The Essential Guide To Beta-Readers

It is so important for self-published authors to use beta-readers to critique their work before publishing. If you were traditionally published then there would be story and copy editors running all over your work, so you have to somehow replicate this. Also, it’s so easy to get lost in the forest as an author that you can’t see the wood for the trees, an external opinion is just what you need.

So, you’re going to get some beta-readers then? Now you have to decide who you’re going to choose? What are they going to do? How long have they got? What are they going to produce? The clearer you can be with all of these questions the better the results will be and the more benefit this stage will be to you. Let’s take them one at a time…

Who?

First of all don’t pick your friends, or not the close friends anyway, and don’t pick family either. I reckon this can only go one of two ways, 1) they’ll feel too bad to tell you if it’s crap so you’ll get some sugar-coated feedback that won’t help you in the long run, 2) they’ll deliberately want to move away from ‘being nice’ so they’ll judge it incredibly harshly and look only at the negatives, therefore not giving a balanced feedback.

Also, I prefer not to use other writers as beta-readers. In my opinion each writer has their own style and preferences when it comes to telling a story. It would be very hard for me to read someone else’s story and give anything less than my own personal opinion which counts for nothing. Editing is a different skill set, where the person can objectively look at the structure, characterisation, pace without being absorbed by how they would do it.

I use people that I know, and are willing to do it for nothing, that have worked in editing type jobs in the past but I don’t see everyday. I’m sure I’m not unique when I say that I have friends all over the world and with Facebook etc it’s easy to have a network of friends at your disposal. In the old days you might have had ten friends now you’ve got hundreds. Most people want to read what you’ve written so be selective on who you choose.

What are they going to do?

You need to be very clear on exactly what it is that you want your beta-readers to comment on. They’re going to read your book and they’re going to have opinions about all aspects of it. Do you want them to just let you know what they are or do you want to focus them on a few key areas?

I ask my beta-readers to comment on 1) plot, 2) characters, 3) pace 4) anything that jars when reading. That’s it. That’s all I want to know. I want to make sure that they are concentrating on these four areas when they are reading it. If you notice, apart from #4, these are all big picture items. The problem that authors have when writing a book is that it’s unavoidable to not get bogged down in the detail, so I want the beta-readers to then give me the overview again to make sure it all hangs together.

How long?

You’re working to a schedule, they’re working for free, there’s going to be a conflict here. Ideally you want it back the next day and they’ve agreed to read through it and get back to you when they can. But you could be waiting for months if this is the case. Take control of the situation and put a deadline on it.

I give my beta-readers a month to complete it. I don’t write 700 page epics, they’re 350 page light reads and so it’s achievable to read in probably a week. I understand that they’re doing me a favour but they must understand that I’m not doing this for the fun of it. If they can’t commit to a month timeline then I’ll have to look for someone else that can. They could be the best editor I know but if I’m waiting for 6 months then it’s not going to work.

The output

You need to explain exactly what it is that you want your beta-readers to produce for you. A full thesis on your book, or a one-pager? If you can be clear then it means that you’ll receive all of your comments back in roughly the same format and this means that the next stage of analysing the feedback will be much easier.

I ask for one or two pages, nothing more. All I want is an overview, a general opinion and a bit more about each specific aspect that I’m interested in. A good format that I had back from one beta-reader had the following sub-titles:

  1. General opinion
  2. Structure
  3. Characters
  4. Style/pace
  5. Obvious errors (marked on ms as well)
  6. Bits that worked well
  7. Bits that didn’t

This was great balanced feedback. It didn’t make me feel like self-harming and it gave me a clear guide to what I needed to do next.

So that’s my take on the beta-reader stage, I’d be interested to hear if this helped anyone or if anyone has any other uses for a beta-reader?

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9 responses to “The Essential Guide To Beta-Readers

  1. When I am ready to use beta readers, how many should I use? I like the way you have broken this down. Thank you for the post. ~April

    • Thanks. I use five. I’ve heard of some that use more though. I suggest you use as many quality ones as you can get hold of whilst still keeping it manageable.

      • I had five in mind, but wasn’t sure. Until I read your article, I was going to use friends and family, but I will now turn to my FaceBook “friends”. I’m glad you mentioned not to ask writer friends. I have a few I was going to ask. I believe I’m all set on who to ask when I’m ready.

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  4. Thank you Michael for this very useful post. I love the way you structured the process. It’s easy to follow and implement.

    I was going to ask friends/family to be my beta readers and clearly tell them that they should be honest, not nice, but I can see why this may not work now. I was also considering asking fellow writers of the same genre.

    My biggest problem now is: whom to choose?
    if you don’t know anyone who has done ‘editing’ type jobs before, who do you pick? Possibly readers of the same genre? Maybe book bloggers? The latter may be so busy and take too long to get back to you.
    What do you suggest?

    • Thanks for the compliment.

      With regards to advice, I guess I’m lucky to know people with editing experience but I don’t think you can go far wrong with some intelligent acquaintances that read regularly. The same genre as yours would be a bonus. If you pick friends that are too close then you end up putting them in an awkward situation and the feedback won’t be anywhere near as relevant. Find some people you know, who won’t mind doing it, and are professional enough to appreciate that you’re trying to get a job done here.

      Hope this helps. 🙂

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