In June, I finished the rough draft of my first novel, thereby completing something that many have only dreamt of doing. Let me start by saying that those voices declaring that typing the last word on your rough draft constitutes only a fraction of the work ahead aren’t exaggerating. As a first-time novelist, I was left searching for answers to the question, “What do I do next?” I read blogs, articles and got advice from all manner of other places, and the consensus seemed to be: get some beta readers (also called advanced readers or test readers), and have them give you feedback.
Having now traveled that road, allow me to share some of the lessons I’ve learned so that if you choose as I did, to have beta readers, you’ll be better equipped to get the most out of the process.
There are plenty of sites and services that are willing to help connect authors with beta readers. I went old school and asked family, acquaintances, and social media followers. Having not used any of the online services available, I’m ill-equipped to speak to their usefulness, but I would be reluctant to pay anyone to beta read for me – ever. If you want to pay someone, I would suggest skipping the beta readers and hiring a professional editor.
Be prepared for a large number of the people you get as beta readers to not actually read any of your work. I tapped 16 (non-family) beta readers that either asked me if they could beta read my draft, or that I approached. Of those 16 people, 4 finished the novel and provided me with actionable feedback. I get it, life gets in the way sometimes, and even people with the best intentions forget or get caught up in something else.
I found the types of people who were most likely to actually read my work and get back to me were other authors, people who have beta read before, and very avid readers. I would seek out these types of people in the future, and I would be less reluctant to tell other people, “no, I’m sorry,” if they ask to read my work.
Don’t be scared away from asking friends and family to read for you. I would suggest just being aware that their feedback is going to be “filtered” through a lens of knowing you personally, and not wanting to hurt your feelings. However, if you direct their feedback and guide them to what you need to know, they can actually be better for deeper discussions about your work than mere acquaintances or strangers.
This is where I made my major rookie mistake. You have to, and I stress have to, provide your beta readers with direction, guidelines, and boundaries. What your feedback looks like is largely up to you, the author.
First, give your betas a time-frame and stick to it. My beta reading wore on for months as a result of not doing this from the beginning.
Second, provide them with a few questions that you want them to answer after each chapter, such as, “How was the pacing: too slow, choppy, rushed, etc? Were there any plot holes? Did you find the characters relatable?” Otherwise, your feedback will be random and much of it will be less useful.
Lastly, recognize that there are two types of feedback: what I call “actionable” and “non-actionable” respectively. Examples of actionable feedback are notes on items such as plot holes, poor pacing, character development, etc, that if not remedied become a distraction from the story. Actionable feedback items are ones that, as the author, you should strongly consider making changes to.
Non-actionable feedback is typically a beta reader’s opinion, such as, “I wish character ‘X’ and character ‘Y’ had ended up together.” Not remedying such items will not result in a distraction from the story, and can typically be ignored if the author chooses.
There are certain cases where non-actionable feedback becomes actionable when a number of your betas all make note of it. For example, 3 of my 4 betas mentioned that a section of dialogue seemed too mature for the ages of the children speaking. Such feedback could be a simple case of opinion, but where 3/4 of my feedback made mention of it, I realized it was falling into the category of becoming a “distraction from the story.” I revisited the section, chose to simplify the dialogue, and now I feel my manuscript is better for it.
There are a few things an author can do to get the most out of using beta readers. First, you should understand what you’re using them for. Betas don’t replace editors. They are there to ensure that your story is structurally sound and there isn’t anything major you need to re-write before moving forward in the editing process. They give you a feel for how your story will be “received,” and how to improve it in that regard.
Second, realize that betas have lives. Ask more people than you think you’ll need in case some don’t finish, and make things as easy for them as you can. This includes providing your manuscript in a form that they typically read: either digital or hard copy. Online print-on-demand publishers make it possible to order a handful of copies of your work in paperback form relatively inexpensively. Having an actual “book” to give to those that typically read that way helps some betas to immerse themselves in the experience of reading your novel.
Finally, as mentioned before, the author needs to set guidelines for betas to follow. You are less likely to get the feedback you need as an author if you don’t explain what that feedback is. This is your novel, and so it is also your beta process.
I would say, yes, beta readers are worth it. As the author, however, you have to realize that they are just another tool in your revision arsenal. Like any tool, they serve a specific purpose, and not every tool is the right one regardless of the situation.
Beta readers are great for when you’ve exhausted your own ability to look objectively at your novel. Once you have run a couple of edits of your own, and the work is as strong as you can make it, beta readers will help you to see it with new eyes.
While an editor can do this as well, in the age of self-publishing not everyone is ready to pay for that type of service without first testing to see if their work will survive in the “real world.” Think of beta readers as a product focus group, and you’ll be in the right frame of mind to deal with the feedback you receive.
After your beta readers are finished, you should know if your work is strong enough to take the next step, where small changes need to be made in order to make it strong enough, or if there’s a lot of re-writing in your future.
If you are like me as an author, and find value in someone else’s perspective on your work, beta readers are the best way to gather that feedback and guide you towards the changes you still need to make on your manuscript.