Whether you are an author honing your craft or a reader looking for more great books, there’s a thing called beta reading that is your new friend. This post is all you need to know about beta reading, as an author or reader!
What is a beta reader? According to the wonderful web, a beta reader is basically an unpaid reader of an unreleased project who gives feedback. Their perspective is that of an average reader and that insight is vital for authors. Beta reading means you read an incomplete project and give honest feedback about it (usually on a deadline).
For the author: why do I need a beta? As authors, we must grow in our skills and criticism is a crucial tool for development. Of course, not every author starts out as a Shakespeare with perfect manuscripts and tons of cash to spend on hiring editors. If you want readers to help you strengthen your project before you publish, beta reading is the route you’ll wanna take.
For the reader: why should I beta read? Beta reading is a unique opportunity to read a story and give an author feedback that can help them! You aren’t reading a finished project–you’re watching a story unfold in messy, beautiful live action. Some of the best novels I’ve ever read were those I beta read. There’s a good chance you’ll find a new favorite when you beta, and helping an author is also highly rewarding.
Now that we have the basics aside, let’s get on with the post. I’ve split it into two sections. Dig deep!
BETA READING FOR AUTHORS 101
There are different ways to go about gathering beta readers. Before we begin, let’s recall that a beta is slightly different than an alpha reader. An alpha reader is a much smaller group (3-6 people) who are close to you (friends and family) who aren’t giving critique. They’re reading your story to encourage you. A beta reader is not signing up to be your cheerleader. Thus, it can be difficult to find anyone interested in reading your story, whether your online platform is strong or weak. Here are some quick tips on FINDING your betas.
- Friends. Let your friends know you’re looking for readers. You might struggle with this (if you don’t have a lot of writer/reader friends) but try anyway. Word of mouth has a lot to do with finding readers, so if your friends help out a little, that can go a long way.
- Social media presence. Don’t have a lot of close writer friends? While it doesn’t hurt to ask a fellow author in your project’s genre for a bit of help, look into joining groups of fellow writers where you can directly interact. Facebook groups, Gmail chats, Goodread pages, etc, can be great places to start interacting with readers.
- Make a Google Docs form and share it like crazy! A Google form is a simple way for betas to sign up.
In most cases, the amount of beta readers you need will vary. For my full length novels, I might have 25 betas sign up, but 20 finish. A general number for novels is 10-15 betas. For smaller projects, maybe less than 10. It is important to find what works best for you! Right now, you might get 10, and later, you might get so many betas signing up you have to say no to a few. Try not to let the numbers bog you down and keep things reasonable.
DO: BE COURTEOUS
Having people interested in your imperfect, messy book is a blessing. Be courteous from beginning to end. You won’t have every beta finish your book, not every beta will like your book, but be kind always. You won’t agree with everything your betas say, but be respectful.
Personally, I enjoy working with an author who’s super friendly and approachable, more than an author who must be strictly professional and quiet all the time. A part of being an author is building reader relationships. That starts with your betas! So, chat, respond, message them your thanks. It doesn’t take a lot of time to be nice.
DON’T: FORGET YOUR BASICS
Don’t send your manuscript to betas without any information on what you need from them. Give your betas suggestions and requests from the start to save headaches. If you need plot critique more than grammar edits, let that be known. Your betas can’t help much if you don’t set them up to do so.
A few things you should mention in the information email:
- Novel info. Title, blurb, and cover (if you have it) are things to include with the manuscript.
- Deadline. When do you need them to be finished? Make it clear and if you’re able, be flexible, because some betas might need more time.
- Feedback guidelines. If you don’t need them to point out every grammar issue they find, feel free to assure them that’s an optional thing!
- Send questions. Make a list of questions about the story you’d like them to honestly answer when they finish reading the manuscript.
- Remind them it isn’t a review copy. It’s wise to let betas know you don’t want them posting reviews anywhere, since they read a work in progress draft, and not the final product.
Remember, betas are human, and not every beta will remember every detail! It is recommended you give occasional nudges to remind them of the deadline, whether through simple group messages or an email a week or so before the deadline arrives.
DO: PROCESS FEEDBACK CAREFULLY
Remember how I said not every beta will like your book? Well, sometimes, a beta will flat out dislike your story and will send pages of what you must change to make it better. Sometimes, a beta will like your book and still have constructive criticism that helps your story grow. How can you tell what feedback is useful and what is the reader’s opinion? Here are some tips on dealing with beta reader feedback in general.
- Take note of everything. Whether you keep track of notes on a document or in a notebook, record every beta’s feedback and comments. This will make editing easier, and you’ll see if multiple betas saw the same issue, etc. Even if you don’t like the suggestion or might not use it, write it down, anyway.
- Let it sit. Whether you’re on a deadline or not, let the feedback sit for a while so you can process it. If it’s a piece of criticism, it can be hard to process it when you’re defensive, so give yourself time. This might be an hour for some and a month for another. It will pay off to be clear minded when you consider beta feedback.
- Ask yourself questions. Is the reader’s suggestion fitting to the story or no? Is their suggestion helpful or is it distracting? Is this feedback strictly reader’s opinion, or are they correct?
- Ask other betas. It is possible an issue was noticed by more than one beta (ie., if a scene moved too fast or if a character motivation lacked). Asking your team about the conflicting topic is useful!
- Ask who this reader is. If you have a beta reader who reads mostly fluffy romance, and your novel is a hardcore dystopian, it might get tricky. Their genre isn’t what you’re writing, so they might be expecting or wanting something different than you’re offering.
- Pray. Remember that this is your story and God gave it to you. He didn’t give this story to your readers when He let you write it, so don’t try to please everyone. You can’t. Ever. Pray every piece of feedback over and pray as you edit your manuscript.
You will run into betas who don’t understand the story you’re trying to tell. You will run into betas who will try to rewrite your story. But you’ll also find betas who love your work, who become loyal readers, and help brainstorm. Don’t let the voices cloud your vision, ever, and learn to differentiate between the bad voices and the helpful critique!
DON’T: FORGET TO RETURN THE FAVOR
If at all possible, return the favor sometime! Your beta team helped you strengthen your novel. If one of your team ever needs a beta, try to help out in return. If a beta has a street team, see if you can join and offer some encouragement.
The Indie author community can be quite supportive, so continue to branch out, help out, and find confidence in yourself and your writing.
BETA READING FOR BETA READERS
So, you’ve signed up to beta read, talked to the author, and are ready to dig into the manuscript! Assuming the author gave you a list of questions or general suggestions as to what they’re looking for, you should be all set to read your heart out. But, if you’ve never done this before, what do you do?
Here are some tips to help you do the best you can while enjoying yourself!
DO: BE CONSIDERATE
Just as the author should be thankful for you, do your best to be considerate of the author, as well. Even if they don’t say so, most authors are nervous when they send their book off to betas (even if they’ve done it before!). We’re all human.
- Don’t sign up to beta something you aren’t excited about. If you dislike dystopian but sign up to beta a dystopian reader, you might not enjoy yourself! Be careful what you beta so you can enjoy it and help the author (if you’re the target audience, your feedback is useful for that author).
- Be honest with yourself. If an author gives you a month to read the book and you decide you can’t finish/don’t want to finish midway, contact them and let them know. Don’t say you’ll have it done within a week when you won’t.
DON’T: BE CARELESS
Keep in mind that, regardless if you adored the beta project or disliked it, the author poured themselves into the book! You must be honest with your feedback without trying to take control. Here are some tips on giving feedback.
- Be constructive, not destructive. Saying “The characters lacked motivation,” you might point out specific times where the character’s motivations were weak. Your job isn’t to list every problem and not give helpful advice. Authors can’t read minds! If a certain scene was confusing, try to describe it or mention the page numbers, and explain why it confused you. Don’t just say, “When the two characters were talking, I don’t know what they figured out,” because an author probably can’t understand your comment, either.
- Keep feedback balanced! This might be hard. If you really adored a novel, you might just wanna scream and cry into the email instead of offering critique. If you disliked the novel, you might have little nice things to say at all. Try to list the good things and encouragement, as well as the critiques, because authors need both! We can’t strengthen our stories without criticism and without encouragement, a lot of criticism can be hard for an author to swallow.
- Find your feedback style. Many people use the sandwich method (which you can Google), but every beta has their own style. Personally, I set my beta response emails up in two sections: what I liked and what I critiqued. If the author sent you questions to answer, and you’ve answered them in your response email, feel free to tag other thoughts/suggestions on, too!
DO: ACKNOWLEDGE THE AUTHOR’S ROLE
It can be easy, sometimes, to want to change the story or nitpick things you dislike. Remember, though, this isn’t your story. Some things you feel or think about a story might be objective, and while that’s cool, it isn’t cool to dump it all on the author.
- Don’t try to overrule the author’s final say-so. This is a big tip! Many betas will give tons of reasons why the author should change something to fit their [the beta’s] tastes. While giving your personal thoughts and input is great, don’t forget to tell the author that they have the final say-so and to take your thoughts with a grain of salt. I can’t say how helpful and encouraging this simple reminder can be, as an author.
DON’T: FORGET TO HAVE FUN!
Beta reading may sound like a lot of work, but it is often worth it! You’re enjoying a story (for free!) and helping an Indie author in their journey. Despite the effort beta reading takes, here are some ways to enjoy yourself, too.
- Read! Just read the story and enjoy yourself. If that means gobbling the project in one sitting or taking your sweet time, try not to stress the deadline.
- Chat with the author. If you can drop comments on the document, authors love beta reader commentary!
- Chat with other betas. Nothing creates hype for a book release like a bunch of beta readers crying over the book!
- Chat with friends/family. I cannot tell you how fun it is to freak out with family members about beta projects. Even talking with friends can help you decide which suggestions you might give the author, too!
- Fanart. Have some extra time? Sketch up some fanart (maybe ask permission if it is OK to share it on social media before you do)!
- Music playlists. If you enjoy music, creating a playlist for the beta project is super cool. Be sure to send it to the author!
And there we have it. I hope this post helped you understand beta reading and inspired you. If you have ANY more questions, I’d be more than willing to answer them in the comments. While I’ve beta read for many and had many betas read for me, I want to give a huge thanks to everyone who chatted with me and gave me their tips, as well. This post wouldn’t be the same without their help!
Thanks, and God bless!