I’ve been asked recently to talk more about beta readers.
Beta readers are the brave and generous souls who read through manuscripts before they are published. They help to make sure the plot structure makes sense and doesn’t have any gaping holes; they keep an eye on character development to ensure that each player has a distinct voice and doesn’t change hair color, age, or ethnicity from one chapter to the next; they also keep a close eye on sentence structure and grammar, to help make the reader’s experience a smooth and pleasant one, and to help keep the writer from embarrassing herself too badly.
You’ll find beta readers among your friends and family (though this can result in some troublesome dynamics), in your writers’ circles and networks, and even from your fan base.
I’m not going to pretend that I know the “best way” to choose and work with beta readers, but I can share the guidelines that I generally follow with my own work.
- invitation to beta reading
I start looking for beta readers well in advance of sending out my manuscript. For “Iduna’s Apples”?which is in the hands of my beta readers now?I sent out casual notes this past spring asking, “Who wants to be a beta reader?” For those who raised their virtual hands, I put together a short description of the manuscript in question?including the genre, the fact that this is the second volume in a series, and maybe a single-sentence synopsis of the plot. I also in this introductory email outlined what I’d need beta readers to do and in what timeframe. The prospective readers could then either decline or accept the invitation.
As we got closer to the date of the manuscript being sent out, I emailed my beta readers again to make sure they were still on-board, gave the date they could expect the manuscript from me and set the deadline for returning feedback to me.
- choosing beta readers
This can be tricky, as you don’t want “just anybody” reading your draft, but you also won’t necessarily be able to entire your favorite author or editor to take a look. Choose beta readers who are reliable and who are actually likely give constructive feedback. It’s not unusual to send a draft out to four beta readers and only hear back from one of them. You also probably don’t want to choose a beta reader who is jealous and mean-spirited and wants nothing more than to unnecessarily rip your manuscript to shreds. I’ve not had that happen to me, but I know it does occur.
It’s important to choose readers who know and enjoy your genre and who honestly like to read. You probably don’t want a hardcore sci-fi fan giving feedback on an historical romance, for instance, or someone who usually doesn’t read anything longer than fortune cookie adages.
Also consider a beta reader’s professional credentials: Does this reader have a background in writing or editing? Is this reader a former English teacher or college professor? Score!
It can be tricky finding beta readers for anything beyond the first book in a series, although you can also use this as an opportunity to find out how accessible your subsequent volumes are to new readers. Can the new reader make sense of what’s happening in book 2 without having read the first book?
And keep in mind that there may well be some beta readers who are perfectly suited to read and offer feedback on just about everything you write, but that doesn’t mean they are going to want to or will be available to read everything you write. Don’t wear out your welcome with your beta readers. Try to establish a pool of go-to readers, but don’t expect that every single one of them will participate every time.
- be realistic about your own expectations
Some authors like to rely on beta readers as “unpaid editors.” I feel this is a mistake. Firstly, these readers are doing me a huge favor, and they’re doing it for free. While I ask for help catching typos and such, I’m not counting on beta readers to identify every run-on sentence or grammatical error. Sending a draft out to beta readers doesn’t take the place of development editing, line editing, proofreading, and more. I’ve been on the receiving end of not-yet-ready manuscripts, and it’s really not fun to beta read what looks and feels like a first draft.
Also, I want to be sure to give my beta readers enough time with the manuscript. I’ll take a look at the length and complexity of my draft and consider how long I’d want as a beta reader with similar material. But I also don’t want to give such a large window?or give a deadline of “just whenever you have time”?that the beta readers forget about the MS entirely.
What you don’t want to do is to be madly scrambling for beta readers?any readers?two weeks before your publication deadline and expect these readers to give solid feedback on a book-length manuscript in just a couple of days. (I’ve seen this happen.)
- delivering the manuscript
This may be overkill on my part, but when I deliver a manuscript to my beta readers I like to give a clear set of instructions. I tell my beta readers specifically what I need (sometimes even a list of questions to consider as they’re reading), a reminder of the deadline of when I need feedback in order to make my publication deadline, and a note about the best way to give me feedback?in a separate Word file, etc.
I also want to make it as easy as possible for my beta readers. This includes finding out what file type is best for each one of them. I’ve seen some authors bitch and moan about this?“Can’t I just give everyone a Word file and be done with it?” Well, sure, but that’s not how I do it. If a beta reader wants a Word file, that’s what I’ll send. If s/he prefers PDF, Kindle or epub, then I’ll happily comply. Back before e-readers went mainstream, it used to be that I’d have to print out, bind and ship hard copies of drafts to beta readers in every corner of the United States, and include prepaid envelopes for the beta readers to mail the marked-up copies back to me. So, no, I really don’t mind having to format a draft for two different e-reader platforms.
Also, I try to stick as much as possible to my own previously stated deadline for delivery. If I tell my beta readers to expect the manuscript on May 1st, then that’s when I deliver it. If there’s any delay on that, I tell them about it as soon as possible. These people are carving out time in their own schedules to help me. I don’t want to jack with them.
- after it’s done
This may sound like a no-brainer, but I’ll go ahead and say it anyway: Remember to say thank you! Beta readers may have the privilege of getting an early peek at a new book, but they’re also helping me to make that book better. I also list my beta readers in the acknowledgments of the published book?not only to express genuine gratitude, but also as a simple courtesy.
I had the experience about twenty years ago of being a beta reader for a mainstream author. I helped him identify plot holes, worked with him to brainstorm character motivations that were missing, helped with character names (he’d unwittingly given his MC the same name as prominent real-life public figure), suggested what ended up being the new title for the book, and a lot more. Not only was I not paid for any of this, but I wasn’t even mentioned in the acknowledgements. I don’t want anyone who beta-reads for me to feel unappreciated.
If possible, give each beta reader a complimentary copy of the published book. This is especially easy for ebooks. Also, encourage your beta readers to leave feedback and reviews on online sites like Amazon and Goodreads. (This is self-serving, I know, but if your beta readers honestly enjoyed your book they’ll probably want to help it succeed.)
And, offer to return the favor. If someone asks you to beta read for them, you shouldn’t feel shy about asking them to do the same for you. Right now, I’m doing a beta read for author Shelly Li, and she has repeatedly stressed that she’s willing to read anything that her beta readers might want feedback on. That’s class.
Mostly, though, I try to engage with my beta readers the same way I’d want another author to engage with me when I’m doing the same favor. Beta readers are important! I strive to treat them that way.
Creative Commons photo by found_drama.