Using Beta Readers to Help You Write Your Best Novel

Today’s guest post is by editor and writer Stuart Horwitz:

Writing is an act of communication, so it is only natural that you would want to show your work to other people. So then the questions arise: When should I show my work to beta readers? What should I show them? And how can I manage the process so that I get the most out of it?

Let’s back up for a second and define what a beta reader is. A beta reader is an individual who reads your work before it is finished and offers you feedback. Not just any feedback though—constructive feedback. Useful, motivating, eye-opening feedback. Well, that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

When I teach a writing class, I mention there are two things you’re not allowed to say about someone’s work. You can’t say “I love it,” and you can’t say “I guess I’m just not your audience” (which is code for “I hate it”).

When you take on the task of being a beta reader, you have to try to be objective—it’s tough work. But as writers we can make life easier on our beta readers by considering these three questions:

  1. Where in the drafting process are beta readers best employed?

Early on in our writing journey we often make the mistake of finishing the first part of a first draft, then giving it to someone else to read. A lot of bad can come from that. I recommend writing the full first draft, then finding some action steps that you can take to transform your work on its own.

Let’s face it—it’s not easy for other people to be objective either. The best we can really hope from our beta readers (and from ourselves) is to be transparently subjective. Start statements with the word “I.” When I read _________, it made me think of ___________, and that is why I think it might be too __________. You dont have to agree with me, but thats where Im coming from . . .

My advice is to involve beta readers between the second draft and the third draft. At that point the work is strong enough to take a little push-back; you already know some of what you tried that didn’t work, so you aren’t quite so impressionable. You can then remain at your maximum openness when soliciting the honest feedback of your beta readers, and will get the most out of the process.

  1. How many readers should I get, and where do I find them?

I usually recommend between three and seven. If you have less than three, you tend to weight individual feedback more than it may deserve. If you have more than seven, the air traffic control can get a little out of hand.

Your beta readers might comprise editors, members of your writing group, friends, or family members. Online writing groups, organizations, and clubs often have critique groups or forums in which you can connect with potential beta readers.

The important thing to remember is you are hoping a beta reader will work hard, so you want an equal energy exchange. Either you are beta-reading his book, or you are paying him, or you are dog-sitting for him next weekend. You want an honest read, but you also don’t want to be unappreciative of your beta readers, so ask how you can best help them in return.

  1. What kinds of specific questions can I ask my beta readers so I will most benefit from this experience?

I recommend ten specific questions. One of my clients had written a series of short stories, and we asked specific questions such as “Which three stories were your most favorite and why?” And “Which three stories were your least favorite and why?”

We collated the answers, looking for trends, but we also stayed aware to spot what was resonating with her most strongly. Because the author was a neuroscientist as well, she had written a nonfiction introduction to each of the four sections of her story collection. When we asked her beta readers, “Did you want more or less science in the introductions?” One reader said, “More science! And footnotes and suggestions for further reading!” Another reader said, “Booo! No science! I almost put the whole book down because of the science.”

Now, you might think that we didn’t learn anything here with such a split vote. Yet the author knew in her gut that she had to take out (most of) the science. Having beta readers is not about running a democracy; it’s about what sticks with you in that yucky-but-still-somehow-uplifting fashion so that you become convinced there is a change to be made.

If you have more questions about working with beta readers, I put a “Guide for Beta Readers” in the appendix to my first book, Blueprint Your Bestseller.

Have you had a great (or not-so-great) experience with beta readers? Let us know!

Stuart Horwitz Author PhotoStuart Horwitz is the founder and principal of Book Architecture, a firm of independent editors. His first book, Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method, was named one of 2013’s best books about writing by The Writer magazine. His second book, Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline without Using a Formula, was released in May, 2015. You can follow him Stuart Horwitz on Twitter

Feature Photo Credit: rcoder via Compfight cc

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  1. Years ago, I asked a friend who said she was an avid reader to give me feedback. Turned out she was an avid reader of non-fiction. Her feedback was actually quite funny: she wanted story questions answered on the same page! I’ll never make that mistake again.

    Two professional editors will beta read for me, and two fellow writers, and then three “ordinary” readers, plus I’m in a critique group. The latter is helpful for particular scenes that I think aren’t working as well as they could work.

    Some fans of my first novel want to read drafts of my current project, i.e., they want to be part of the process of creation, so I’ll send them drafts of individual chapters, but nothing about the ending.

    I use an Instruction Sheet when I’m soliciting feedback from beta readers. I think it gives them some comfort, especially when they’re not writers or editors–they don’t feel pressured to correct what’s not working for them. Two of the key questions are “Where did you want to stop reading”, and “What parts did you want to skip?”

    BTW, I love the new Amazon feature for KU–you can see if readers are reading the entire book. It’s comforting to know that, so far, readers are reading the entire book, and sometimes they even read the discussion guide. Makes me think I’m on the right track with my writing.

    1. Thanks for weighing in, Sheryl! Great points. I especially love the one about reminding your beta readers this is not a copyedit (and informing them of the difference) — that comes later in the process. I mean, why copyedit a scene that’s just goins big to come out, anyway?!

  2. My first beta readers were family and friends. It was great, at first–unanimous feedback was “You wrote a book! It’s awesome!”

    Everyone loved it… but no one had constructive feedback.

    The exception was my significant other–he wasn’t worried about hurting my feelings, just about furthering my writing career, so he was brutal with criticism, and it really, really helped.

    After that, I decided to take to the internet to find critique partners, which is a form of beta readers, but these people came in with a writer’s eye, which was SO helpful (of course, I then did the same thing for them in return).

    I also started taking a writing class, where we critiqued one another’s work. While that was a bit difficult to wade through, as my classmates were writers of all different levels with all different backgrounds (i.e. one of them had never even read YA, which is what I write), I found their collective feedback to be immensely helpful too–I just had to figure out what to listen to and what to throw out.

    1. Absolutely, Mary Kate! I think there is some misperception about “brutal” criticism, too. The point is not to be cruel; harshness isn’t any more helpful than kindness. The trick is to find ways to discuss each other’s work in ways that are neutral and direct.

  3. I take short stories and scenes to my writing group and I always get great feedback. We all write in different genres and with very different styles, but that’s part of the beauty of it. We learn from each others’ strong points.

    I’m starting to put together a list of beta readers for the novel, but it’s not ready for a full read-through yet. I think you’re totally right, Stuart, once I finish this second draft (and maybe polish it a little) I’ll be ready for feedback. Thanks for the confirmation!

    1. Hi Fritze!
      Yes, I think so! As the work grows stronger it can leave the inner circle and travel outwards through less familiar hands.. And eventually into the hands of total strangers. Eek! But it will be strong by then, very strong. It will be itself.

  4. I am in a fortunate position. I am a member of a writing group. Members of this group meet monthly to give each other feedback on current writing projects. I also work one-on-one with a reader who critiques my entire finished manuscripts.

  5. I have a dear friend I was giving my manuscripts to for critiquing. Unfortunately, her feedback was primarily those “I love it” comments you say not to give; or she provided some basic grammar edits. She recently joined the critique group I’ve been attending for several months and provides much of the same kind of feedback to the other writers. She zips through the pieces while the rest of us look as though we’re laboring in surgery! I love her dearly, but I think I’ll need to find someone with a more critical eye.

    Another member of the group wants to read everything she’s written aloud and have others do so, too. With my mild ADD, I was daydreaming almost after her first paragraph, or getting lost because I was still trying to digest what she’d read three sentences back. And yet another member brought in a piece so rough, disjointed and grammatically poor that I could barely get through the single-spaced page. (And there was just one page, thank goodness!)

    Thankfully, several members of the group provide more constructive feedback, which I have found extremely helpful. Another published author I know who coordinates several critique groups said she follows the Rules of 3: If one person says something, you can consider it, but probably take it or leave it. If two people say the same thing, then consider it more seriously. If three people say the same thing, then you really need to pay attention to it. That’s helped me avoid getting hung up on some of the singular comments no one else mentions and really apply myself to changing what really isn’t working.

    My husband, a technical writer and teacher, is going to use his fall class as beta readers for his new technical textbook. Nothing like a classroom full of community college students providing anonymous comments to get an ear full of honest feedback!

    Thanks, Stuart! You’ve given me some guidelines to use as both a giver and receiver.

    1. Hi Andrea!
      Great stuff. I especially like the self-assertion present in leaving something alone that doesn’t resonate. We really are the final arbiter; all of these undertakings are to show us more fully to ourselves… Once that happens we always know what to do

  6. Excellent article and comments. I’m on to my third draft and still not ready to find some beta readers.

  7. I convene a monthly writers’ group. For the first session, we devise a set of guidelines for giving constructive feedback. This sets the group off on the right foot from the beginning. One guideline is discussed briefly each month before feedback sessions. For example, think in terms of the “sandwich analogy”: positive followed by suggestions followed by how to do it or another positive. From the larger group, smaller feedback groups of 4-6 members are set up to meet fortnightly for developing longer works. Once the first or second draft is done, we look around for a professional editor to advise on the whole work. Choosing the right editor is important.

  8. Stuart: Thanks for the pearls of wisdom, particularly about the number and type of beta readers recommended. I have employed only one beta-reader who sees my work before Suzanne does. His comments are the tough-love approach, like: “Are you f’ing kidding me with this scene?” That’s usually a cue something is amiss. When Suzanne adds her more professional “This isn’t working,” I know it’s time to hit the keyboard anew. I need to take your guidance on this issue!

  9. In another post I read regarding beta readers, the author suggestion NOT using family members as you might not get the feedback you want from them. Have you ever used family members?

    1. Hello Evolet!
      For the most part, I think that is sound advice (i.e., to not use family members). However, you may have one who is so insightful…or available…that you decide to throw them into the mix. My point is really that everyone needs a questionnaire to focus them, even the beta readers you think are going to be slam dunk awesome. Make sense?

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