need. Above all, if a beta doesn’t finish reading your manuscript, don’t take it personally. Instead, allow your betas a method by which to stop reading if they get bored or busy that still helps you. I always give my readers this question: “If you stopped reading or wanted to stop reading at any point, where was it and why?” I’ve had a few of my betas take me up on that and stop reading. And I learned a lot from it.

3. Compile Your Beta Feedback

This year, I’ve sent out my novel to nearly two dozen beta readers. Of that, I’ve received feedback from a little less than half of them. Of the projects I’ve submitted to beta readers, this has been my experience, though your return rate may be better or worse depending on your project and your beta readers.

The appropriate number of people you should ask will vary based on your needs, your project, and how much feedback you want, but always plan for readers to not get back to you. I plan to receive feedback from about a third to half of my beta readers, and hope that I will get as much quality feedback in that round as possible. If I don’t, I try again with a new batch of people. If you’re struggling to find anyone to volunteer, Jane Friedman has a great article on how to find beta readers.

But once you have all that feedback, what do you do with it? There are many good options. I particularly like Amber Helt’s method, which she shares in a Rooted in Writing blog post along with a few free beta reader resources. My method is a little different. I tackle each reader’s feedback one at a time, first adding their beta questionnaire answers to a master questionnaire document, then reading through their comments. While I read through their comments, I make notes in another document where I have my chapters listed along with their summaries. If I have a strong emotional reaction to any feedback or the way a person delivered (or didn’t deliver) the feedback, I make note of it and then let it rest for a few hours or days. I need this time for the emotion to diffuse and to reflect on the core of their criticism rather than its delivery.

Preparing to Revise

On a predetermined date (when I will hopefully have most of the feedback), I sit down with my questionnaire document and my outline. I weave in character development, plot tweaks, pacing adjustments, or whatever the feedback calls for. By this time, I have taken a decent break from my novel and I’m excited to get back to it. I finalize a revision plan. Sometimes I ask questions of myself or come up with tentative solutions by adding comments to my outline.

Then I open my manuscript document. And the war of revision begins.