Going from blank page to publication is a lot of work. There are a lot of confusing steps in between start and finish–brainstorming, drafting, character development, editing–and one of the more critical steps is often the one that gets forgotten: beta reader reviews.
As a reader (and writer), I constantly preach the massive importance of writers getting their work looked at by a professional editor. But, also, as an editor, I know I can’t do everything my clients need in order make sure their manuscripts shine their brightest.
Because, while I can give solid, honest feedback and edit their manuscript like a madwoman, the one thing I can’t do is be other people. That is, I only have my opinion and it may be a good one, but the book isn’t being written for me. It’s being written for a wide swath of readers out in the world whose eyes may catch things I don’t see and whose opinions shed light onto facets of the writing I hadn’t considered.
So, what’s a diligent writer and editor to do?
A warning to writers
I admit: I pretty much feel like anything I write is awesome. I spew rainbows of knowledge and herds of unicorns flock to read what I have to say. It’s true.
As a writer, I have to have confidence that my work is worthy of someone else’s attention because, if I don’t believe in it, who will?
But, fellow writers, don’t get so caught up in your awesomeness that you forget one priceless source of feedback: Beta readers!
Beta readers generally work for free.* Many of them simply like reading; they enjoy getting a sneak peek at a book nobody else can access and they’re genuinely interested in being helpful. As a group, they’ve read a lot, so they’re a prime audience. They know what to look for in plot development, what a bad character description looks like, how to spot poor narration, and can sense when something isn’t right (and can generally identify what that ‘something’ is).
There’s a little bit of implied risk with sharing your unpublished manuscript with beta readers. Among other things, there’s always the worry that your idea could get stolen, or that your ego will be smashed against the wall by a critical personality just for the fun of it.
But, to me, the risk is worth the vast gain. If you find readers who will read your material for free (or cheap), you can get priceless feedback on your book’s:
- character development;
- descriptive language;
- and much more.
Getting Started with Beta Readers
First: Don’t ask your mom to read it.
Mom’s are renowned for thinking everything their child does is a-MAZ-ing, so their opinions can be largely unreliable when it comes to telling you your writing, well, sucks (sorry, Mom, but you know it’s true). For that matter, don’t ask ANY family member to read it. Friends are a grey area, too, so ask only the ones who’ll give you the facts and not tip-toe around when it comes to critiquing time. If you can’t be sure, steer clear.
The truth is great reviews are great ego boosters, but they’re actually NOT HELPFUL. That’s right: Your actual goal in a beta read isn’t to get rave reviews; it’s to get the ugly, one-star reviews from people who like to (legitimately) rant about your work’s less notable attributes.
Consider this article, “The Gift of Criticism”, from writer and writers’ advocate Jeff Goins, who says of reading Amazon reviews of his book:
I wasn’t looking to be encouraged. I was hoping for an excuse to beat myself up, because I’m a writer and that’s what we do. We’re a pretty masochistic bunch. Of course, I don’t read the positive reviews. I blaze right through the 4- and 5-stars and go straight for the jugular: the much-dreaded one-star review. Which was actually, to my surprise, a place of great inspiration.
So, especially in your
Second: Don’t be sloppy.
This is a business transaction, so be professional. Act as if the beta reader is an agent at a publishing firm and give them the best you have of your writing, post-edits. Alongside that, consider creating a NDA (non-disclosure agreement) for them to agree to (i.e. sign & date) before sending them your work so they’ll be less prone to freely talk about your story with anyone else (I especially advise a NDA for writers of non-fiction and controversial or sensitive topics).
(See a blank NDA from Mountain Owl by clicking HERE.)
Third: Save your manuscript as a PDF.
Beta readers don’t need editable documents. The last thing you want is for them to start messing with the content. They’re readers, not editors, so give them something to read, like a PDF. It’s easy to save a Word document as a PDF and–BONUS!–PDFs are compatible with most eReaders, so beta readers can enjoy your manuscript like they would any of their other favorite eBooks.
Fourth: Get organized.
Get a few questions together and create a questionnaire on a platform like Google Forms. (The image above is a screenshot of a Mountain Owl questionnaire introduction.) After they’ve read your work, either ask beta readers for their feedback in person, using the form as a baseline for your conversation, or offer them a URL so they can access the survey at their leisure. In the survey, ask specific questions about areas of concern as well as general ones that leave room for the beta readers to talk (or type) at length about their opinions.
Fifth: Be patient.
Don’t harass beta readers (“Have you read the manuscript yet? What do you think so far?”). Remember: They’re doing this for free*, so if they don’t get to it within the desired time frame, well, there are a handful of lessons to learn from that:
- Consider if you gave them enough time. Not everyone reads at the speed of light (I don’t), so allow more time than you think is necessary for your beta readers to get around to finishing your manuscript and giving feedback.
- They could just be unreliable beta readers. In that case, don’t request feedback from them again.
Even though beta readers as a whole are a reliable bunch, have at least a few of them on your roster; the whole point of having beta readers is to get a good, general feel for how your book will do in the real world, so get a good sampling of readers to put eyes to the page.
Getting a handful of beta readers to look at your work isn’t difficult. Like I said, many are eager to get a sneak peek at otherwise inaccessible writing and there are plenty of beta reading websites out there to hook you up with the right readers. From them, you’ll receive the input and feedback you need to optimize your manuscript prior to sending it to a publisher or, if you’re self-publishing, prior to submitting the final manuscript to a the service of your choice.
*Most beta readers will read for free, though some writers and editors choose to pay a small stipend to readers for their time and to affirm that their opinions are of value and importance to the publishing process.