How to Work With Beta Readers

Uncategorized Feb 02, 2023

Beta readers refer to the initial readers of your manuscript. They’re people you ask to give you feedback on what's working and what isn't, and they're often doing this for you as a favor, perhaps with you swapping work and giving them feedback as well.

Make sure you have a completed first draft of your book before you ask your beta readers for feedback. You don't want to waste their time, and you want to make sure you're not making your revision that much more difficult by asking for input too soon in the process.

Qualities of Good Beta Readers

You’ll want to think carefully about who your best beta readers might be. What are the qualities of a great first reader? I've thought about this a lot because I've had different beta readers over the years for different pieces of my work in different books.

1. They read books!

I think the first quality of a great first reader is that they actually read books! They enjoy reading and ideally they enjoy reading in the genre you're writing in. So if you're writing a contemporary novel, then those are the kinds of books that they read. If you're writing science fiction, then those are the kinds of books they read.

It’s always super helpful if they also have some understanding of writing craft -- even just a little bit! -- and you don't have to be a writer to have some understanding of writing craft.

You definitely want to get feedback from someone who's done a lot of reading, ideally someone who's a real bookworm and has read lots over the years, so that they have built up a kind of intuitive understanding of writing craft. This might be enough for you, or you might want someone who's actually trained and has a background in writing craft, but it's really up to you.

2. They know how to give supportive feedback.

You definitely want beta readers who know how to give supportive and constructive feedback. And I think this necessarily means finding beta readers who are not going to be too negative -- even though you want them to be giving the kind of feedback that's going to help you improve, you don't want them to be really dismissive and negative about it.

A friend of mine, who's a really amazing writer and has published several award-winning books, once worked with a writing mentor who took a red pen, slashed completely through three or four pages of the work and wrote, WHO CARES in big red letters at the top of the page.

I don't think that's the kind of constructive feedback you want, right? You want someone who will really take the time to understand the amount of work that you've already put into your book and can appreciate it for what it is now as a work-in-progress while also helping you to improve it.

In other words, you want beta readers who can set their own ego aside in order to give you what you need to improve your book.

3. They care.

Maybe it stands to reason then that beta readers should care about the feedback process, but I really also mean that they care about you. They care that this is something that you've put your heart and soul into. They don't need to be related to you to care, they could just be someone who also loves books and so wants to see another great or fun book out in the world.

And also you want someone who has the time to give your book the attention that it needs and deserves. So someone that's really too busy and has too much going on is not going to be ideal.

Should you hire a professional editor to be one of your beta readers?

I'm going to say not necessarily. Obviously as someone who does this professionally, I think it can be a good idea, but I also think it's not always strictly necessary. And for years that’s not how I approached it.

If you do want to use a professional editor as one of your beta readers, what you're looking for is someone to provide what's known as developmental editing. (As opposed to copy-editing, which is more about grammar, spelling and punctuation, or word use.)

You'll need to be prepared to pay for this: the Editor's Association quotes rates of $8.50 to $20 per page, so that can add up over the course of a 250-400 page novel.

If you choose a professional developmental edit, you can expect very thorough feedback from a trained professional -- feedback that can help you structure and shape your book. You'll want to look for someone with both academic qualifications (graduate degree in Creative Writing or English Literature, for example) and prior editing experience.

If you're going to look for a paid writing mentor as a beta reader, I want to recommend that you ask for referrals, ask other writers you know who they've worked with so that you can find out a little bit about the personality and approach of that person before you pay up front for something and find that you're not a good fit.

You can also look up writers whose work you admire and approach them directly. I did that myself once many years ago now when I was first looking to have some feedback on poetry. I approached a local poet whose work I really admired and asked if she was available and if it was something that she did, and gave me some very useful feedback for a reasonable fee.

(This isn't a pitch for my services, by the way! :-) I only take developmental edits by application, and am fully booked up at the moment.)

Where to find your beta readers

Here are some ideas for who you can ask to be a beta reader for you...

Another writing friend

If you are running around in circles with other writers or you happen to have a friend who also writes, maybe you can swap books and give each other feedback, or maybe this person would agree to to give you some feedback just on your book.
Hopefully this person still meets all the criteria we just reviewed above. They might just be a friend who’s also a writer and you could just exchange work.

A fellow bookworm

Or they might be a friend who's really well-read. One of the best readers I've ever had on my short stories before I published the book was in our writing group, but she hadn't yet published. It was always a treat when she read your story because she really could get to the heart of it very quickly, having read so much herself.

Your Writing Group

You might also use a writing group. Perhaps you’re part of a writing group that already exists. You can find one or work with a writing group that already exists, but you can also start one yourself.

And now, a word of caution about loved ones...

It can be really tempting, if you're married or in some kind of a loving partnership, to want your partner to read your work and give you feedback. But I always advise writers to be very careful about using this approach.

Because unless your loved one meets the criteria I outlined above, you can get really stuck here in a couple of ways.

One possible challenge is that the person loves you so much they don't want you to know that actually they didn't enjoy the book very much, or to say that there's a big plot hole in the middle, or the ending didn't work or whatever the issue is with your draft. They don't want to give you the constructive feedback you need because they really don't want to hurt your feelings.

Another difficulty writers sometimes experience is that perhaps their loved one isn’t very sensitive or constructive with their feedback. What if, for example, your loved one doesn’t usually read in a particular genre, but you ask them to read it for you and they just tell you outright that they think it’s boring.

If this happens, the issue might not be your work -- perhaps they normally prefer non-fiction and you’ve asked them to read a fantasy novel. So I just want to caution you that if you are going to use a loved one as a beta reader for your book, be careful about that and protect your relationship, but also protect yourself as a writer.

Don't let an inexperienced person give you feedback. Really do your best to set it up so that you are receiving good constructive feedback from someone who knows what they're doing and will take some care with you.

How to ask for feedback from your beta readers

Once you’ve decided who you want to ask to be your beta readers, how do you ask for feedback in a way that will get you what you're looking for? Here's how to set this up so you get the most effective feedback.

Provide your beta readers with a short summary of the book.

You’ll definitely need a short summary of your book when you are first reaching out to ask someone if they’ll read the book and comment on it for you. You want to let them know the kind of book you’ve written (e.g. mystery novel, or memoir, etc) and the length, as well as what it’s generally about.

In my First Book Finish program, we do a One-Sentence Book Summary exercise to help with this process, but you’ll essentially need a basic summary of the book. Think one or two paragraphs here, not a full synopsis!

You want to be upfront about the length and the timeframe you’re working with, making sure you’re giving them enough time to read the book and think about their feedback. But it should go without saying that you wouldn’t tell someone that it shouldn't take too long and then send them a 400 page novel. Be upfront about what’s required so that you're clear on expectations from the start.

What kind of feedback are you asking from beta readers?

You’ll want to ask for feedback to ensure that the story is clear particularly around motivations of characters, key points of change, and any other questions that came up for you during the drafting and the revision process.

If there's anything you're not clear about as the writer, or anything you're questioning as you look towards revising the book, you want to make sure that you're asking those specific questions.

You’ll also want to ask for a general emotional response: how did they feel about the book while they were reading and how did they feel at the end of the book? So if you were trying, for example, to generate fear in the reader at a certain part in your book, you would want to know whether they actually felt fear. You don't want to lead them to say, “Oh yeah, I guess maybe I was a little afraid.” Instead, you’ll ask a general question to get them to give you their initial emotional response to the book.

Make sure you also ask them to let you know what they loved about your book! That's not just a stroke for your ego, although it's always nice to hear that kind of feedback and it might partially inoculate you against some of the constructive feedback about what's not working.

Most importantly though, this can help show you the parts of your book that actually are already working and that you don't have to fix. If something is already working, don’t try to “fix” it and end up making it not work in the process of your revision.

How to respond to feedback from beta readers

When someone sends you their feedback it's important to respond properly.

The first thing is just, just say a heartfelt THANK YOU, no matter what they send you. (I almost prefer saying thank you even before you've even opened or fully read the email or attachment!)

Just say: thank you, I really appreciate this. I need an external reader to let me know what is, and isn't working right now. And I know you're very busy and I really appreciate it. That’s all you have to say.

But know too that not all feedback from your beta readers will warrant action.

You also need to listen and exercise your judgment as a writer. Sometimes that will mean doing a little bit of work to manage yourself. In writing workshops, people are often asked to be silent while they're receiving feedback. I think that's really good practice: just be quiet, let your beta reader give you whatever feedback they have, and then ask judgement-free clarifying questions.

If there's something you don't understand, ask them more about it, but don't argue with them or try to explain what you were really trying to achieve.

Just accept the feedback as you receive it with grace and do the work of figuring out what does warrant action and what doesn't later on, away from the person who's giving you feedback.

In the end, this is still your story. So you get to make all of the decisions, you get to assess the changes that are essential to your story and how they fit with your understanding of your book.

Just because a beta reader says something like “I didn't like that character” doesn't necessarily mean that there's anything there to change. You might actually be happy with readers not liking that character at that point in the story, right? Not every character needs to be liked all the time -- some characters fulfill different purposes. You need to have a clear sense of your own story and make those decisions for yourself.

However, if you get feedback from multiple beta readers and people are responding to parts of a book in a similar way, then for sure there’s something there that you should address. And you can accept that something needs fixing without necessarily fixing it the way they say you should fix it.

For example, if your beta reader says to you at that point in the story, I needed to know more about that character's relationship with her mother and they want you to add a lot of backstory, but you’re aware that doing so might give too much weight to the character of the mother and you don't want to do that, then you will look for a different way to fix the issue rather than adding an entire character backstory with the mother.

Use your best judgment. If multiple readers are saying they’re not sure something is working, then you’ll want to pay attention. Don't get it all up in your head and be negative with yourself about feedback. All drafts need fixing, it's just the nature of drafts. So you have a draft and now you're getting feedback. You're going to take that feedback and improve your book.

You actually want people to tell you what's not working, right? You don't want someone to come to you and say, this book is perfect -- don't change a thing, because there usually is something that you can improve.

How to not get overwhelmed by your feedback

Okay, you’ve got lots of feedback -- now what?

First, make a list of all the feedback points, then categorize them and sort them for yourself. Make a step-by-step plan, and then just tackle one change at a time.

Let's say, for example, feedback comes in and there are five or six different things that need fixing, just write them all down. And then you can either start with the beginning of the book to fix it chronologically as you work through your book again, chapter by chapter, or section by section.

Or you can look at the feedback as a whole and you can pull out a specific point, such as the comments about the subplot related to the love interest, and perhaps this is one you can fix that really easily. So do that one first: it's entirely up to you.

Your book, your process. You get to make these decisions for yourself, and there’s no one right way to do it.


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