Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
This article began as advice for writers getting ready to self-publish, advice to remind them that someone else should read their stories before they’re released to the public. Yet the information about beta readers is useful for both those self-publishing and those seeking the traditional path to publication.
Someone’s got to read your manuscripts—and give you feedback—before you publish or submit your stories. And that someone—preferably several someones—needs to be honest and bold and at least familiar with fiction and, one would hope, with the genre of your story.
You’re fooling yourself if you think your story is perfect and doesn’t need vetting. You’re fooling yourself if you think a read by your spouse or mother, by those who love you unconditionally and would never say anything negative about your work, is sufficient. You’re fooling yourself if you think that talking over your plot with a best friend, especially one who expresses fascination with the story events, will satisfy the need for someone to make a thorough and honest evaluation of your novel manuscript.
A friend can share an opinion about your story idea, but that’s nowhere near the vetting needed for a manuscript you’re getting ready to publish. An idea is not the story itself, so an opinion about the idea is nothing like a critique of the story that shows up on the page. Solicit real critique and a forthright assessment of the actual manuscript. And get evaluations from a variety of sources, from individuals with different skills and outlooks. You’ll want evaluations of depth and breadth.
Yet you won’t want to solicit feedback too soon. Asking for opinions and advice before the story is firm in your head is a mistake. Work with a critique partner if you need help with writing issues or to help you through problem areas—that’s not what I’m talking about here. But don’t solicit feedback from beta readers while you’re still creating, while the story is in its formative stage. You need to write the story as you see it. Worry about fixes after you get your vision down in some kind of cohesive, coherent form.
Let’s talk a bit about readers who can help you get your story into shape.
You’re the alpha reader, the one who gives a novel its first and second and third reads. But you can notice only so much in your own work. There are errors and weaknesses you’ll never see until another reader points them out.
You need someone else to read and note problem areas. Your beta readers are test readers, those you trust to read your manuscripts and give you honest feedback. You’re not looking for atta-boys and praise here, though if a reader can point out something that works well (and maybe the reason that it does) that’s a plus. You do want to find plot and character weaknesses. You want to know where wording runs in circles with no point. You need to know if your story has confusing subplots or subplots that end abruptly or that have no resolution at all. You should want to know where the boring parts are so you can eliminate them.
You should want to know when characters fall short, where readers stop reading or skip over paragraphs or large sections of text, and where the story’s confusing.
You want a beta reader to find the holes and problems in your stories before a critic or fan does.
You want your betas to point out anything that strikes them as odd, that doesn’t work, and that has them scratching their heads, wondering what you had to drink the day you wrote a particular passage.
Whether your beta readers are a critique group or critique partners or other readers who can speak knowledgeably about novels and fiction, someone has to read your story. And they have to tell you where the weak spots are. They don’t have to know how to fix them; if they do that’s great and you should be paying those readers for their expertise. But knowledge of the bad places and problem issues is sufficient for you to make changes. To at least examine the story.
And you’ll want to listen when this reader or readers points out the weak places.
You actually want them to find the weak places.
Don’t ignore what a trusted reader tells you. If you’re going to ignore everything a beta reader says, then you need a new beta reader.
This doesn’t mean you have to change everything a reader mentions or do everything he or she suggests (if suggestions are even made). It means the section of the story or the story element mentioned is worth looking at again.
Your beta readers need to be able to tell you anything without fear of hurting your feelings. A beta is no good to you if she can’t or won’t tell you the truth, even if the truth is that your lead character is wholly unlikable. Or that your mystery can be solved by chapter 3. Your ending is implausible. Your plot is identical to a current best-seller. Your story is beyond boring and your beta reader couldn’t get past page 70.
If you say you can take it, that you’re thick-skinned, yet you make excuses for what you’ve put on the page, or if you whine that a problem is only a teeny-tiny problem, that you can’t believe your reader is even pointing out the issue, or if you rip your beta reader for telling the truth, then you’re not ready for an audience. And you’re not making the best use of your betas.
A beta reader is doing you a service; give her reasons to want to do it again. Or at least give her reasons to find the experience enjoyable.
Yes, you want to know about problems before you publish. Yes, you want to know about even the smallest of problems, the kind you didn’t notice or overlooked as inconsequential. No, you don’t have to agree that a stated problem is a true problem. But if several beta readers point out a problem, you can be sure other readers will see that exact weakness as well. And if a trusted beta tells you something is off, investigate the issue. And maybe see if she can tell you more, help pinpoint what feels off.
If you’re self-publishing, you owe your readers the courtesy of a good read. You owe them the courtesy of a cogent read. You owe them standard grammar and punctuation.
Beta readers will help ensure that’s what you publish.
If you’re charging readers for the privilege of reading your work, you need to make it work that you’re proud of, a story they wouldn’t mind admitting they read. A story worth the money they invest in it.
You wouldn’t serve crap in a restaurant; don’t serve it to your readers. Use beta readers to help you recognize garbage and stinky writing.
Please understand that I’m not telling you that others know better than you do about your stories and characters. I’m not saying you’re always wrong and your beta readers are right. I am saying you’re human and therefore imperfect and that your manuscripts will also be imperfect. Yet while writing is a solitary endeavor, that doesn’t mean you can’t use or solicit help. Seeking advice is not cheating.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with advice and counsel.
What to do with Beta Readers
Beta readers should not be reading an incomplete first draft. Beta readers, like beta testers of software, should get a strong working model of the project. You don’t want beta readers to help form your book, not in the early stages. You make the decisions of who and what and when and where. Let beta readers find the problem areas—don’t enlist them to help you write.
You can, of course, have a critique partner or mentor help you with problems in an early draft or with passages as you’re writing, but don’t approach your beta readers until the manuscript is in a (not necessarily the) final form. They shouldn’t be reading notes and unfinished scenes. They should be reading a manuscript that approaches the quality of a book. And that may mean draft number four or five.
You can request that your readers offer feedback on any issue, no matter how large or small. Tell them they can make notes and/or write in the margins of the hard copy or use Track Changes in a Word doc if that works for you and for them.
Or you can prime them with questions before they read, have them alert for particular issues. Use this option if you want to guide their responses
Or you may ask them to read first and then answer questions when they’re through. Use this option if you don’t want to influence their read or responses.
No matter your approach, always give beta readers a chance to comment on any issue, not only those you’re particularly interested in. If they note a problem, you need to know about it.
Recognize that you may have to have beta readers for multiple versions of a story. If that means you need a handful of readers—because you don’t want to overburden one or two betas with too many requests—get a group of readers ready. Be prepared for what you’ll need.
If you intend for your betas to read multiple versions of the same story, keep in mind that they may not be able to separate one version from another, especially if you ask them to read those versions virtually back to back.
They may mix up events that you dropped from an earlier version with those you’ve added to the new version. Keeping versions separate is a skill, not one everyone has or will think to call on as they’re reading your work.
Don’t take advantage, in the negative sense, of those willing to read and offer you feedback. Ask them for help only when you’re truly ready for them.
▪ Provide a format they can work with, whether that means hard copy, file (doc, pdf, or ePub), or even a flash drive
▪ Reciprocate and do something equally valuable for your beta readers
▪ Give them sufficient time to read and to work through your questions
▪ Give serious consideration to every comment, suggestion, and question
▪ If you don’t understand the feedback, push for explanations
▪ Never complain about your beta readers publicly or privately
▪ Make beta reading a positive experience for your readers and don’t berate them for sharing honest and what might be difficult-to-share comments
▪ Set your ego aside
▪ Thank your readers profusely
Questions for Beta Readers
Remember to include both big-picture and detail-level questions. Go for questions that don’t allow for yes or no answers unless that’s specifically what you’re looking for. Always push for follow-up.
Be considerate of your beta readers—don’t necessarily hand them a long list such as this one. Pick the topics you want answers about.
And unless your beta readers are fellow writers, don’t use writing terms or jargon. Put your questions into words they’ll understand.
You’ll likely want to adjust your questions and concerns for each manuscript and each version of a manuscript, but here are a few questions to give you ideas about what you could ask.
▪ Where does the story get boring? Where else?
▪ Where were you confused by what was happening?
▪ Where and how were you confused by the characters, about why they do what they do?
▪ Which characters couldn’t you keep straight? Which characters were too much alike?
▪ When in the story did you realize you were reading a romance (thriller, mystery, western, and so on)?
▪ Where did you have to reread?
▪ Where was the story too slow?
▪ What did you really like? Why? Did those sections touch your emotions? Which? Was it the style of writing—the words or the flow—you liked or the story actions and events or the characters?
▪ Rank your top three story events/moments.
▪ Rank your top three characters.
▪ What didn’t you like? What character or event or moment?
▪ What character(s) didn’t you like? What about him didn’t you like? Did you dislike him so much that you didn’t want to read about him, or did that dislike make you want to see him get what he deserved at the end?
▪ Is the bad guy bad enough? Sneaky enough? Evil enough?
▪ Does the main character (refer to her by name) seem believable? Did you care about her enough to worry whether she’d get _______? (Fill in the blank with whatever it is she’s after—the guy, the treasure, the respect of her father, the bad guy.)
▪ Does the bad guy (refer to her by name) seem believable? Was she a sufficient threat to the main character?
▪ Could the story’s problem have been solved in two pages with a good discussion? That is, was the main problem too basic? Did you find the characters too easily fooled or confused?
▪ Which scene(s) did you hate? Which did you love?
▪ Which section(s) of dialogue had your attention? Which had you yawning?
▪ Which sections were plodding—too boring, too detailed, or just too long?
▪ Could you picture where the story took place? Where each event took place? Describe the story’s location as you understood it.
▪ What do you want more of? Less of? A taste of because it’s completely missing?
▪ What did you find disappointing?
▪ Does enough happen in terms of story events?
▪ Does the end satisfy? Would you read more about these characters?
▪ Where did you cry? Laugh? Shiver?
▪ What did you think of the scene where ______ (point out a specific event) happened?
▪ Did you care what happened to _____? (Name the characters.) Why or why not?
▪ Which characters talked too much?
▪ Which characters thought too much?
▪ Where was the pace too slow or too fast? Where?
▪ When did you first notice the _____ ? (Supply a symbol or theme or object.) How did it make you feel?
▪ When did you know who the murderer (or the culprit) was? Who else had you convinced he or she had done it?
▪ Would you have been satisfied with a shorter story or did you want more?
▪ What were you left wondering about? What questions went unanswered?
Add questions peculiar to your characters, plot, or genre. You want to be specific but at the same time you may not want specifics to limit your readers’ responses. Leave space in your questionnaire for comments concerning any topic. Invite beta readers to tell you anything, positive or negative, about the story.
Be clear about what level of response you’re looking for. If you’re not looking for a line edit, make sure your beta readers understand that they’re not editing for spelling, punctuation, and grammar. At the same time, don’t discourage them from pointing out a persistent problem. (And make all versions of the story that betas read as clean as possible so that they’re not distracted by spelling, grammar and punctuation issues.)
Be prepared to discover that your story has problems and issues that need to be addressed before you move toward publishing or submitting. The revelation that a story isn’t perfect even after three or four drafts can be eye opening for the beginning novelist. Don’t be surprised for beta readers to find a lot of issues that need attention. Once you work through the full writing, rewriting, and editing process a couple of times, with a couple of manuscripts, you’ll recognize that finding weaknesses and making changes is simply another stage of the creation process.
Use the responses from beta readers as one more tool to help you strengthen your stories. You don’t have to change everything they mention, but if several readers bring up the same issue, you need to examine it, see where you could make changes to improve the story or eliminate the problem.
Look behind the answers to get at problems. Try to determine whether one problem is related to another. And then see if you can’t solve multiple problems with a single solution. Any time you link story issues or elements, you tighten the threads that hold your story together, and that’s always a plus. Tightly woven stories have internal cohesion that makes every element of every scene seem as if it belongs to the whole. And that makes for satisfying fiction.
Find beta readers you can trust, provide a venue that allows them to speak freely, and then take advantage of what they tell you.
Use beta readers to help you produce a story worth reading.