Note from Jane: Today’s guest post on beta readers from Kristen Kieffer (@ShesNovel) is an excerpt from her upcoming e-course on self-editing, Self-Editing Success.
No creative act is a solo endeavor.
Editors, designers, marketers—it takes a team of professionals to help authors bring their novels to life. But lurking behind the contracts and cut checks is a valuable set of hands many authors fail to exploit: beta readers.
Just as film directors benefit from the insight of test audiences, authors can learn much about the state of their novel’s appeal by working with readers willing to critique their story before it hits the market. With these readers often offering their time and feedback free of charge, what’s not to love?
Working with beta readers can provide authors with invaluable insight, helping them see their work through that pesky objective lens. With the feedback digested, authors can use what they’ve learned to better tailor their novel for marketable appeal, increasing their chances of releasing a commercial and critical success.
But not all beta reader experiences are created equal. As with any interaction involving an honest critique, working with beta readers can quickly grow into a regrettable experience if it isn’t designed for the benefit of both parties.
Let’s avoid any mess the first time around. If you’re ready to screen your novel with a test audience for honest and invaluable insight, here are eight steps to follow for an ideal beta-reader experience.
1. Identify Your Ideal Reader
There’s no use in sending your manuscript to an uninterested reader. By taking time to discover your novel’s ideal reader before sending out beta copies, you’ll be able to cultivate a list of betas who most accurately represent your future readers, saving you—and those unenthusiastic partners—a wealth of time and trouble.
How can you identify your ideal reader?
Think about the type of person most interested in your novel, then create a quick profile. Here are a few questions you might answer in your sketch:
- What is their age and gender?
- Do they read to be entertained or emotionally engaged?
- What are their favorite books, television shows, and movies?
- What makes them happy, sad, or angry?
- What do they fear or regret?
- Why do they enjoy reading?
If you’re struggling to form a strong image of your novel’s ideal reader, run a Google search of books related to your own. Begin reading through the reviews for each listing to identify the type of person who most enjoyed the work. Use what you learn to strengthen your answers to the questions above.
2. Cultivate Relationships with Beta Readers
If you’re starting from scratch, you’ll need to identify a group of potential beta readers to whom you’d like to pitch your manuscript. Though the easy route would be to email the first interesting person you find on the internet, I highly encourage you to take a step back.
The work of beta readers should not be taken lightly. To read a novel may be a simple task, but to analyze each element with a critical eye in search of weak areas, errors, and inconsistencies is anything but.
Before contacting strangers to ask for their help, take time to cultivate strong relationships. You can do this by first identifying the group of prospective beta readers you’d like to work with.
If you haven’t yet made any connections, begin by creating an account on the social media site where your ideal readers hang out. Young and new adult crowds are often found on Twitter or Instagram, while more mature readers usually congregate on Facebook.
Once you’ve chosen a platform, it’s time to establish your presence. Begin by adding a headshot for your profile picture and a succinct profile bio. Then, like or follow the feeds of other authors and notable creative figures. This will help potential beta readers gain a quick understanding of you and your interests as you begin to interact.
Speaking of interacting, your next step is to find and follow potential beta readers. Not everyone you eventually contact will accept your proposal, so I suggest following at least thirty potential betas. If you reach out to all and only a quarter accept, you’ll still have a fantastic group of beta readers to critique your novel.
To find potential beta readers, follow popular writing tags like #amwriting and #writercommunity. Make sure to use these tags when you publish your own posts. You can also find prospective betas in online writing groups, such as Writers Helping Writers or Fiction Writers.
Once you’ve found a few potential beta readers, begin interacting with them by liking and commenting on their posts and statuses. Offer friendly conversation, sharing in their daily joys and challenges. After a few weeks of genuine interaction, it’s time to move on to step three.
3. Don’t Ask for Beta Readers—Offer to Be One
Unless you’ve built incredible friendships overnight, your potential beta readers probably won’t be too inclined to read and critique your novel without receiving something in return. As we discussed above, beta-reading is difficult and time-consuming work. Your potential beta readers are entitled to more than just a thank-you for their effort.
This is why I recommend sourcing your beta readers from the writing community. When you finally get in touch, you won’t have to beg or plead for their help; you’ll be able to bring your own offer to the table.
That’s right! When you ask your new acquaintances for help, you should offer to beta read their latest manuscript in return. Not only will this make the experience beneficial for both parties, but you’ll gain more practice in reading with a critical eye. This will help immensely as you continue to edit your own works.
When reaching out to potential beta readers, make sure to be personal and professional. Let them know their services are highly valued by contacting them directly (and individually) through email rather than on a public feed or in a private social media message.
4. Simplify the Process
Once you’ve compiled a group of committed beta readers, it’s time to ship them a copy of your manuscript. Though some authors may choose to send a paperback copy to their beta readers, a digital PDF or EPUB file is the most common option and both are perfectly acceptable. Ask your beta readers which format they’d prefer.
Simplify the critiquing process for your beta readers by including a list of questions you’d like answered. You can inquire about characterization, plot and character arcs, pacing, the quality of your prose, and any errors or inconsistencies your betas may have noticed.
When you contact your beta readers, clarify that these critique questions are an optional guideline for the feedback you’d like to receive. Allow each beta to pick and choose how they present their feedback, and never demand they work according to a specific process.
It’s also helpful to include a preferred time frame for the critique in your initial pitch. If you need feedback before a certain date, ensure your betas know that before they agree to read your book.
Be upfront and honest about the type of critique you’re looking for, but never believe you’re entitled to receive it simply because you’ve offered to beta in return. Writers lead busy lives, and sometimes they simply don’t have the time or desire to meet your needs.
5. Learn to Love Criticism
No matter your age or experience, learning to swallow your pride and accept an honest critique is a difficult endeavor. It’s also necessary. Learning to love criticism will only make you a stronger writer.
That’s why it is important to recognize critiques as advice rather than admonishments. The manuscript you send to your beta readers is not perfect. No story is, not even the most critically acclaimed works.
Rather than viewing your beta readers’ critiques as flaws or nitpicks, recognize them for what they are: the potential for improvement.
If your beta readers have sent you truly constructive criticism—feedback that encourages as much as it critiques—you can trust it to be an inside look at what future readers would think if your novel were published as is.
This means their criticism comes from an honest desire to see your work improve, rather than the chance to tear you down. Seize this opportunity. Recognize your chance to take these critiques and use them to your benefit. Better your novel and you’ll better its chances of success.
With that said, don’t make every change your beta readers suggest. They’re only people. They may not see or understand your vision for the book or have the same desires as the rest of your beta readers.
If you don’t agree with a critique a beta reader has pointed out, take a step back and put that critique in context. A good rule of thumb is to only make a change to your manuscript if it’s something you wholeheartedly agree with or if more than 50 percent of your beta readers made the same critique.
6. Show Your Gratitude to Beta Readers
When you receive feedback from beta readers, make sure to show your gratitude for the time and energy they’ve spent critiquing your novel.
If you previously offered to return the favor, make sure to follow up. Ask your beta readers if they would like you to critique their next project. If they agree, pencil the time to complete the review into your schedule.
If a beta reader doesn’t need you to critique one of their upcoming projects, offer to promote or review a project they have already published. Show them you care by taking time to inquire how you can return the kindness they’ve done you.
And finally, if your beta reader isn’t a writer, offer to send them a few copies of your novel once it is published. Make sure to sign each copy. You may also want to include a personalized note of thanks to show your appreciation.
7. Take an Honest Approach When You Serve as a Beta Reader
If you return the favor by completing a few critiques for your beta readers, these final two steps are for you.
First things first, you want to be honest in your communication. If you simply can’t make the time to critique a beta reader’s manuscript, let them know. Don’t let their hard work go unappreciated, but be honest in what you can and cannot make the time to do. The only thing worse than not reviewing their book is sending a poorly constructed critique because you couldn’t spare the time to do it right.
If your beta reader appreciates your critique as much as you did theirs, let them know you’d like to maintain the relationship. Rather than finding a brand new set of beta readers for your next work, you’ll have a group you know will put in the time and effort to do the job right.
On the other hand, if you don’t want to maintain a relationship with a beta reader, be honest but kind. Let them know you appreciated their work and was happy to return the favor, but be clear about ending the relationship.
8. Give the Value You Desire to Other Writers
If you reached out to beta readers, it was likely with the expectation they would offer you valuable insight you could use to better tailor your novel for success. You should give this same kind of value in return.
Constructive criticism is a flinch-inducing phrase for many writers. They view it as a series of negative remarks rather than as commentary on both the strengths and weaknesses of their manuscripts.
For every element you critique when completing your review—be it characters, plot, setting, etc.—include at least one comment that’s encouraging. Every writer should know what they’re doing right; we build upon our strengths. So where did they excel?
Do you have any other tips for an ideal beta-reader experience? Share your wisdom in the comments below!
For more from Kristen Kieffer, check out her site, ShesNovel, or sign up for her upcoming e-course, Self-Editing Success.
Kristen Kieffer is a fantasy author and the creative writing coach behind ShesNovel.com, where she teaches writers how to craft novels that will endear readers, excite publishers, and launch their writing careers. You can find her on social media @shesnovel.