A beta reader is a test reader, someone to give you feedback on your work before you release it out into the big scary world. Betas act as a small representation of your intended audience. They read not with an editor’s eye, but with a reader’s heart. They let you know what moves them and what leaves them cold, what’s confusing and what really shines.
Here is a basic system for working with beta readers. Above all, be good to them.
Finding Betas: There are plenty of online groups that will connect you with readers (this article has a list). I guess this is not a bad way to go, as you’ll probably get a diverse group and since they don’t know you personally, they won’t pull any punches. I contact people I know, but of course, they have to be people who won’t pull any punches.
I look for 3 men and 3 women of varying ages and backgrounds. Some sites encourage you to find a very specific demographic, but I like to widen the net. I want as many different perspectives as possible. That said, they do have to “get” my basic brand of humor. Here’s an example of an email exchange with a beta reader:
I was wondering if you’d be willing to be a beta reader. It’s a 60K book about our Brazilian travels, non-fiction humor. I don’t have any strict deadline, but would hope for it back in about 6 weeks. I need feedback and with each book I try to pick a reader who isn’t familiar with my work (because many of my other beta readers are too used to my style and too forgiving). Do you think you’d be willing to take a look?
Sure, send it along. I assume it is a word doc or pdf. Are you looking for an overall reaction to the piece, or a more detailed reaction?
– — — Bob Mc
It’s attached here as a word doc. I welcome any and all feedback. Some people just send an overall reaction and others make specific notes going line-by-line. Go with whatever you’re comfortable with. Let me know what’s awesome, awful, confusing, could be worded better, or anything you don’t like or find off-putting. You cannot hurt my feelings, so please don’t hold back. You can send feedback in an email or use track changes in the word doc.
There’s no hard deadline but I’d hope for it back in the next 6 weeks.
You’ll notice I give my betas 6 weeks, I leave the level of feedback up to them, and I ask them not to hold back.
Accepting Feedback: The first thing you should do when you receive feedback is thank your beta reader. They volunteered their time for you, so be gracious. As you work through the feedback, keep in mind that you don’t have to take every suggestion. The same goes for working with editors. If you feel strongly about something, you don’t have to change it because a beta reader thought you should. THAT SAID, if two or more beta readers point out the same issue, take note. That’s a red flag of something that isn’t going to sit well with your greater readership.
If you get your feathers ruffled at criticism, it’s best you keep your writing to that of a personal journal. You cannot bristle at criticism and expect to share your work with the public. Criticism is wonderful; it helps us learn, grown, and improve.
Note: Accepting criticism is not the same as reading your online reviews. Criticism is thoughtful feedback for the benefit of the work. Online reviews should not be taken to heart in the same manner.
Beta Readers within the Overall Process: I use beta readers after my book has been through a first round of edits with my editor. When the feedback from betas comes in, I share that feedback with my editor. She and I can discuss what needs to be changed, and she then has a full understanding of why I’ve changed things when I give her the next draft.
Shelf Life: Beta readers have a shelf life. With the exception of your closest and most critical reader (for me this is my husband and yes, he’s critical), your beta readers should rotate. Use them once or twice. Otherwise they become too familiar with your work and, as a result, too forgiving.
If you’re writing a series, you may feel comfortable working solely with your editors (I have three) after the first few books. If you’re working with one editor, make sure you supplement the editor feedback with a small pool of betas.
Want more? Check out this article from Jane Friedman’s site on how to find and work with beta readers.