Feedback from beta readers can be an invaluable resource when it comes to improving your writing. Unfortunately, when working with beta readers, there is also the potential to doubt your work.
As with any type of feedback, it’s important to use what’s helpful and ignore the rest. Let's take a look at the key questions that will help you get the most out of your beta readers.
What Is a Beta Reader?
A beta reader is someone who reads your work before it is ready to be published. That’s not to say that your work shouldn’t be as polished as possible before sending it to your beta readers—it definitely should! So, before you start looking for beta readers, make sure your writing is as clean as possible.
The purpose of using beta readers is not to have them point out spelling and grammar issues with your work. Some will anyway, but the main reason to use beta readers is to get feedback on things like plot and character development. If your story is full of grammar and spelling issues, this may distract beta readers from finding more serious issues like inconsistencies and plot holes.
How Many Beta Readers Should You Have?
The number of beta readers you choose to use is totally up to you. Having a few provides the opportunity for patterns to emerge. For example, if you have six beta readers and five out of six of them don’t understand why a certain plot point was included, you may want to think about reworking that plot point.
Sometimes it can be difficult to find people to read your work. If you can only find one beta reader, that’s still better than not having anyone read your work at all. Feedback is always helpful even if at first it feels like it isn’t. I’ll explain what I mean by that later.
Questions to Ask Beta Readers Before They Read Your Book
Asking questions before sending your book to a beta reader can help you make sure you find beta readers that are going to provide helpful comments. Helpful comments are the types of things that make you think about your writing and how you can improve it. Examples are comments like:
- I’m not sure what you mean here
- This character doesn’t seem to have a purpose
- This transition felt jerky
- Something isn’t working in this scene
It can be hard to read feedback on your story. Most beta readers want to help, but sometimes their comments can be hurtful even though they aren’t meant to be. Take them with a grain of salt. Keep the feedback you like and get rid of the not-so-nice stuff.
In my opinion, it’s not a beta reader’s job to fix your story. This is a creative choice completely up to the writer. If something doesn’t work for them, that’s important to know, but as the author, it’s up to you to decide if you agree. After you determine that, you can decide how you want to fix it. You might get some great suggestions, but you might also get advice that has no relevance to your story.
The best way to improve your experience with beta readers is to ask questions before you decide to let them read your work. Here are four key questions to consider asking.
1. What genres do you like to read?
Genre is relevant because not all types of stories include the same elements and some elements are handled differently depending on the genre. For example, romance novels are usually full of emotion with character development being key to the story. In a thriller, the story often unfolds at a much quicker pace, with most of the emotion hitting key scenes. Protagonists in thrillers often don’t change as much during the story as the main characters in a romance.
2. Which three books have you recently read?
This is another way you can find out way types of books your potential beta readers enjoy. By nature, readers compare stories when read back-to-back. What someone has recently read may influence the feedback they provide on your story.
3. Have you been a beta reader before?
Having an experienced beta reader to work with can be helpful. It lets you know they may be aware of the type of feedback you are looking for.
Never assume your beta readers know what type of feedback you want. If there are specific things you want to know, be sure to mention that when you send your beta readers your manuscript.
4. Are you a writer?
Writers often read differently than non-writers and may pick up on different things than a non-writer beta reader would. This has its advantages but it can also lead to the types of beta readers that tell you how to fix your manuscript. This isn’t necessarily bad. You’ll need to decide for yourself if you will take their advice or not.
If you feel uncomfortable asking beta readers these questions, you can set up a survey using something like Google Forms and let beta readers know they need to apply to beta read for you. I’ve seen many authors do this.
What to Do When Sending Your Manuscript
Now that you’ve found some qualified beta readers, there are a few more things you can do to make sure they give you quality feedback. When you send your manuscript to your beta readers, make sure you:
- Tell them you will be checking in on them on a specific date
- Include any specific points you would like them to evaluate
- Give them a deadline to finish reading and provide feedback
Just like writers, readers need deadlines, and they need to know you will be checking in with them to make sure they are keeping up their end of the bargain. If you give beta readers three weeks to read your book, try to email them once a week and see how they are doing and what part of the book they are at.
There’s a fine line between being an annoying author and staying on top of your project, and you will have to decide the best check-in point for you, but you don’t want to send your manuscript to your readers and not touch base with them at all until they day they are supposed to get back to you. If they’ve forgotten all about your book, then it will be too late for them to catch up and provide feedback.
Questions to Ask Beta Readers After Reading Your Book
There’s nothing wrong with telling your beta readers ahead of time about the things you’d like them to watch for, but if you have a twist in your story and you want to know if it was a surprise, you might not want to hint at that ahead of time.
I like to get general feedback from my beta readers before I ask them any specific questions. Sometimes their feedback answers my questions. People who are new to beta reading might not know what to say. Have a few questions ready for these situations.
Here’s what I usually want to know:
- Where did the story drag?
- Were there any inconsistencies?
- Which character(s) did you relate to?
- Were there any confusing parts?
- Was the ending satisfying?
- And (if there’s a cliffhanger) do you want to read the next book?
Working with beta readers can be overwhelming at first, but before you know it, you’ll be creating your own list of key points you’d like feedback on.
There’s always a lesson to be learned from feedback. Sometimes that lesson might be that you don’t want that person to beta read for you ever again! And that’s okay. It can take time to find the right beta readers and a process that works for you.