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Let's Talk About Beta Readers

Lots of folks have asked me questions about beta readers. What is a beta reader? How many should you have? What do you want from them? How do you handle feedback from so many different people?

I'm happy to share my personal experience and I'd love to know if you find any of this helpful. I hope so.

What is a beta reader?

A beta reader is a friend or colleague you trust to read a rough draft of your manuscript. Handing over a printed copy of a draft that you know is filled with errors and still has a long way to go is pretty darn scary, especially if you are one of those people (like me) who usually needs a piece of writing to be perfect before it sees the light of day! But remember, your goal in writing a novel is to share it with the world. Lining up some beta readers is a great way to start putting your fears aside and start sharing. Feedback from beta readers really can make your novel better.

How many beta readers should you have?

There are a lot of posts out there about how many beta readers you should have. I've seen everything from no more than three to as many as ten. I ended up going on the high side because I wanted a ton of feedback and I had a large number of folks who were interested.

For my first draft of Henderson House, I had nine beta readers:

  • 3 family members (husband, sister, niece)

  • 1 writer friend (a published author from the annual conference I attend)

  • 2 church friends (one man, and one woman who has been reading pages for me all along)

  • 1 high school friend who grew up in Oklahoma (where my story takes place)

  • 1 local friend who offered and I thought she might hate it (it was a "face your fear" decision and in the end she loved the book)

  • 1 acquaintance from New York City because she agreed and I knew she would be brutally honest (which she was!)

I had copies of my manuscript printed and bound at Staples and paid to mail them to the out-of-town folks (and included a postage paid return envelope.) I gave my beta readers a month to read the manuscript, mark it up, and then return it to me. That time-frame worked well.

I currently have the second draft of my novel out to ten beta readers—eight new people and two who also read the first draft. I am definitely the odd duck going with such a large number of readers. You might be more comfortable only sharing with three or four people. A smaller number of beta readers is more common. Personally, I found the variety of feedback the first time around was invaluable so I went with a large number of readers for my second draft as well.

What do you want from your beta readers?

I sent my beta readers a letter with guidelines so they knew what I was hoping to learn from them. I highly recommend putting your expectations in writing. You'll find that some manuscripts come back to you with notes on almost every page and others come back with only a few key comments. It's all good information.

I did not expect my beta readers to provide proofreading or editing, however, many of them enthusiastically marked and corrected typos and grammatical errors—and it was a great help! Mostly, I wanted to know if they enjoyed the story and would recommend it to a friend.

Here is an excerpt from the beta reader guidelines I sent:

Things that are great to mark/comment on:

Awkward: Please mark any sentences or conversations that strike you as awkward.

Confusing: I try not to use too many dialog tags, but sometimes that can leave the reader confused as to who is speaking. Please mark passages that you find confusing in any way.

Word Choice: Feel free to circle any words where you think I could make a better word choice.

Skimming: If you find yourself skimming a section it may be boring, please mark it.

Love: It’s nice to know what touches your heart, makes you smile, or laugh. That's great feedback for me.

More or Less: Mark any places where you would like to see more detail/background info or less detail/background.

Inconsistent: In what people are saying, doing, or thinking. For example, does someone reach down to pet the dog when someone else took the dog for a walk on the previous page!

Hooked: If there is a spot in the story where you feel like, “Okay, I want to finish this and see what happens,” please mark that spot. If you never feel hooked and only finish it because you promised me you would, I’d like to know that, too!

Ending: I got feedback from some of my first readers that the book should finish a little more open ended and that I should consider this the first in a series. I would love your response to the ending and what you think about continuing with these characters in another book.

Review: There is a tab on my Inkshares page for reviews. If you enjoy this draft and feel comfortable writing a review of it on my Inkshares page that would be awesome.

How do you handle all that feedback?

I'm sure every writer has their own system, but here is how I handled the feedback from my beta readers.

  • Some people wanted to have a conversation after finishing the draft. Talking in person, getting their verbal feedback, and answering their questions taught me a great deal about what was working and what could be improved in my story.

  • When I had the manuscripts printed and bound, I had an extra copy made for myself. This became my master copy.

  • As my beta readers began returning their marked up copies, I would sit at a table with my master copy and their beta reader copy and go page by page and transfer their notes into my master copy. Yep, it was a lot of work to go through my novel over and over, page by page, but it was totally worth it! I ended up with a master copy that has all of their feedback in one place.

  • Once all of the beta reader feedback was in my master copy, I sat down and read the draft with a yellow notepad next to me, made my own notes in the manuscript, and use the yellow pad to write down my ideas and possible changes for each chapter.

  • General wisdom is that if one person has an issue with something, you can take it with a grain of salt. When several people comment or make suggestions on the same page or section, then you know where you need to roll up your sleeves and get to work!

I am currently waiting for the readers of my second draft to get their marked up manuscripts back to me. I'm so excited to see what I can learn from them and for my novel to continue to improve. What have your experiences been with beta readers? I'd love to know.

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