How to Make Beta Reading Work for Us

by Jami Gold on February 9, 2016

in Writing Stuff

Crumpled ball of paper with text: Working with Beta Readers

(Note: I just finished a brutal two-week revision under deadline, so rather than staying up until 4 a.m. (again), I’m recycling this guest post I wrote a couple of years ago for Anne R. Allen’s blog. I hope you enjoy!)

Ever struggle to make readers’ interpretations of your writing match your intentions? We probably all have.

Maybe readers come away with the wrong impression of a character. Maybe a plot twist is too obvious or from too far out of field. Or maybe our subtext is too subtle or too “on the nose.”

As writers, we’re so close to our stories it’s impossible for us to know how readers will interpret our words. A good beta reader will go through our “the best we can make it by ourselves” draft and give feedback about what we can’t see. And that’s just one reason why we all need beta readers. *smile*

Sounds Great! How Do We Get Beta Readers?

Once we have fans and readers of our published work, we might be able to find volunteers who would love a sneak peek at our stories in exchange for feedback of issues they discover. Until we reach that point, however, volunteers might not be as abundant.

Most writers in that position exchange work with other authors in an “I’ll give you feedback if you give me feedback” beta-reading arrangement. Check out my blog post with a massive list of ideas for where and how to find beta readers.

Do Beta Readers Need to Be Familiar with Our Genre?

We probably want most of our beta readers to be familiar with our genre, but it’s possible for beta readers outside our genre to be valuable too. No matter what genre they read, good beta readers can provide valuable feedback like:

  • identifying confusing sections,
  • evaluating the pacing from a big picture perspective,
  • looking for too much telling versus showing, and
  • finding weak/missing character motivations, etc.

More importantly, beta readers who don’t love our genre can tell us what we don’t need to worry about:

  • Did they hate the main character, but love the voice?
  • Did the pacing and story keep them reading despite their “meh” feeling toward the genre?
  • Did they connect to the main character so much they plowed through a plot they didn’t like?

Sometimes our harshest (i.e., best) critics are those who aren’t predisposed to love our story. They won’t gloss over issues just because “that’s how it’s always done.” We’re always trying to get distance from our work for editing purposes. What better way to gain that distance than by finding a reader who won’t have any predispositions to what we write? *smile*

How to Establish a Beta Reading Exchange

Step 1: Offer to Beta Read for Someone Else

Almost anyone can be a beta reader. The most important qualification is having a critical-enough eye to point out issues like:

  • confusing sentences or plot events,
  • where their attention wavers, and
  • whether they find our characters likeable or sympathetic, etc.

For example, when I send out a manuscript for beta reading, I ask people to mark:

  • Anything that takes them out of the story (confusing wording, voice/characterization seems off, too repetitive, no conflict/tension, etc.)
  • Pacing issues (too slow, feels too “one note,” not enough of an arc, scene goes on too long, etc.)
  • Emotional feedback (stream-of-consciousness emotional reactions)

That’s it. Beta reading isn’t about the reader’s knowledge of the craft of writing, but about what works and doesn’t work for them as a reader.

(Don’t miss my Beta Reading Worksheet with ideas of what we can ask readers to look for—or what we can look for ourselves when we give feedback.)

Step 2: Provide Good Feedback

Not all feedback is created equal, and we know we’re not likely to reuse a beta reader whose suggestions are 90% useless for our goals. The same applies in the opposite direction. For great beta reading relationships, we have to find a good match and we have to be the best beta reader we can be.

Here are three tips for how to increase the helpfulness of our feedback and become a better beta reader:

Tip #1: Focus on Making Their Story Better

We must work toward making their story better. We shouldn’t focus our comments on how we’d do it.

How we’d do it is irrelevant. Our voice is not their voice, our goals are not their goals, our themes and worldviews are not their themes and worldviews.

The only exception to this rule is when something about their writing doesn’t work for us. Maybe the writing is passive or the characters lack motivations, etc. Then—and only then—can we provide an example and say, “This doesn’t work for me because of xyz. Maybe something like abc would be stronger.”

Tip #2: Suggest Changes Only When the Writing Doesn’t “Work” in Some Way

Just because the writing is different from how we’d do it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. For all we know, the impression we’re left with is the impression they wanted.

If the writing works, suggested changes like word choice or sentence structure aren’t helpful. At most, we should share one comment along the lines of, “Words like a, b, and c create an impression of z, and I’m not sure that’s what you want.” Unless the writer asked us for line-by-line, copy-editing-level feedback, nitpicky suggestions are more likely to mess with their voice than provide useful information.

If the writing doesn’t work, we should focus on why it doesn’t work for us. Separating our thoughts on whether a section doesn’t work or if it’s just not how we’d word it can be tricky sometimes. So we should ask ourselves why we want to change the writing:

  • Does the current wording take us out of the story (confusing wording, voice/characterization seems off, etc.)?
  • Are the stakes, goals, motivations, etc. unclear or weak?
  • Do we not like or care about the characters?

If we can’t come up with a reason, we should leave it alone.

Tip #3: Always Give a Reason for Suggested Changes

The only time I make a change and don’t give a reason is when I find a missing word. Those are fairly self-explanatory. *smile*

Every other suggested change has my explanation of why. With that reason, the author can judge whether my suggestion comes from me not getting their voice, misinterpreting something, being confused, etc.

If we don’t give a reason, crossing out their writing and replacing it with our own is disrespectful. On the other hand, if we have a real reason, even nitpicky things like suggestions about word choices and sentence structures are helpful.

Leaving a comment like “I’d use x word instead of y word” isn’t a reason because it doesn’t respect their voice. In contrast, “I don’t think the character would use x word (would they even know that word?). Y seems more like their voice” is a real reason. The author now has enough information to decide whether or not to make the change.

Step 3: Be Gracious with the Feedback We Receive

First, no matter how much we disagree with (or are hurt by) the feedback from a beta reader, we should say thank you. They did spend time on our work, and for that, they deserve our thanks. If their feedback doesn’t work for us, consider it a lesson learned to not exchange work with them again.

Second, we need to evaluate our writing based on that feedback. Maybe we’ll slap our forehead and say “duh” to their comments. Maybe we’ll ignore their suggestion and instead just tweak our writing to fix a confusing plot point or character motivation. Maybe we’ll decide their misunderstanding is exactly what we wanted and not change a thing.

We don’t want to blindly implement changes until we decide what kind of story we want to tell. If a suggestion will help us tell that story better, we should make the change. If a suggestion would take us further from that story, we shouldn’t implement it.

Regardless, feedback is almost always a pointer that something is less than ideal for that reader. 99% of the time there’s a kernel of truth in a beta reader’s criticism, so our default should be to try to discover that truth and make the feedback work for us.

If we’re willing to provide good-quality feedback for others, we’ll usually be able to find other writers with whom we can exchange work. There are thousands of writers in the world, and we need to find just a handful to be beta buddies. Hopefully this post gives you some ideas on how to make that happen. *smile*

Do you have beta readers that you can rely on? How did you find them? Are they fans of your genre? What makes them good beta readers for you? Do you disagree with any of the suggestions here?

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18 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Christina Hawthorne February 9, 2016 at 12:03 pm

I’ve heard a rumor there’s an isolated island between South America and Tahiti populated by beta readers who’s plane crashed there. It’s also difficult to find and populated with fearsome creatures that eat authors, including a giant monkey the beta reader’s descendants now worship. Any chance you could find it and report back on your blog? 😉

A smile for you. Hope you get the chance to rest. Thanks for the post!

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Jami Gold February 10, 2016 at 7:45 am

Hi Christina,

Ha! Thanks for the laugh. 😀 Unfortunately, I think my body has forgotten how to sleep. *shakes head* Thanks for the comment!

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Anne R. Allen February 9, 2016 at 3:37 pm

This is a great post and deserves to be recycled. Best of luck with the revisions!

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Jami Gold February 10, 2016 at 7:46 am

Hi Anne,

Thank you! And since it’s been a while since this post ran on your site, I figured it was due for an airing out. LOL! Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

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Serena Yung February 10, 2016 at 12:50 pm

Hmm I’m not too worried about finding beta readers for my English stories, becaause they aren’t THAT long (only around 400 pages) and are in English. But my Chinese story will be hard since it’s that long and in Chinese! However, I’m thankful for the nice beta reader I met on one of your blog posts, and to make it easier for her, I plan to only ask her to point out confusing sentences, character inconsistencies, and plot holes. It would be great to ask her for moment-to-moment emotional reactions, but my story really is too long, so it would be waaay too time-consuming to ask for that much from anyone!

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Jami Gold February 10, 2016 at 5:48 pm

Hi Serena,

Yes, I can’t imagine the difficulty of trying to find beta readers for non-English stories. LOL! Good luck with it, and thanks for the comment! 🙂

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Serena Yung February 10, 2016 at 11:13 pm

Thank you! Lol. Btw I just finished reading a book that could be seen as the first Chinese martial arts story ever written in China. It’s probably my favorite pre-1900s Chinese literary classic so far! However, my favorite character was brutally killed and was not magically resurrected by the end of the book so now I’m heartbroken. 🙁 (There really were quite a few magical resurrections in this story.)

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Jami Gold February 11, 2016 at 4:49 pm

Hi Serena,

Oh very cool! …about the book, not the character. 🙁

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Serena Yung February 11, 2016 at 6:14 pm

🙁 On a more lighthearted note, when I Googled images of my fav character Bai Yutang, lolll I saw that he was enthusiastically shipped with this other main guy, Zhan Zhao, in the story. Lollll random slash ships. XD (Well I have no evidence that either of them dislike guys…). But I still think Bai Yutang is an Ace of Spades and doesn’t fancy anyone at all, Hahaha. Or is that just me and my wishful thinking? In the book, it was never mentioned that he ever married and he comes from a subculture that condemns premarital sex, so no children either. It was mentioned somewhere in the book that he was still single, but you don’t know if he got married later (before dying young…)

In some “sequels” pretty much written by fans of his work (highly acclaimed writers and critics are still just fans, not the original author), Bai Yutang did actually have a wife and a son. But meh, those are only fanfics to me; they were not by the author of the original book, so Bai Yutang was probably single his whole (short) life. According to my wishful thinking that nevertheless can’t be proven wrong (nor can it be proven right).

Lol!

Don’t get me wrong, though. I love fanfiction, but if the fanfic has a plot event I dislike, I’m very able to say that that event never happened because it wasn’t written by the original author, lol.

Reply

Jami Gold February 12, 2016 at 6:33 pm

Hi Serena,

Of course. 🙂 Fanfic is only canon if the author says it is. Otherwise, it’s up to the readers to decide if they want to make it their personal head-canon or not. LOL!

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Serena Yung February 13, 2016 at 2:46 pm

Exactly! I want to be in denial that he died too, but maybe that would be pushing it, lol. (He also happens to be the ONLY main good guy who dies, sigh.)

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Jami Gold February 16, 2016 at 8:16 am

Hi Serena,

Oh no, that’s awful for him. 🙁

Jon February 11, 2016 at 3:30 pm

Thank you Jami for posting this again. I’m one of those occasional and voluntary beta readers who isn’t a writer or a long standing friend. I’ve sent off citations to your beta read columns when I first start with an author, explaining that I try to follow your advice.

In particular, I’ve had to focus on why something doesn’t work, rather than simply concluding that it doesn’t or that I don’t like it. Also, taking your advice to give a reason for every comment or suggestion forces me to work through in my mind, and then in writing, the “why.”

OT, I hope that the tough/tight revision schedule means we will have another book from you soon.

Jon

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Jami Gold February 11, 2016 at 4:46 pm

Hi Jon,

Oh very cool! Yes, the “why” is so helpful to a writer because there are usually dozens of ways we could tweak or change a problem area, and that insight lets us know which direction to look toward for our fixes. 🙂

And yes, I’m aiming for a late spring release for the next Mythos novel. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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