No one can be entirely objective about their own work. You spend so long in your own head with your words that they can become stale or overly familiar, and a new perspective is vital. This is why a team of beta readers is so useful for authors and writers: a fresh set of eyes to tell you both the good and the bad. Yes, they might tell you your plot is full of holes and your characters are wooden, but they might also remind you that jokes which are flat to you through over-reading are actually funny, that the twist you’ve convinced yourself is obvious is totally a shocker. This kind of feedback is especially crucial to indie authors, who don’t have the same support system of quality control and pre-publication filters that a published author has.
But how do you pick them? And how do you get the best of them? While that’s always a personal process, below are some handy tips. They are very much based on my own experience, so won’t work for everyone, but are hopefully a useful starting point.
(Important note: This isn’t referring to how to best utilise advice and edits from professionals in your writing life, such as an agent, editor or publisher – though there is some crossover, that’s a very different discipline.)
To pay, or not to pay: Money is always a thorny issue. Reading a book is time consuming: asking someone to do it for nothing is a bit of a lend. In my experience, however, most beta readers do it for free, either in exchange for similar services (perhaps as part of a writing group or collective), or simply to help you out, or because they like your work. I think this is fine, but it requires a very clear understanding on both sides of what is involved, such as the level and quality of feedback you expect.
Don’t expect professionals to work for free: Asking people to do for free what they would normally charge for (for instance, asking a professional editor to edit your book or asking someone to do a professional-level review of your MS or script if that is something they sell as a service) is a fast way to ruin a friendship. If you want a professional service, you should pay for it, even if means negotiating mates’ rates or some kind of reciprocal or barter arrangement. (This is obviously just my opinion: don’t @ me).
Pick your squad: For many authors, especially those starting out, or indie authors, your first beta team will likely be your partner, if you have one, and a bunch of willing mates. But applying some care at the early stages will save you pain in the long run and make the feedback, and your end product, much better.
Keep it tight: Don’t send your work to tons of people. Pick your team with care and keep it relatively small, or you’re likely to get a load of conflicting feedback, or so much that you simply can’t implement it all. (I have an academic friend who once got two reader reports back on her book that literally contradicted one another on every single point). You may have to mix it up from book to book, especially if you cross genres (one of the betas from my romcom The Bridesmaid Blues won’t even look at my Dark Dates books!) but it should still be a compact, hand-picked few.
Get a cheerleader: Every writer needs at least one person who is simply unequivocally in your corner. Since sending your book to readers is a nerve-wracking thing, try to get at least one cheerleader on your team. I have someone who reads my books quickly and tends to love them. She doesn’t give any detailed feedback, so you could argue she’s not the ideal beta reader, but a text from her saying she devoured my book in 24 hours and loves it is often the only thing that keeps me sane in the long wait for the rest of the feedback to come in.
Nit-pickers are your friend: Conversely, have at least one reader who has an eye for detail and, if at all possible, a fiercely pedantic streak. You want someone to notice if your character changes outfits in the middle of a scene, is using technology 5 years before it was commonplace, or if you introduce a plot point that later disappears without a trace. I have a friend who sends me remarkably detailed – and often quite brutal – feedback. It can be hard to read – it’s not good for the ego to see a litany of your own mistakes scribbled all over your MS – but my books would be far, far poorer without her input.
Get someone who knows what you are talking about: If you are writing in a particular genre, it makes sense to pick beta readers who like and are familiar with that genre (one such reader saved me from accidentally giving a character the same name as someone in the Twilight books!) When I wrote A Vampire in Edinburgh, I sent an early draft to a theatre critic familiar with the Fringe scene; I sent A Vampire In New York to a resident of that city. Some licence is always expected in fiction, but a reader with an insight into what you are writing about can save you from errors that will leap off the page to anyone familiar with the topic or setting.
Set your parameters: Asking people to read your work can feel like an imposition, so there’s a huge temptation to just say things like ‘oh, whenever you get round to it’. But that does no one any favours. You can’t wait around for ever for someone to get back to you, and if someone makes the effort to read your work and give feedback only to realise you finalised your MS a fortnight earlier, they’re going to be angry that you wasted their time. Set a (reasonable!) time frame and be clear that you need feedback by that deadline, and if they don’t think that’s possible, then they should sit this one out.
Manage your expectations: This goes back to the payment issue. A non-professional reader might only give you a handful of comments, or feedback in the most general terms. That’s fine. You want a detailed, blow by blow assessment of your work, or multiple readings of different edits, you have to accept that you may need to pay for that.
Be open to criticism – but trust your gut: This is one of the hardest tricks to master, but it’s absolutely crucial. You have to learn when to apply criticism and feedback – even if it’s upsetting or means a lot of extra work – and when to ignore it. This can be even trickier if the person has a valid point, but their changes will move the piece away from where you want it to be. If everyone says the same thing (that, say, your main character doesn’t convince or your plot makes no sense) you may have to accept you are in the wrong, but most of the time, it’s a judgement call. And that call has to be yours.
For example, my first book, Doll, was pretty much a novella, and one of the first pieces of feedback I got was that an extra 30,000 words would improve it. Well, that might be true, but it wasn’t going to happen. Likewise, one of my most trusted betas HATED a scene in Wolf Night (the slightly infamous ‘blow job’ scene). She was the only one who commented on it, good or bad, so I was tempted to remove it, but my gut told me that, with some tweaking, it would be a great scene. In the end, several reviewers mentioned how hot and funny it was: it just worked, and I was right to stick with it. (Oddly, later, more than one beta reader came back to me and said, ‘oh, I loved that scene, I wasn’t sure you’d keep it in’ and I had to resist the temptation to say, well you tell me NOW…’).
But equally, one time an editor came back to me with a massive change to a short story I was submitting. At the time I was pissed off, it was such a dramatic edit, but I made the changes. The end result was much better, the story was published, and resulted in me getting a contract for my second book, a collection of short stories.
Consider the source: One of my issues with writing groups is feedback can – sometimes! – come with an agenda. If you are writing a feminist polemic, the guy who fancies himself the next Hemingway isn’t going to be your best critic. But some criticism should be given extra weight: writing outside your own sphere is a contentious topic that I won’t debate here, but if your reader is closer to the subject than you are, you might want to give their feedback your time. For instance, if you are a male writer whose female beta readers tell you your women are clichés, that’s worth addressing. No group is homogenous, and anything you write risks offending somebody, but we have all seen terrible projects where you think, “hmm, if they literally had asked one black person (or gay person, or disabled person, or woman, etc.) they would have known instantly that was Not OK.”
Done is better than perfect: Feedback is useful, criticism is necessary. But don’t let it derail you from actually finishing something. It’s tempting to tinker and tweak forever and rewriting in reaction to feedback is a nice excuse to do so. But eventually, you need to get your book done. There’s a great anecdote in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic where she talks about getting feedback that one of her characters didn’t work, and realising that was true – but also realising that the effort to fix the problem wasn’t worth it, and would sap the energy of the book – she just decided to screw it and go ahead and publish. Your book will never, ever, ever be perfect. It can be great – but only if it’s done.
(With thanks to all of my beta readers over the years: you guys rock!)
Like my writing? Support it by buying one of my books (or even a t-shirt or bag!)
Rom-com with a dash of Northern charm: The Bridesmaid Blues
Paranormal adventure with snark and sexiness: Dark Dates: Cassandra Bick Chronicles: Volume 1
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