Everything you need to know about using beta readers

I’m getting very close now to the point when I’ll send my current book out to a motley gang of beta readers (you know who you are!), and I have to wait for their feedback. It’s make or break time.

I never used to understand how important this part of the process was. I wasn’t sure when to share my manuscript with beta readers, or how to deal with feedback. What if I didn’t know how to use their comments, or how to improve my book? Who should I ask?What if they didn’t have anything good to say, or they just completely hated it?

As I prepare to send my manuscript out to the world, I’m going to run through everything you need to know about beta readers and how to get the best from them.

everything you need to know about using beta readers
(I knew that one day I’d find a way to include a picture of a betta fish – I love them so much! – and today is that day)

Why should you use beta readers?

Beta readers are your route to testing your book on an audience.

If you’re considering working with beta readers, you’re likely to be at a point where you’ve spent a lot of time with your book. You know it inside out, and have self-edited it considerable. But the truth is, all readers think in different ways, and without beta readers you’ll struggle to see the flies in the ointment.

Beta readers help you see your story from another point of view.

They’ll pick up on your blind spots, point out the unbelievable bits, and (hopefully) have a rip-roaring good time when reading it. And if you use friends, family, colleagues, neighbours, or pals from your writing group, they’ll likely do it for free, too!

 

When should you use beta readers?

I’d say the best time to recruit your beta readers is when you’re at least on draft 3. (Find out my quick guide to editing your third draft here.)

There’s no use sending your manuscript to beta readers before you’ve had a chance to shape it into what it’s meant to be. Your first draft is just you pouring sand into the sandpit. The second draft is when you build castles from that sand. And your third draft (and each subsequent draft) is when you add the windows, the portcullis, the flags, yadayadayada. The last thing you want is to wait for feedback with bated breath, only for it to list all the things you knew were missing but you just didn’t have time to add in yet.

You’re generally ready to use beta readers when:

  • You’re confident that you’ve achieved what you set out to do
  • You’re sure you need ‘big picture’ feedback before you continue to shape your story
  • You aren’t sure what else to do to improve your manuscript
  • You want to test out a new approach or character

As for me, I’m currently on draft 4, and am planning to send my manuscript to my beta readers at the end of June, before I send it to my agent later in the summer.

 

Who should you choose to be your beta readers?

Here, you have two options – you can hire a professional beta reader, or recruit your own from friends, colleagues, and family.

Ideally, you should hire as many as you can – but not too many that you won’t be able to deal with their feedback. The most important aspect of who you should use as beta readers, is that you choose the right people.

But who is a professional beta reader? These are likely to be freelance writers or editors who are keen to seek projects such as this to supplement their income. There are certainly pros and cons to this approach – but the decision is ultimately up to you. Hiring a professional editor will probably only be a good thing, though take care to really assess their rates. Are they offering to beta read your book, or to give it a professional edit? If you’re wondering what does a professional editor do, read my blog to discover the pros and cons of paying for one. 😊

The alternative is to ask friends, family, neighbours, and colleagues to be your beta readers. And though this is the way I’ve always done it, there are pros and cons to this approach, too. Ideally, you should be looking for readers who read for pleasure. If they read in your genre, that’s even better. If they read in your genre but other genres too, that’s better again. You want beta readers who understand what you’re trying to achieve, even if they don’t know the ins and outs of your story yet.

If you aren’t sure what your target audience or demographic is, aim to recruit a gang of beta readers who differ in age, background, gender, and reading style. Their feedback might even help you to figure it out!

Also, think ahead to the sort of feedback you imagine you’ll get from your betas. Though it’s hard, don’t be dissuaded from recruiting readers who you know will be brutal in their comments. Chances are, there’ll be some nuggets in there to build on. And thought it’s tempting to only recruit those who would praise your work, seek the grammar nazis, the pedants, and the ones who won’t shy away from saying they’re confused by your plot or baffled by your antagonist. It’ll be so worth it in the end.

 

How should you use beta readers? (Instructions for beta readers)

There’s no point recruiting beta readers and asking for feedback if there’s no structure to it. You don’t want to wait a month for them to finish your manuscript, only for them to shrug and say “I liked it.”

When you send your manuscript to your beta readers, give them some firm instructions:

  • Give them a deadline. It’s difficult to wait, but make this realistic, so they have time to enjoy it and think about their feedback. I usually say a month.
  • Ask beta readers to complete a feedback sheet. There are plenty of free beta reader worksheet templates online (like this one), or you can combine lots of different templates into your own, or make your own with custom questions.
  • Let them know if you’d like to discuss their feedback afterwards.
  • Say thank you. Reading a manuscript thoughtfully takes a lot of time, so shower them with love and thanks. Who knows, they might be doing it again for you someday.

 

How to use feedback from beta readers

There’s a saying I love, I think by Neil Gaiman, which goes something like this:

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

So if a beta (or more than one beta) picks up on something that puzzles them, there’s likely to be something you can do to clarify it. But it’s your job as the writer and god of this little world to figure out how to fix it. Only you can do that.

Feel free to not do everything your beta readers say. It’s true that you can’t please everyone, and if one reader doesn’t like something but the others do, it’s your call to make. Look for patterns in the feedback, reoccurring confusions or words. These are the first problems to fix. And fix them you can!

And finally, try to read the feedback dispassionately. These aren’t comments on you, they’re just on the thing you’ve made. And though you love that thing very much, it’s no reflection or your self-worth or passion as a writer. You’ll get the most from your beta readers’ feedback if you’re objective, and see it as if you’re fixing a car or building a house.

I hope this has helped! I think I’ve summed up everything you need to know about beta readers – but if you have any further questions, please just get in touch. If you’d like to read more tips on how to be a writer, find out more in my most popular blog posts here.

 

 

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