Joanne Phillips, author of two novels and nearing the completion of her third, explains how to recruit and use beta readers to fine-tune your work before it's published – an invaluable service that won't cost you a penny.
Put simply, beta readers are people who volunteer to read your work prior to publication and give feedback. They are not editors or proofreaders, and shouldn't be used to replace a professional edit or proofread, although they often pick up mistakes and inconsistencies in your work. Instead they should be considered part of the creative or structural editing process.
How Do You Find Them?
I find mine by asking on my blog, on Facebook, or by email if someone has read for me before. For my third book (my first cosy mystery), I have seven lovely readers lined up: a couple of writers, some genre enthusiasts, and one who doesn’t usually read mysteries but likes my other books.
How Does the Process Work?
Provide each beta reader with a copy of your manuscript in their preferred format, e.g. mobi (Kindle), epub or pdf. If there’s something particular you’d like a reader to comment on, be sure to ask, but this isn’t essential. Sometimes it’s nice to see what different readers pick up on, instead of guiding them to look out for the same things.
Some readers ask for just a partial ms, such as the first few chapters – useful for assessing your book’s capacity to grab the reader. I sometimes ask these what they think will happen as the book progresses – it's a great way to find out if your plot set-up is predictable!
How Long Does It Take?
It depends on your personal schedule, but I generally allow around two weeks. This may seem short, but you need all the comments back in time to action them. Check from the outset that your beta readers can meet your deadline.
What Happens Next?
Now comes the nail-biting moment when you start to receive their comments back … Set aside any expectations that every reader will say: Wow! It was amazing! and roll up your sleeves for some hard work.
In my experience, beta readers’ comments come in three broad categories:
1) Brief but supportive, with the odd inaccuracy or point of confusion pointed out
2) A reasonably detailed overview, with several ideas for improvement
3) Very detailed, broken down into chapters or page numbers, with lots of ideas for changes/improvements.
You might think the latter is the most useful, but each approach has its benefits. At this stage, read through all the comments (I wait until the deadline has passed and read them all together), and highlight any that resonate. Thank your beta readers and move on to the next stage …
What To Use and What To Lose
You don’t need to take notice of everything every beta reader says. The process is immensely valuable, but this is your book and it’s up to you to sift out the comments that will make it better.
The comments that match your own observations, or that nagging feeling you had in your gut that something wasn’t working, will jump out immediately. Several of the beta readers for my last novel, The Family Trap, queried why a major scene was played out over the phone. They’d missed seeing the action. I knew this deep down – I don’t know why I’d done it that way in the first place! I was relieved to have it confirmed, and the comments gave me the confidence to re-write the scene completely.
Comments that don’t resonate shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Consider each one and ask yourself these questions:
- Are you avoiding extra work? Sometimes a beta reader makes a valid suggestion but you dismiss it because it means hours of rewriting.
- Have more than two of your readers picked up on this? It could be that a particular part of your writing pressed the wrong buttons with an individual for reasons that are personal only to them, but if a few people said similar things, it’s worth listening.
- If you rewrote it the way they suggest, would it make the book better? This can take a bit of soul searching, but ultimately trust your instincts.
The Final Round
My final edit takes place with all my beta readers’ comments laid out beside me, and I cross them off as I go along. It is a remarkable process, and each time I’ve done it I’ve felt so lucky to have these intelligent, useful, well-thought-out suggestions from people who have given their time for free. Amazing!
To say thank you, always mention your beta readers in your acknowledgments page, and offer to send a copy of the published book so they can see which of their ideas you took on board.