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Beta Readers–A Writer’s Secret Weapon

June 13, 2011

Maybe it’s just me, but I get to a point with my stories where I struggle with finishing. You know the time – right when the coffee runs out, the spell of doubt and self-loathing sets in and you are certain this work is the most dreadful piece of garbage ever written. If you’re like me, you tend to be very protective of your little pile of literary refuse, refusing to let anyone see it until it is “ready”. What I’ve learned over the years is that sometimes it is best to let the story go for a brief foray out of the nest, to see if it is ready to fly.  Sometimes you can’t “finish” a story because it is, in fact, already done; other times you can’t finish it because it needs some changes all the way back at the beginning. While the piece may truly be the worst piece of drivel ever written, it usually is not and it just takes someone else’s eyes to see it. Beta readers can help with getting the piece from the “drifting in the wind” stage to the “soaring with the eagles” stage.

Beta reading is a partnership—a collaboration between an author and a small set of trusted readers who are, quite often, also authors.  It allows you to get feedback from readers who are asked to go through your possibly raw, lightly-edited work. When working with a beta reader, there are some key tips I’ve found to make the partnership more successful:

  1. Know what you want and when you want it.  It’s important to know what you expect from your beta readers and even more important to communicate it to them. Your beta readers also need to know the turn-around time you expect. Life is busy and things get pushed aside all the time, so it is important that everyone knows up-front what the expectations are. In general, the beta reader’s job is to provide feedback about what works, what doesn’t work and what could be done differently. Sometimes it is an idea exchange – I’ve taken the story as far as I can on my own, now I need someone else to tell me what I can do to make it better. Giving the beta reader an idea as to what you are looking for, be it a thorough, line-by-line editing, general thoughts on the plot and characters or ideas for how to rework a particular scene, helps to ensure a successful collaboration – which ultimately will help to ensure a successful story.
  2. Feedback will, sometimes, be conflicting.  When utilizing more than one beta reader (I recommend no more  than five), you will often (read: usually) get conflicting feedback.  One reader may absolutely love a line while another hates it.  One reader may think you need your character to drink coffee while another thinks they should only drink tea.  While this may be frustrating and hard to navigate, you need to understand that when your story goes out to broader audiences it will face this same situation.  The “you can’t please everyone” concept is important to remember, but you cannot hide behind it. If your beta readers are conflicted on a section of your story, you should review it and see if there is a reason for this.  Perhaps the section is confusing or unbelievable.  Perhaps it is extraneous and needs to be cut.  It may very well be a case where a concept is familiar to you but not to readers from another area of the world.  Getting this feedback early, before the story goes out to the whole world, can help avoid confusion.  Finally, if you don’t understand a comment from a reader, ask for clarification!
  3. Remember that you are the author. You should never expect a beta reader to re-write your story for you; feedback, suggestions, ideas and even line-editing are all fair game, but ultimately the beta reader can only be expected to provide assistance and guidance, not to actually fix it. That’s your job.  Feedback from beta readers is nothing more than a set of data points which you can use to determine where to focus your revision and editing efforts.
  4. It’s not about you. When I get negative feedback, I feel like someone kicked me in the gut. “He didn’t like that so clearly he hates me.”  Ultimately, it is important to have a thick skin when reviewing feedback from beta readers. Whether they love or hate your story, it is not a reflection on you—it is a reflection of that specific reader’s interpretation of the story.
  5. Thank your readers promptly. Whether you like the feedback or not, whether you’ll use it or not, thank your beta readers for taking time out of their lives to help. They don’t have to do this!  Even if you don’t have time to review the feedback immediately, at least acknowledge that you received it.  It will go a long way toward the reader being willing to help you out the next time.

Beta readers have responsibilities in this partnership, too:

  1. Acknowledge the story. Even if you’re not going to read it immediately, inform the author that you have received it. That way, if there is a delay in getting back to them, they don’t have to worry that the story got lost or went to the wrong person.
  2. Understand the author’s expectations. Before offering to do a beta read, you need to be sure you can commit the time to do it within the author’s stated deadline. You have to be sure of what the author expects and that you are willing to do it. If you don’t understand what the author wants, ask! If the author did not tell you what they want, ask! If you don’t ask, you may end up wasting a lot of time.  In terms of investment, I can’t say how long it will take you, but for me, I’ve had some 1500 word pieces take 15 minutes to review and comment on and I’ve had other 1500 word pieces take several hours; it depends on just how much work there was to do. I usually read a story four or five times before sending it back to the author — I put notes in as I read it the first time, then update or remove them as my familiarity with the story improves.
  3. Look past the author’s opinion. Often, the author will explain in the cover letter that the story you are about to read is not up to his normal quality (read: it stinks) or is the best combination of words ever to grace the page.  You need to be able to see past the author’s opinion so you can go into the reading with an open mind.  Otherwise, you’ll end up only seeing the flaws or highlights the author pointed out.
  4. Be prepared to give difficult feedback. Beta reading is not easy, but sometimes it is harder than others.  As the beta reader, you have to be prepared to give feedback in a constructive and supportive way, even if your feedback is negative.  You need to be prepared for the possibility that you will thoroughly dislike the piece.  I tend to try to be thorough with my comments, explaining what I like or dislike and why, along with providing possible expansions or changes that I feel might make the story better. I’ve had to tell authors they needed to start over or that they had critical structural or technical flaws in the plot which needed to be addressed. Sometimes I’ve had very little to do – the story is complete and well done. Believe it or not, this feedback is actually harder for me because I worry I’m providing little-to-no benefit to the author by saying “Good job!” Of course, if it is good and complete, then that’s all there is to say. Whatever the feedback is, the key thing is to explain it.  If you don’t understand a sentence or phrase, say so. It may simply be that you don’t have the referential experience needed to understand it. It may be that the wording needs improvement to be understood more easily. It is better if you don’t merely say “I don’t like this bit” – take the time to explain why and, if possible, suggest an alternative.
  5. Remember that you are not the author. Sometimes I want to just fix it – rework a section to make it better. But I can’t.  It’s not my job as the beta reader.  This doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes write an example paragraph or two to try to make my opinion clearer but ultimately all of my feedback is merely a set of suggestions the author has the right to ignore or use at their discretion.

Having done so many beta readings now, I can honestly say that it has made me a better writer. I have been able to learn more about what I like and what I don’t like about stories and have been able to apply this to my own writing.  This makes beta reading a win-win situation. If you haven’t worked with or as a beta reader, I highly recommend it.

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6 Comments
  1. Matt permalink
    June 13, 2011 5:19 am

    This is a great topic to see posted on Write Anything. When just reading — not beta reading — other peoples’ works, I’ve been known to catch a hanging plot thread or a discrepency written somewhere earlier in the work. I think as authors we become too familar — too comfortable — with our works, and therefore our minds tend to read what we intended to write instead of focusing on what we really wrote. Beta readers, therefore, are valuable in my opinion.

  2. June 13, 2011 2:07 pm

    Fantastic post! I have problems finishing, too, but I belong to a writing group with people I trust. That trust wasn’t easy to build. I am, after all, a writer, so I give birth to each word – sometimes painfully, other times joyfully. Number 4 is of utmost importance – that it’s not personal. No matter how strong a front I present, inside I am whining like a kid who dropped her ice cream. We have a rule in our group. The writer has to remain silent during critiques. This prevents us from defending our choices and forces us to listen. Listen and silent DO have the same letter.

    Thanks again for a great post.

  3. Zoraida Cabrera permalink
    June 13, 2011 3:39 pm

    Great post!
    I often have a hard time finding beta readers. Little people realize how big a commitment it can actually be. Even if you are not the author, you are helping the author, and the author is awaiting your comments, because, positive or negative, those comments are important for the final story.
    I also agree with the fact that good stories are always the hardest. Whenever I beta read a good story I am always worried I’ve not given enough feedback. But like the post says, if something is good, then it’s good.

  4. June 13, 2011 4:22 pm

    @Matt: I think it’s important to get beta readers involved “at the right time”. When this is, of course, is virtually impossible to know. Get them in too early and they’re seeing something incomplete. Get them in too late and there’s not a lot of time to correct things or change things. For me, the right time seems to be just about when I can’t stand to look at it anymore. Then, when I get it back with comments, I have new things to look at and a new perspective on it.

    @Heather: I’m glad you liked this post! Giving and getting feedback in any context is tough. Be it performance reviews, comments on a story or results from a theatrical audition (or something else), it always feels personal, always feels like you are attacking or are being attacked. Learning how best to say it is one part of the equation; learning how best to listen is the harder part of the equation. But it’s an important one that we all need to take into all aspects of our lives. The last bit you mentioned: the author must listen in silence… that was a rule in a playwriting workshop I participated in years ago. And it was critical. Those who didn’t follow that rule were miserable because they were angry and hurt and then because the rest of us stopped helping them. Getting yelled at or argued with is not a good way to be asked to provide feedback!

    @Zoraida: Beta reading can be very time consuming, that’s for sure. A lot depends on the length of the piece of course, but also on how much there is to do still. But you’re right: communication is the key. If you’re delayed, tell the author; if you’re the author and have heard nothing after several days have passed, ask the reader. As for finding readers… I’ve been blessed to be involved with several fantastic people with whom I’ve been able to work for the past few years. Some of us have never met except on facebook, twitter or here on Write Anything. Some of us have been best friends for 20+ years. But it comes down to trust. I trust that if the story stinks, they’re going to tell me and they’re going to help me make it better. And, if it doesn’t stink, they’re going to tell me that too and, again, help me make it better.

    I’m curious — why do you have a hard time finding beta readers? Is it simply the time commitment? Do you think your requests may be too vague about what you’re looking for? Or have you simply not found the right handful of people yet?

  5. Zoraida permalink
    June 13, 2011 9:37 pm

    Mostly I feel I just haven’t found the right handful of people. I have got two readers who usually read my work. I trust both of them, but only one of them gives me enough feedback and that person sometimes finds it difficult to make time for beta reading, though when she does she does a good job. The other person is a really good friend with whom I share a lot of intrests when it comes to books, even though she is not a writer. She reads almost everything I write and she tells me if she likes it or not and sometimes points out bad grammar, which is feedback I appreciate. However, she is not very good at giving much more than just general feedback. So I feel like I need to meet more people who can beta read my work.

  6. June 14, 2011 7:39 am

    One of my frequent beta readers is not a writer but she reads a lot. I use her feedback to give me an indication of how the story plays without considering the technical aspects that a writer might focus on. Her comments are often just “I like this” or “I don’t understand that” but sometimes that’s the piece I need. Often, I’ll go to a non-writer first, just to get an idea of whether or not the story has legs. Then I’ll pass it to the more writerly collaborators. Good luck – I do hope you find a good, reliable set of beta readers.

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