Friday, March 23, 2018

12 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Beta Reader Feedback

Authors are weird. We tell stories because we want other people to read them. But we also really, really hate letting people read our stuff. It's scary. What if you publish a story and then have reviewers point out a massive plot hole? What if they notice a crooked character arc you didn't catch in your editing?

That'd be unfortunate, wouldn't it? You'd have to change your name and leave the country. If only there was a way to avoid such a catastrophe. If only there was a way you could test run your story without actually publishing it.

Well, good news! There is a way to test audience reaction before actually committing to publication. They're called beta readers. And they'll save you from having to re-name yourself John Michael Kane  and relocate to France.
12 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Beta Reader Feedback

What are beta readers? 

You know how pieces of tech often release beta versions? They're always a bit buggy, but people volunteer to use said tech and give their feedback, thus allowing a fully-functional version to be released later down the road. Well, beta reading is basically that for books. You write a story, edit it as much as you can, then send it off to readers who have agreed to give you general feedback: What they liked, what they didn't like, what confused them, what they think you should burn. It's like getting a review on a book, but privately and by somebody you know so that you (hopefully) don't feel like strangling them when they give you two stars. 

Who makes a good beta reader? 

Somebody who likes the genre that you write and who has read widely within it. 

Somebody you trust to give you honest (even brutal) feedback. 

Somebody who understands the concept of "writing voice" and isn't going to try to trample on yours. 

With that explained, let's talk about the ways that you can get the most out of your beta reader feedback: 

1. Have more than one beta reader. Seriously. Because what if you have only one beta reader and that person is way off or misses something huge? Yes, this happens. Beta readers aren't perfect. That's why you need more than one. You'll want a minimum of three beta readers (and that number only works if you really trust those three people and know they'll give you good feedback in a timely manner). Five or seven has always seemed like good numbers to me because it's enough feedback to get a variety, but not so much that it's overwhelming. But I know writers who have had as many as fifteen. The number of beta readers depends on the story type, length, and project timeline. 

2. Make sure your beta readers are different from each other. You want beta readers who think differently. Beta readers who will come to your story with a unique outlook. Yes, you want them to have some similarities (see the "Who makes a good beta reader?" section above), but not many. This will help ensure that no huge problems slip by. What one beta reader doesn't notice may be a glaring issue for another. 

3. Send them the jacket blurb, genre, and length but don't explain the story to them. Try not to influence your beta reader's view of the story. Send them the jacket blurb, the genre, the word count, the story, and the questions you have for them (more on that later). That's it. Don't point out the story's themes, spoil plot twists, etc. You want honest feedback, so don't go all Grima Wormtongue on them.

4. Consider having a few rounds of beta readers. Get major feedback from one round of betas, edit, then send it out to a new round of betas. This new round can be the same as the first, but it's best to have new people or a mix of new and old. Depending on the feedback from round two, you may need a third round. 

5. Give them specific areas to critique. You wrote the story, so you are probably already aware of its weak spots. Ask your beta readers to focus on specific scenes or characters that you struggled with. Get feedback on how your readers perceived these issues: Did they notice the problem? What did they think the issue was? 

6. Give them broad areas to critique. While it is a good idea to give your betas specific parameters, it's also good to get their general thoughts on the project. What did they like? What didn't they like? What parts bored them? Did they like the characters? How did they feel about the ending? Did they have any random thoughts they wanted to tell you as they read? Gather as much general info as you can. 

7. Ask open-ended questions. Rather than asking, "Hey, did you pick up on ____ theme in ____ scene?" ask "What was your understanding of _____ scene?" This goes back to not wanting to influence your beta's feedback. While there are times for specific questioning, they shouldn't be your go-to and are usually better left for 1) Round two betas and 2) When you get feedback from your betas and then want to ask follow-up questions. 

8. Make sure they know they can be brutal. This is important. Stress that you would appreciate their honest feedback. You want them to give you their unedited thoughts, not the sugar-coated version. Be sure they know this.
After you do this, do NOT whine, argue, or be upset with them when they give you feedback. That's a good way to break trust and make people feel horrible about themselves. 

9. Decide which parts of your story you are not willing to change, regardless of the feedback. Look. While you are getting feedback with the intent of using it to make your story better, you need to understand: This is your story and, ultimately, you know what's best. So decide what parts you refuse to change and stick by this decision. But also make sure that you are darn sure that those parts of your story are, in fact, necessary. 

10. Don't change everything your beta reader doesn't like. You need to be able to discern what is your beta's specific taste in reading and which are legitimate critiques. Yes, these will often be the same thing, but sometimes they won't be. So don't go around changing every little thing your betas don't like. This will rip holes in your plot, destroy your writing voice, and leave your story worse off than it was before you sent it out. 

11. See where your beta reader feedback intersects. Are all of your betas saying that one specific scene is confusing? Then it is. Fix it. Are all of your betas saying that your characters are flat? Then they are. Re-write. While there are times that your betas are wrong, it is pretty much impossible for all of your betas to be wrong when they're all saying the exact same thing. So suck it up and go about fixing the parts that all (or even most) of your betas have taken issue with. 

12. Test out feedback. Not sure if a specific piece of feedback has merit? Think it over for a few days. Ask yourself how you would apply that feedback and how it would affect the story. If it would make it better, go for it. Not sure? Then ask: Would it make it worse? If it won't, then it's probably worth at least trying to apply the feedback. Better safe than sorry. 

Have tips and tricks of your own? I know there are tons out there, so I'd love to hear yours! Please leave a comment below.

Have writing, reading, or writer's life questions? Use the hashtag #ChatWithHannah below or on social media to have them answered on my Youtube channel!

Related articles:
Macro and Micro Editing: What They Are and How to Use Them to Fix Your Story
5 Steps to Fighting Off Writer's Insecurity

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  1. Useful advice. Have just given my first draft novel to a few beta readers and I'm relieved that I have followed most of what you say. As each has finished, I'm intrigued at the difference in comments and what each focusses on. The most striking has been between male and female beta readers. It has made me look at what I've written in a new light.

    1. Yay! I love seeing all of the different feedback I get, too. That's great that you're moving forward with your writing project. Cheering you on!

  2. This is a great guide- I wish I'd had it before my first round of beta reading ;)
    Have you ever used online writer's groups to find beta readers? If so, any tips or recommendations?
    Thanks, as always, for an entertaining and useful read!

    1. Great question, Anne! I actually am not part of any online writing groups. I connect with writers/readers/authors through blogging and social media (mostly twitter). We become friends through social media networking, then I reach out to those who I think would be interested in reading my work. =) I also get some great support from my fellow Phoenix Fiction Writers ( Anyway, if you're looking to connect with potential beta readers, definitely check out twitter. If you already have an account, please send me a tweet and I'll introduce you to some of my favorite twitter writers. =)

  3. Holy cow, this post is amazing! I'm currently prepping my novel for beta readers, so I've been trying to glean as much info as I possibly can on the whole beta reader thing... I've never actually done this before, so...yeah. XD But this post was SO helpful! Thank you so much for writing this and sharing. I feel a little bit better about sending my precious little book baby out into the world soon... (And also still terrified, but whatever. XD)


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