Tips for Working with Beta Readers

Photo by Jo Naylor

I’ve been posting on promotion lately, but I want to switch gears for a moment to a post I’ve had rough drafted for a year concerning beta readers.

What’s a beta reader? Basically, it’s your guinea pig. A beta reader is someone who “beta’s” – tests – your book. They read through an early copy and tell you what things you should change, what things they like, and what things confused them. Depending on your arrangement they may also edit.

Ruth and Janet did a very good post/video on what to look for in a Beta Reader, but as an author who also does beta reading, there are things betas are looking for in authors.

1. “Do you have time to…”

If you’re lucky, you have those regular reliable betas who are always happy to read for you. But that doesn’t mean you should just drop it in their lap, or expect them to “know” that the beta is coming up because you mentioned it in a facebook status. Before you send a file, or even have a file ready to send, it’s a good idea to ask if they “will have time”.  I try to ask my beta readers a month or two in advance, and then again two weeks before I plan to send the file. This might annoy them (see #10) but it’s what I prefer from authors, so…

2. Deadlines

When you give a beta reader a deadline make sure this is REALLY your deadline. Don’t say, for instance, “I need this back by the end of the month” and then, two weeks until the end, start to panic because they haven’t got it finished early. When someone gives me a deadline I use the date to juggle my other projects around it – meaning I DO NOT do it early. Other betas may be the kind to finish in advance, but, to be safe, If you need it two weeks earlier,  give your beta reader that deadline.

3. “How far are you? Do you like it?” 

As an author I know the nail biting fear while waiting on your book to come back from the betas, but as a beta I have to say “Enough with the questions. Just stop.” When I send you back my notes, comments, and corrections I will answer all of those questions, and I’d bet so will your beta readers. Please, please, please don’t harass them. You’re likely to annoy them  and that can leave you beta-less.

4. Be specific with what you want.

Do you want your beta to edit or just make comments? As a beta I have discovered that nothing makes an author madder than unsolicited editing advice, which left me on the fence about whether to do any editing – or even suggest “maybe this needs edited” – for a long time. Your beta reader might be in the same place, so if you want/don’t want honest editing let them know. Something as simple as “All I really need is to know whether this flows/makes sense/is gripping. I have someone else editing”, then the beta knows not to do it. Conversely you can say “Do what you want: comments, editing, whatever makes you happy” for a no pressure “ok” on editorial suggestions.

5. Make sure your betas are a good fit for your book.

Just because your beta readers loved your last book, doesn’t mean they’ll like this one, especially if you switch genres or styles. Make sure you communicate to your betas what they’re going to be reading, even if you think you’re simpatico and they already *know*. Otherwise you’re likely to end up with tear stained emails from betas who hate, hate, hate your new book and everything about it. And no matter what we like to pretend, that’s a blow to the ego.

6. “How did you feel about ___?”

If there’s a part of the book you think needs attention, or that you’re not sure about, ask the beta readers in advance. Sometimes they didn’t pay especial attention to the scene you’re worried about (you could think of that as “it didn’t stick out to them, so nothing to worry about.”), and they may have to re-read it in order to answer your questions. As an author I have been guilty of this after the books come back from other betas, I run to the others and say “Did you think X was boring/too long/unbelievable/etc.” There’s nothing wrong with discussing things, but make sure your beta is open to it. Some do beta reading for a lot of authors and – especially if they’re doing yours free – may not have time for long discussions. In other words, consider whether they have the time to deal with your author quibbles before you dump them all out in an email.

7. “Wait – Here’s a new version!”

As an author I understand editing the book – even rewriting it – while it’s out to your beta readers. As it comes back from reader after reader, we tweak this, redo that, change this, and sometimes it’s barely the same manuscript we first handed out. The desire is to send this new, better – so, so much better – version to your betas who aren’t done yet and say “Hey, this is better. I’ve changed it. If you don’t read this one, all the comments you’re going to make may not pertain anymore.” But what you’re also saying is, “All the comments you already made don’t pertain anymore. Surprise!” That’s not to say you might not have betas who don’t mind this – or who *want* the newest version – but I’d suggest being cautious and at the very least offering, not demanding or just cold sending the newest version. And speaking of new versions…

8. “Don’t bother finishing it. I’ve changed my mind.”

As an author I understand this. Maybe it needs a new ending. Maybe it needs totally re-written. Maybe a beta pointed out a huge, huge timeline error that ruins the whole thing (heh-heh, Yeah, that’s happened to me) but when an author says “don’t bother to finish” some betas may feel like “Why did I bother to start?” I know you had good intentions at heart, no point in your beta wasting their time finishing up a story with notes you don’t need, or want, but at the same time it can come off as dismissive – “thanks for starting but I don’t really care anymore”. Your beta readers may be different.

9. “I’ve re-written it thanks to all your suggestions. Here’s the whole book back. Please read it again.”

As I’ve mentioned, many beta readers do beta for multiple authors, or are authors themselves. Though they may love your book, there’s a good chance they don’t have time to read the whole thing again. If you really think they do, you can always ask them, but don’t just cold mail them the newest file with a list of instructions and a new deadline, unless you already have an understanding. (Even with an understanding it’s still nice to ask, which brings me to my most important point.)

10. Do unto others.

Do any of these things irritate your beta readers? If they did, would they tell you? I’m pretty sure most of my beta readers are too polite to say I’m driving them nuts, and I know I am, so in the end the best thing you can do is treat your beta readers the way you’d want to be treated. Don’t set impossible deadlines. Ask them to pay special attention ahead of time. Make sure they know how much you value them, their time, and their contributions and make sure to thank them in either the acknowledgements or dedication of your book. Oh, and a free copy doesn’t hurt either. Which leads to my very last point.

A Bonus Tip:

Don’t demand reviews.

Even if you offer your betas a free copy, don’t expect – or ask for – reviews. Remember the version they read was in progress, and they may not have time to read your corrected version. Or they may not like to write reviews. Or they may not feel comfortable doing it. (I had a beta who refused to review anything she beta read because she felt it was wrong since she had “had a hand” in the book). If your betas do review, thank them, but don’t expect it.

Do you use beta readers? if so, what tips do you have to keep the relationship running smoothly?

15 Comments

  1. Adan Ramie says:

    I recently got an e-mail from a beta reader who was hesitant to even send feedback — because she really didn’t like the book. I have beta read for her on a few occasions, and she said that, because I had been positive and helpful with her work, she hated the idea of sending negative feedback to me. She did go through with sending the e-mail, but she apologized most of the way through, and she ended it with hopes that we could still be friends, even if I never wanted to exchange manuscripts with her again.

    I immediately replied, thanked her for her honest feedback, and told her I wasn’t upset with her. I had asked for her opinion, and she gave it. Her reluctance to actually give me negative feedback made me wonder how many beta readers actually WILL give negative feedback, and how many authors are a terrible sport when taking criticism.

    Another great, thought-provoking post, Joleene!

    1. Yep – I think betas worry about offending authors (I know I do if I don’t know the author well). It’s a fine line to walk, which makes it hard to find that good beta reader who will tell it like it is but at the same time be polite about it and make it constructive and not just the word “hate” used a lot. Out of my beta readers it is the men that seem to do that the best, I think because they wrap it in a joke more often than not, so it goes down easier. And by the same token authors need to take constrictive criticism with grace – even if it makes us mad, stop and think that the beta reader wouldn’t be telling us unless they thought i would help us – and if you think they WOULD say it not to be constructive but just to be mean, then do we really want them as a beta reader? It all boils down to trust in the end, I think. They have to trust us to not go crazy and we have to trust them not to be crazy, ha ha!

      1. Adan Ramie says:

        Joleene – You’re so right. It definitely boils down to trust. Like any good relationship, there must exist trust on both sides. Without it, one can never be sure if something is meant to hurt or to help.

        I try to take all criticism as constructive, but it can be hard. I had one very negative experience with a reader that I still remember to this day. I posted a story to one of those critique websites, and this guy ripped me apart. He didn’t try to be constructive — he just told me how the story was trash, I was trash, and I should be ashamed of myself for posting it. To a young writer, that kind of thing cuts deep. I didn’t show my work again for a few years after that, but I think I’ve grown my skin a little thicker since!

  2. This reminds me of how I asked my current beta reader to look at one of my books. I had to ask him if he was interested, if he had the time, and asked that he get each chapter back to me in 2 weeks. He said yes, though if things get crazy for him he might have to drop out. I hope that doesn’t happen, I value his opinions, but I’m prepared for it. Hopefully it won’t happen though.

    1. Fingers crossed he’s able to finish it! 😀

  3. ronfritsch says:

    Thanks, Joleene, for this post. I agree with all of your advice on beta readers.

  4. All such great words of advice! It’s a tricky balance- finding people with the chops to beta read and having them fit your story into their agenda (aka “life”) aren’t we all that busy!

    1. Right?? If we could just get another twenty hours a day maybe we could keep up with everything 😉

  5. Remember too that Beta Readers are people and sometimes they can be wrong. I have had Beta Readers occasionally comment on things in a book but decided to keep them anyways. Usually, I don’t regret that decision. Also, I have 4 Beta Readers but each ones opinion I weigh a bit diff.

    1. This is very true – we have to pick and choose which suggestions to take – especially when a couple of beta readers have opposite opinions on something. I have kind of secretly divided up my beta readers and take each ones suggestions on different matters – like I have one that doesn’t read vampire fiction (except Dracula, ha ha!), so I tend to ignore his vampire complaints, but he is amazing at pacing and character development, so I always give those suggestions priority from him.

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