Image: Matthew Loffhagen
I’ve talked before about why beta readers are vital to your success. An outside eye can spot assumptions or omissions that a writer is blind to, so a book is quite simply not ready for publication until the author has heard from test readers.
But essential as they may be to a book’s success, most beta readers will be amateurs at providing feedback. On the one hand, this makes their feedback more relevant – they’ll experience the book in the same way as your intended readership – but on the other hand it limits the nature and depth of their insights.
That’s why before handing a book over to beta readers, you should make sure you’ve prepared methods to get the best feedback possible.
The first of these measures is in who you select as a reader.
You need beta readers who are neither friends nor family. This important advice is always difficult to deliver because, like ‘don’t touch that, it’s hot’, it seems to provoke the same counter-reaction in anyone who receives it.
While most people would agree that friends and family are unavoidably biased towards an author’s work, they’d also add the caveat ‘but not mine’. We love the people in our lives, and we know that their intelligence, and the knowledge of how important their feedback is to us, will help them overcome any bias they may possess.
Firstly, this is only partly true. Yes, friends and family may be extra vigilant when reading your work, but they are still predisposed to like you. Even if they don’t feel the need to spare your feelings, or are aware that they must be critical, their inherent affection for you makes them better disposed towards the writing. They will miss things, and forgive errors, not consciously but because of a pre-existing relationship which is impossible to put aside.
Secondly, emotional bias is the least important bias your friends and family have. Far more damaging is their familiarity with your style, speech patterns, and interests. They have learnt the way you communicate on a subconscious level. In this way, they possess one of the qualities that means you cannot adequately assess your own work: they are too aware of your quirks. Where a completely unfamiliar reader might encounter issues with phrasing or intonation they will sail right through, conscious of your voice and thus oblivious to the issue.
While friends and family can provide valuable feedback, they cannot be your only source. There will be errors only strangers can catch.
Thankfully it’s relatively easy to find ready and willing strangers to critique your work. The web is full of writing and reading groups who provide feedback free from the above kinds of bias.
The next step in selecting beta readers is to identify and pursue your target readership. For example, if you’re writing young adult fiction then you need to show your work to a few young adults. There are brilliant books out there that you would hate, but that doesn’t mean they’re not brilliant, they’re just not meant for you. In the same way, feedback from beta readers is less relevant if they have no connection to the audience you’re writing for.
Other types of people will have insight, but make sure that you’re showing your work primarily to the people you intend to read it once published.
Make sure your work is complete
No matter what type of work you’re presenting to your beta readers, it should be complete. It’s fine to show people drafts, or stories with sections still to be written, but these still need to be free of spelling or grammatical errors, and you need to have thoroughly proofed for awkward passages and any other issues you are capable of spotting.
Presenting a reader with work full of spelling errors, obviously awkward passages, or stilted dialogue reduces them to a glorified spellchecker. It’s incredibly difficult to see deeper than these cosmetic problems when they’re still present, and all you’ll get in return is a list of problems you could have spotted yourself.
The purpose of presenting your work to beta readers is to hear and evaluate the opinions of your potential readership, not to get a free error check. Give your readers complete work and they’ll be able to give you far more relevant feedback that speaks to their experience as consumers of your art rather than just the standard of the words on the page. Do keep in mind, however, that this will usually be represented by the quality, not quantity, of feedback.
Don’t expect too much
A lot of writers fall into the trap of expecting more than beta readers are willing or able to give. When approaching beta readers it’s best not to expect margin notes on every page. First of all, this is the kind of service professionals offer; for those who are just volunteering their time it’s too much to ask for. Secondly, just like the minor errors I mentioned earlier, it takes away their ability to read your book as a book.
While some fellow authors may be willing to do a forensic read-through of your book, with multiple passes and thoughtful notes, most beta readers are going to try and read the story while noting down anything that jumps out at them. This is actually a great way of doing things, since you only hear about the problems that matter.
No story is perfect, more revisions are always possible, so the goal is to get your book to the point where the reader’s enjoyment isn’t lessened by any remaining issues. Casual beta readers will sniff out any pertinent issues while forgiving, ignoring, or most likely completely missing those that don’t hurt their experience.
Of course, sometimes there’s a section of writing that you think needs special attention.
As well as completing your work before handing it over to beta readers, you need to have some idea of what you want their feedback to do.
Present a book to a group of people without any focus or goals and you’re saying ‘read this and see if there’s anything wrong with it.’ That kind of approach will get you most of the way, and likely root out any glaring errors, but as the author, you should be able to go deeper.
Start by identifying any worries you have about parts of the book. Does a character come off as unlikeable? Does the flashback in the second chapter make sense? Pick three or four areas on which you’d like detailed feedback. Now beta readers will be capable of encountering the book as readers, but also able to give you more in-depth feedback on potential problem areas.
To really allow them to fulfill both of these functions it’s best to leave your concentrated questions until after they’ve read the book once. This allows them to just read, and avoids inspiring any kind of expectation or bias: when they first read the problem section they won’t be thinking ‘let’s find what’s wrong’.
Most beta readers will be willing to go back and read certain sections, and even those who don’t can elucidate on how they experienced a section the first time around. In this way, you get two approaches from one reader: their initial reaction as a reader, and focused feedback tailored to your own queries.
Of course, asking questions after an initial reading adds a further step to the process, and might be inconvenient if your reader wants to read your work and think about their responses before they see you next. That’s why the best form for your questions to take is often a short beta reader questionnaire.
Equip your readers
While something like a questionnaire might seem quite formal, equipping your beta readers for maximum feedback quality will be incredibly helpful down the line. Any questionnaire should be short, with direct, non-leading questions.
By this I mean that you should never tell your readers that there’s a problem, only ask for their opinion. Instead of asking ‘Did anything about character A make her seem unlikeable?’, ask ‘How did you feel about character A at different points in the story? What made you feel this way?’
Ask someone what the problem is and you remove their ability to say there isn’t a problem. Likewise, asking someone what the problem with A is removes their ability to point out that B is actually the problem. The best formula is to gently draw your reader’s attention to the area of your concern, and give them the space to point out any problems they have noticed.
Again, this is good news because if this general style of questioning doesn’t reveal a problem then more often than not there’s no problem there.
You should also give the reader space to express any opinions your focused questions ‘shake loose’. Maybe they had no problem with character A, but they found character B sickly sweet. Structure questions so that a focused question is followed by one with a wider purview:
- How did you feel about character A at different points in the story? What made you feel this way?
- In general, how did you feel about the characters?
While these may get you some extra feedback their primary function is to allow readers to broach any ideas raised by the preceding question. Writing ‘I hated character B’ under a question about character A feels quite aggressive, whereas the second question provides a safe space for sharing this feedback.
Even within questionnaires, make sure you are giving readers everything they need to give you feedback you can use. If you want them to talk about a particular section then include the page numbers, if you want a certain type of feedback then structure questions to prompt it. For example, if you wanted to assess how well you’ve presented a character you could ask something like ‘Describe character A in three words.’ This gives you subtly different feedback to ‘How did you feel about character A?’ while still not making any assumptions or leading the reader.
Questionnaires can do a huge amount to increase the quality and usability of reader feedback, but it doesn’t matter what kind of feedback you get if you don’t do anything with it.
Dissect your feedback
Remember that the key question is always ‘why’. The question ‘How did you feel about character A?’ doesn’t give you enough information. Maybe the reader hated them, but maybe they hated them because they hate the exact type of character you were trying to create. Without knowing why a reader felt something you lack the context to understand their reaction. Did they hate character A because they were unrelatable, or did they hate character A because they’re fighting for a cause the reader doesn’t like?
As incisive as reader feedback may be, it’s almost never a case of applying their advice or ignoring it. What you need to do is identify what they felt, why they felt it, and what that means for your story. You have far more creative control than the reader, and so you have many ways of addressing their feedback that they won’t have considered.
Try not to be overprotective of your work, and make sure to decipher what feedback really means before deciding what you’ll do with it.
Get to it!
Each section above outlines a step you can take to enhance what you get from beta readers. They all take planning and real work, but if you put in the time then you’ll get more from one beta reader than you would from ten with none of these measures in place.
Beta readers are the last step before your work is ready for an audience, so if you want some great advice but don’t feel you’re at that stage, then check out Why Your Editor Should Be Multifaceted and Why Joining A Writing Group May Be The Best Thing You Do All Year for more ways to get feedback on your work.