Beta Reader Best Practices

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You are ready to send out copies of your book to beta readers. It’s an emotional thing, sending your art out specifically to receive public response, and it puts a lot of pressure on the respondents.

Honest opinions are hard to give, and also hard to craft. People feel cornered when telling the truth, and their desire to do so fails when they fear how their critique will be received. Granted, these readers may be friends and family, but they need guidance to produce unbiased feedback.

Make Another Pass

Prior to distributing copies, go through it all for another edit. This shouldn’t be a whole new draft, but more of a clean-up, adding commas, correcting spelling errors, etc. You want them to experience the story, not stumble over grammatical hazards.

Before sending out Father’s Creed, I was surprised by the things I overlooked, like FIVE different characters named Jones. Two of them were multi-line supporting characters too, and both boatmen. That could cause confusion for the reader that we don’t need.

Give a Questionnaire

You don’t want people to read your novel and respond with, “Great job.” That doesn’t help you, and it’s your fault for assuming these readers were going to be gifted writers when giving feedback. You might come back with follow-up questions, but you don’t know how long ago they read the book, and their recollection of details may be lacking for valuable responses. Give them the questions you want answered beforehand. Here are some example questions from my Beta Reader Questionnaire:

Flow:

  1. Was there any point where the story dragged? At what points did you put the book away?
  2. When did the story grab you? Was it because of a character, a moment/plot point, or dialogue?
  3. Did you feel the flow of the book was expected; Did it follow a model of novels you’ve read in the past? Where did it break from this model, and was the break a pleasure or a disappointment? When did it get back on track?

You can see I also organized questions by category. Other categories were: Genre, Characters, Flashbacks (because I have them), Religion (large part of the world), World, Word Usage, Violence, and Chapters. Create your questionnaire categories to suit your own concerns.

Give a Deadline

I asked for readers to read the book and respond to the questions within 60 days. For avid readers this should be plenty of time. For slower readers it may be just enough to pressure them to finish. The deadline may shift based on your demands, but don’t make it too long, or the readers may finish the book and wait a month to answer the questions. Again, their recollection of details may have waned in that time, influencing the level of feedback they can provide.

Keep Track

You want to know when everyone received their copies and when their personal deadline comes around. You also want to be able to track any exchanges after the fact, whether they answered all the questions, and perhaps send gift baskets or something later. I have a spreadsheet with names, emails, dates, etc. You’re moving away from the writer part of the job at this point, so treat this like a project manager. Organize. Make a calendar of follow-ups as well, to make sure formatting works for everyone and give subtle nudges about deadlines.

Thank Them

Start by thanking them. Thank them during the reading. Thank them again many times after. They are doing valuable work for you, and for free. Hopefully it has been a pleasure for them to read your work, and not torture, but either way, they are doing you a tremendous favor. Never forget that.

Happy writing, everyone!

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