How to get the most out of your beta readers

Having just put the first draft of Eleanor: Haunted by Waters  to bed, I thought now might be a good time to talk about the fine art of beta reading. 

Beta readers are amazing. It's worth saying that again, but instead, I'll say it again and italicize and emphasize and underline it:

 Beta readers are amazing.

Well, apparently, I can't underline it. Maybe my blog tool thinks you'll think that it's a link if apply an underline. I hope you know that I regret promising to underline it, and that it isn't really my fault that I can't.   

See, look. There isn't even an underline tool: 

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Alright, back to the topic at hand: Beta readers! Beta readers are like story fairies. They're lovely, thoughtful, intelligent people who comb over a manuscript once it's written, looking for gaping story problems. When they find them, they report back, and tell you what they've found.  Then it's up to you to fix them.  

Magical, aren't they? Just remember: Beta readers are not a replacement for a good editor or proofing pass. They're one more tool in your kit, but they aren't the all-in-one tool. They aren't your Leatherman. They're your fish-scaling knife. Your garlic press. Your slotted spoon. (Those are real things, right?)

Beta readers aren't born knowing how to provide the best possible feedback, though. That's why it's up to you to set expectations, and be very clear about what you're looking for.

How many beta readers should you enlist? 

There's really no right answer to this question. Some authors swear by a handful. I prefer as many as possible. Once the first draft of my book was done, I petitioned subscribers to my newsletter for beta volunteers. Over fifty enthusiastic readers responded. That's fifty readers who will be extremely passionate about seeing the book succeed, and who will transform from beta readers to advocates when it is published. 

Tell your beta readers what is useful to you.

This is the most critical part of your conversation with beta readers. Tell them what sort of feedback you're looking for. Remember, they aren't editors or proofers, though you may encourage them to report any errors that they find. In my case, I told my team of beta readers what I was looking for very clearly:

    • Constructive feedback the story. Was it satisfying? Rushed? Did it plod along? 
    • Commentary on the characters and their motivations. Were they believable? Did their behavior and actions ring true?  
    • Emotional feedback. Were you moved? Bored? What did you feel as you read the story?  

    Conversely, also tell them what they can skip.

    If you're not interested in typos, tell your readers not to worry about them. If you don't want feedback about sentence structure, say so. Tell your beta readers what they don't have to waste their time gathering intel on, and they'll be much more focused in their feedback.

    In my case, I gave my readers one directive: Don't praise the work. The objective of a beta read is to expose structural or story problems in the book, not to gather casual feedback. Praise is casual feedback that doesn't lead to constructive edits.  

    Give them some guiding questions.

    Even with the clarity you've already provided, it can sometimes be difficult to know how to begin providing feedback. Sometimes it can be useful to kickstart the feedback process with some guiding questions. These will usually help the reader to settle into a critical mindset, and they'll naturally begin cataloging their thoughts.

    I posed some of the following questions to my readers, as thought-starters: 

    • Were you engaged by the story? Did you ever find yourself bored? (If so, what part of the story left you underwhelmed?)
    • Was the story well-paced? Did it ever drag on and on, or rush too quickly?
    • Is the ending an appropriate cliffhanger for the next book, or did you feel that too little was revealed? 
    • Were the characters believable and well-drawn? Were any of them too thin or weakly characterized?
    • What is the book's biggest weakness, in your opinion? What would make it stronger?  

    Make sure they're aware of the timeline.

    When I sent my previous book, Greatfall , to beta readers, one reader told me that my timeline was too rushed, and advised me to slow down. I've taken that to heart, and made sure that my beta readers -- who, after all, are reading my book out of the kindness of their heart, and not because it's their job -- have plenty of time to sit with the story, absorb it, and collect their thoughts. 

    Generally, the length of time you allow for should be dictated by the length of your novel. Eleanor: Haunted by Waters  is about fifty thousand words, so I've allotted about four weeks for beta reading and feedback. 

    Specify a date. Be clear. And stick to it as closely as possible.  

    Give them your book in the right format.

    When delivering your book to your readers, consider the audience. How are they most accustomed to reading your work, or any books? How can you deliver your book to them in a palatable, easy-to-access way? In my case, the vast majority of my readers consume my books on their Kindle or on other digital reading devices, so I created familiar ebook formats of my book, put them into a shared folder on Dropbox, and pointed readers to the files. 

    When the occasional reader has difficulty accessing the file, rather than writing that reader off, I provide the book to them in the format that's best for them. Usually that's a PDF or Word document.  

    If your writing application is a tool like Scrivener, which can easily export a book into one of a dozen formats, then this step is very easy.  

    Tell them how to return their feedback to you.

    Make it easy for your beta readers to give you their feedback. If you prefer a Word document with tracked changes, tell them so, and be prepared to help them use your system. In my case, I don't have a specific need, so I've let readers know that they can plug their feedback into an email, a spreadsheet, a Word document -- whatever is most convenient for them. 

    Be gracious and considerate of their time. 

    Beta readers are volunteers. In most cases, they're unpaid volunteers. They're offering to read your novel in their spare time, after they come home from long hours at the office, or in their few quiet moments before they go to bed. That time is valuable to them, and they're donating it to you. Your book is in their hands now, and you're indebted to your readers. Remember that beta readers are often the most engaged, most passionate readers you can find, and treat them well.

    Thank them, and then credit them.

    Above all, make it clear to your beta readers how much you appreciate the hard work they're doing. They're no longer just readers -- they're part of your team, helping you to make your book the best it can possibly be. Take them seriously, show them how much you appreciate them, and, if it's appropriate, mention them by name in your book's acknowledgments. Reward their hard work by recognizing their contribution, and you'll only create a deeper relationship with them.