Beta readers are your first readers, the people who read your book before it’s available for public consumption. Their job is to give you feedback on how to make it better. I say “job,” but beta readers don’t get paid, unlike, say, a process editor or copy editor. They’re usually your friends, family, fellow writers, and (once you’ve built your publication list) fans.
They provide a valuable service by acting like the “average reader.” They point out what’s good, what could be better, and what confused them about your story so you have a chance to fix it before the book goes to print.
Here’s how to take care of your beta readers so they’ll take care of your story.
1. Choose the right beta readers
Choosing the right beta readers can make a huge difference in the quality of your feedback. Look for someone who reads extensively in your genre, can express themselves clearly, and is willing to devote time and energy to your project.
Fellow writers are a good place to start, but they shouldn’t be your only betas. Writers read differently than the average person and will fixate on different things. Aim to have at least a couple of beta readers who read a lot, but don’t write their own stories.
You can choose friends, family, colleagues, fellow writers or fans, but be selective. You’ll get a lot more out of one reader’s thoughtful feedback than you will from the distracted skimming of someone who doesn’t read your genre and doesn’t really have time.
2. Set clear expectations
You’re more likely to get good feedback, and get it on time, if you set clear expectations for your beta readers. First, and most importantly, give them a deadline. Although your story may be your top priority, it’s probably not quite as important to your beta readers. Giving them a firm deadline up front helps them manage their time and decide whether they want to commit to beta reading in the first place.
Next, let them know what kind of feedback you are looking for. You might ask them to focus on whether the character motivations are believable, whether the plot makes sense, or how clear the descriptions are. Of course, they can and will talk about other topics as well, but giving a few key questions can help them engage with the text.
Finally, tell them how to provide feedback. You can ask for an email, notes directly on the document, or a face to face conversation. Set the expectation up front so you get feedback you can use.
3. Expect some drop-outs
No matter how well you prepare, some beta readers will drop out of the process. It’s not a judgement on you or even on the story. People are busy. Despite their best intentions, they may not find the time or the focus to read the whole piece. Remember, your story might be the most important thing in your world right now, but for other people, it’s just a book.
Be gracious. Don’t make people feel bad for dropping out. Thank them for offering and encourage them to pass along any notes they do have, even if they didn’t manage to read the whole story.
At the same time, do keep track of who follows through and who doesn’t. It might help you choose beta readers for the next story.
4. Follow Up
To minimize drop-outs, follow up with your beta readers at least once during the reading period. If your reading period is long, or if there’s a major holiday in the middle of it, you might want to reach out more than once.
Each follow-up message should thank them for reading, remind them of the deadline, and invite them to ask you if they have any questions. Touching base at least once during the reading period will help keep your story on their mind.
5. Say Thank You
When you get an email or message from a beta reader with feedback, respond with a thank you. Do this before you even read the feedback. Why? Because criticism sometimes stings, and whether your beta reader sang your praises, or tore the piece apart, they dedicated a lot of time and effort to your project. Show your gratitude.
6. Ask clarifying questions
Its okay to ask clarifying questions, as long as you do so in a respectful and positive manner. Don’t give them feedback on their feedback. Don’t try to explain or defend your choices. Just ask the questions you need to ask to fully understand their concerns.
For example: One of my beta readers for Near-Life Experience said she had trouble “wrapping her head around” a particular character. What did she mean by that? I wasn’t sure. So I asked: What specifically about that character is bothering you? Do you need to know more about him, less? What would fix the problem for you?
She responded with some very clear notes that helped me make the story stronger. But I wouldn’t have made those changes if I hadn’t asked for clarification.
7. Say thank you again
Seriously, they’ve just done you a huge favor. A hand-written thank you note or a chocolate bar wouldn’t be overdoing it.
Beta feedback can leave you feeling a little overwhelmed. For some tips on how to apply feedback, read the blog post I’m going to write in a couple of weeks on What To Do With Feedback. I’ll drop the link here when it’s ready.