Writing Feedback: The Ultimate Guide to Working with Beta Readers

Edit Your Book and get some feedback
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Is there a better feeling in the world than writing “The End” in your manuscript? It’s a moment to be celebrated: you’ve done it. You’ve written and completed an entire book. Not everyone can say they have.

But you’re not finished. No, not even after you wrap up your self-edits.

It’s time to pass your manuscript off to beta readers — volunteers who provide feedback on your book. If you’re thinking about skipping this stage and just hitting “Publish,” you might want to reconsider.

Why beta readers?

Software companies release beta, or test, versions of their programs to work out kinks and bugs before releasing to the general public. Businesses offer beta versions of their courses so they can tweak the content to ensure it serves the needs of their students.

Authors need beta readers to understand how people read their book and, like software companies and businesses, to identify confusing or irrelevant spots. Every author has weaknesses. You do too — but you’re blind to them.

Beta readers won’t be. And soliciting feedback from beta readers is your chance to address the weak spots of your manuscript before you publish and share it with the world.

Who you want as a beta reader?

As easy as it is to get them to help, best friends, significant others and family members are the worst beta readers. They know and love you, so they’re predisposed to loving whatever you write — no matter how good it is. While you might enjoy their glowing comments on your work, it won’t be the feedback you need to improve your manuscript.

Here’s who you want to enlist:

  • An acquaintance or a friend of a friend. People close to you can muddle through confusing sections or sentences to guess what you meant. That won’t give you useful feedback. Pick someone who doesn’t know you well enough to figure out your meaning.
  • A member of your target audience. If your book doesn’t resonate with your readers, you’re not going to sell copies.
  • Someone who’s not afraid to be honest. You need positive and constructive feedback.
  • Someone who’s reliable. This seems obvious, but people can overcommit. Be conscientious of your betas’ time and priorities.

You need more than one beta reader. There’s no set number, but three to five is a good start. If you’re bootstrapping your book, find even more betas: good beta readers can mean forgoing the cost of a developmental editor.

After you have an idea of who you want, it’s time to find them. Look at your network. Reach out to people already in your community who fit the criteria. Consider posting in writing groups or on your social media channels. Don’t be afraid to ask. Many people will be honored you want their help.

How do you prepare your manuscript for betas?

Even though betas help you edit, that doesn’t mean you can skip the self-editing step. Your betas can only raise the quality of your manuscript, not perfect it. That means you need to hit all types of editing (developmental, copy and proofreading) before handing it off to them.

As you edit, create a “needs-to-be-fixed” list. It might be something like “add character” or “move section to a different chapter” or “add description to opening scene.” Ask your betas to pay close attention to these items because they’ll be able to determine whether you’re on the right track — or not.

When you get ready to hand your manuscript over, ask your betas which format they prefer. Microsoft Word lends itself best to receiving feedback because it’s easy to add and delete comments, and most people have access to the program. Even if you prefer not to write in Word, converting to .doc from Scrivener or Google docs is simple. Some readers may prefer a hard copy, especially if your manuscript is long. Make it easy for them — they are donating their time to help you.

If you send Word documents, create and save a document for each person. Give it a specific name, like ManucriptNameBetaReader’sName.doc. You can merge these documents into one, but when you start incorporating edits and throwing everything together, it’s easy to accidentally delete a comment you need. If you preserve the originals with comments individually as well, you’ll be able to recover any lost feedback.

What do you want from your betas?

Feedback, yes. But don’t be vague: give your betas clear instructions about what feedback you need.

Remember that “needs-to-be-fixed” list you created during self-edits? Use that to guide what you need from your betas. Here’s a basic formula for instructions:

  • Have betas comment with their thoughts as they read, even if it’s to say, “Ooh, I like this” or to make predictions about what will happen next. This shows you how people read your book.
  • Specify what kind of feedback you’re looking for. My betas looked for:
    • Areas they felt were missing something or weren’t developed enough
    • Sections or scenes superfluous to the story
    • Any part of the story, dialogue, or narrative they didn’t understand or found confusing
    • The flow and pace of the chapters
  • Ask them to focus on certain aspects of your book. My manuscript had weak worldbuilding, so I had them pay close attention to it.
  • Tell them to supply “whys,” not “shoulds.” “I’m confused here because…” or “I don’t like this because…” will be more helpful than “You should do…” statements.
  • Set a due date. But build in cushion — if you want it back in three weeks, tell them you need it in two.

How do you deal with feedback (without freaking out)?

It’s both exhilarating and terrifying to share something you’ve poured effort into. What if they hate it? The trick to dealing with feedback without freaking out is your mindset. Here’s what you need to remember:

  • Your goal is to make your book better, and you can’t do that without constructive criticism.
  • Your betas are nice people who want to help you write a better book, not tear you down.
  • Having something to fix doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer or that your book isn’t worth publishing.
  • You don’t have to accept every piece of advice you get.
  • You can do it.

Dealing with beta feedback is where many writers give up. Don’t be one of them. Sorting through feedback — especially if it’s conflicting advice — gets overwhelming quickly. I had more than 500 beta comments on my novel. Cue the panic!

When you feel that panic and overwhelm — and you will — stop and take a deep breath. Remember: this isn’t about you; it’s about your book. They’re not the same. Pull your ego out of the equation and focus on writing the best book possible.

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And if that means deleting 7,000 words from the end of your book and rewriting it, gird your fingers and hit the delete key. That’s what happened to me, and look: I survived.

Image: Beta Feedback

How do you implement beta feedback?

Once you’ve beat the inevitable freakout, you have to evaluate each piece of feedback to decide what to revise. Think critically about what your betas said and how it fits into what your book, characters or plot needs to accomplish.

If your book is about how you started your business, for example, and your beta says, “I want to know about your childhood,” but your childhood has nothing to do with the beginning of your business, you can ignore the comment. Yes, ignore. As the author, you have the power to accept or reject feedback.

Because I asked my betas to comment as they read, I created a new Word document with all 531 comments. New documents are important: If you decide your original wording is better, you want to be able to revert back. Tracking changes and creating new files makes this easy.

But before I changed anything in my manuscript, I went through each comment and made one decision: keep or delete.

Comment #1: “I like the disjointedness of the beginning.” Delete.

Comment #5: “You’ve used ‘eyes’ three times in two sentences.” Keep.

Comment #7: “The others didn’t notice the door?” Comment #8: “She’s been there how long, and she’s just now going through the door?” Keep. Keep.

Comment #13: “At what point does frostbite become an issue?” Though this is a good question, only one beta pointed it out, and she’s never experienced cold weather. Delete.

Once I’d gone through the entire document and deleted comments, the remaining ones became my new “needs-to-be-fixed” list. These items can range from tasks like copyediting (comment #5) to adding information (comments #7 and #8) to rewriting entire chapters (the last 7,000 words).

Don’t take feedback at face value — dig deeper. Notice how two comments expressed disbelief at the door. That’s a red flag. But it’s not just about answering their questions — it’s about understanding the missing story elements.

From their comments, I knew I had to flesh out the setting (why the door is hard to notice) and how the setting affects my characters (why one girl would wait to go through the door and why the others didn’t notice it). Confusion means you’re missing something, and it’s up to you to figure out what it is and how to fix it.

When you implement feedback, get in touch with your author gut. Your instincts will tell you what needs to be fixed and what’s fine as is. Listen to it. Not sure what a beta meant by a particular comment? Don’t be afraid to follow up with them to ask for clarification.

Finally, remember to thank your beta readers. They volunteered their time and effort to help you produce a better, stronger manuscript, so make sure to show your appreciation. If your betas are writers as well, you could even offer to be a beta for their future writing projects.

Once you’ve incorporated your beta feedback, you’re one step closer to hitting “Publish.” Congratulations — and best of luck with the final stages of the process!

Have you worked with beta readers — or been one?

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Amanda Shofner satisfies her desire for adventure with the written word and helps others do the same at The Path of Least Revision. Her debut novel, Elusive Memories, is out now.... .

Amanda Shofner | @amshofner

Amanda Shofner
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Comments

  1. Thanks for this Amanda. I’ve been sharing chunks of my WIP with my critique group and that’s been helpful but I’ve had to disregard many of the comments because the readers aren’t seeing the entire story in one go. I often ask for specific feedback prior to sending the chapter or scene around and really like your suggestion about having the reader comment as they read, particularly about what will happen next. This guide goes into Evernote to be used later this year.

    • Glad it was helpful, Keith! I agree that having people read in chunks can be frustrating. I send 500 to 1,000 word chunks to my alpha reader, and know that sometimes important set-up information gets lost. But recognizing that’s the reason behind their comments will be super helpful when it comes time to implement their suggestions. Good luck! 🙂

  2. I was a beta reader for a friend. I found several typos and wrote a critique of the manuscript when I was done reading.

  3. I have the benefit of finding 5-7 people from my target audience who know me but not well each time I need a beta readers. I give them large chunks of my novel to read over the course of a week, then we all meet together on Friday nights to discuss.

    I totally agree with having multiple beta readers for your novel. I can’t count the number of times someone has said something and I’ve been able to ask, “Well, what did you think?” Sometimes I get an overwhelming, “Yes! That’s exactly what I was thinking!” (Okay, I need to change things.) But sometimes I get comments that garner the response, “Nope. That’s not how I viewed that at all. The way I saw it was…” and I can move on from there.

    A general consensus is always a great indicator that something’s not right (or something is right).

  4. Crazy helpful post! I struggle with showing/ sharing my works-in-progress. I am sure that it has something to do with wanting to be a perfectionist. This post has reminded me that letting others read my work will ultimately improve them!

    • I totally understand, Angela! Sometimes I find that going into the editing process (both self-editing and betas) with a clear idea of my weak spots makes it easier to share. Betas shouldn’t expect your manuscript to be perfect anyway, so rather than toiling away trying to “perfect” my manuscript, I ask them for help.

      Good luck sharing — it’s not as scary as it seems! 🙂

  5. Alice Grimes says:

    This is a great article, Amanda. I have shared it to Facebook and will try to share to our writers’ guild FB page. I do some editing and see a lot of things that get missed because the writer cannot be objective or “stand outside” his/her work. The writer knows what was intended or meant and “sees it” that way.

    Keep up the good work.

  6. Debbie Oxier says:

    I only have one person I know who reads the same genre as I read. Where do I go to find writers’ groups or beta readers? Help! Thank you for your article!

  7. Debbie Oxier says:

    Where do I go to find writers’ groups or beta readers? I only have one person I know who reads the same genre I do. Help! Thank you for the article!

  8. Good article, Amanda. Plenty of my clients enlist beta readers (although I suspect many are what you classify as the ‘worst’ beta readers – friends and family). The other problem is that they also enlist the help of these beta readers to proofread their manuscript. I work with many new writers and one of the most common things I hear is, “It’s already been proofread; it just needs one final going over…” When I read the manuscript and send the client a sample edit, they are usually astounded how much work the manuscript actually needs. A good proofreader/editor can also fulfil the role of a beta reader. Whilst we do not necessarily fulfil the role of a manuscript assessor and are certainly not literary agents, we provide critical feedback and suggestions as well as obviously ensuring the grammar, spelling and so forth is up to scratch. I have also written about this in my July blog article, “It just needs a final proofread…”

    • I’ve been there before with clients, so I completely understand, Sally. I’ve said before that people often have an inflated view of their own writing and think no mistakes = quality writing. And that could be a post in itself.

  9. I’ve used http://www.critters.org/ (for science fiction/fantasy/horror; http://critique.org/ is the parent site). It is a large group of authors who critique each other. The neat thing is, the site explains how to write a polite and useful comment, especially when it is negative. This really cuts down on the anguish and let me get on with improving my story.

    • Very cool, Kate! Bookmarking those sites so I can send people who are looking for feedback there. I especially love their guide on how to phrase a critical comment. 🙂

  10. I wish I’d seen this prior to commencing my novel’s beta review! Great, concise advice and I agree with all of it.

    A few things I found:

    1. Find “Someone who’s reliable. This seems obvious, but people can overcommit. Be conscientious of your betas’ time and priorities.” Wow, so true. Three of my five beta readers never finished. They overcommitted by a long shot and eventually, we chatted and it didn’t seem they were going to finish prior to me moving on to my next round of revision. Frustrating. So, really find a way to ask, clearly, “can you make time for this? meet this deadline?” These people are doing us a favor, but there has to be some clear expectation about what you need and when you need it. It’s a tough bit of communication when you’re asking someone to read and critique hundreds of pages, but it’s crucial.

    2. The format. I sent out 4 manuscripts in hard copy. With printing, binding and shipping (return mail included), it cost a few hundred dollars. Bam – that was a surprise. Especially as several people never finished or returned the manuscript. Consider the cost of printing and shipping if you’re going to send hard copies. Sure, it’s probably a small cost in the long run, but it’s never fun when it’s a surprise.

    3. Be clear about what you want, but don’t ask for too, too much. My readers didn’t really answer any of my more meta questions. They focused on the big picture – which did end up helping a lot. But i probably should have either a) asked for a bit less or b) followed up with a phone call to clarify what I needed prior to them diving in.

    All of this is a great learning experience, and it’s a fun milestone to hit. After all, a beta review period means you have a finished novel to review (yay). So, take a moment to celebrate that, even if only briefly. The revision process can be long and daunting, so remember to go easy on yourself – you’ve accomplished something a lot of other writers never will.

    Thanks for the great post!

  11. I was wondering, how do ya’ll collect the comments. Word review comments, hard copy? I have some that like hard copy, some that want to meet one on one and some who like kindle. Any ideas?

    • Alice Grimes says:

      The author I beta read for sends his manuscript in Word format and I can use the edit function to “edit” typos, grammatical errors and enter comments for him in appropriate places and return the “edited copy” to him. He can then accept or reject the suggested changes once he reviews the copy and can evaluate the comments and decide what he wants to do about those.

      He writes very good books and is confident in his ability and I am somewhat of a “perfectionist”; we have a comfortable relationship where neither takes offense or is “shaken” when we don’t agree. We have become very good friends over the past couple of years but I don’t hesitate to give him an honest assessment and he doesn’t feel obligated to make every change I suggest. I think I can truthfully say we have mutual respect and trust for each other.

  12. Thanks for the very helpful article, Amanda. I found it after I had sent out beta reader copies, having read another article on this topic and had my editor suggest a beta read at this stage. Your article includes all the important points, especially finding readers who are not the people closest to you. I posted an announcement on Facebook and had writers I knew only a little volunteer. I know not all will finish, but one followup question I’ll have for those readers is to ask where they stopped and if they can honestly tell me why. Often a reader will hit a slow area and quit reading because there’s a problem but they don’t know how to articulate it until you gently ask. No one writes alone! I’m so grateful to all my readers.

  13. I’ve been developing a company that does beta reading for authors. Right now we have 750+ test readers from all across the US. Each author gets eight to ten targeted readers to read and critique their whole manuscript. The results are a 35+ page report full of feedback, both quantitative and qualitative. The author can also add personalized questions to the survey, and I go over everything in a 30 minute SKYPE/phone call. We just soft launched, so are offering a $200 coupon code – HIVE – off the normal $499/per test market price. If you want more info – check us out – http://www.book-hive.com

  14. Meghan Greene says:

    I am interested in being a beta-reader.

  15. I love this post!
    I have proofread many of my friends’ books, short stories, essays, and more and I have been both thanked and criticized for giving my extra thoughts rather than just correcting grammar.

    How does one start to become a paid BetaReader?
    I absolutely love reading and there is something about being one of the people that help inspire and assist the author that makes it even more enjoyable. My favorites to read have been fantasy/sci-fi, but lately I have really enjoyed “based on a true story” books as well as biographies. I’d love to broaden my horizons.

  16. Great topic. I enjoy being a teen beta reader for YA writers. I found Fiverr to work well for finding and connecting with each other.

    Mikey
    http://www.gogetmikey.com/

Trackbacks

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