Beta readers have the enormous potential to steer out manuscripts right down the path to publication. They are often that first voice of reason to find the flaws we authors simply cannot see or have overlooked in the maze of revisions, additions and edits.
However, in my research, I was shocked to find so many authors were disappointed, angry or hurt by their experiences with beta readers. Some of their complaints included: too little or no feedback from the reader, harsh or hurtful critiques, readers that back out or quit the project, readers that tried to rewrite the story, and readers that shared the author's manuscript without permission. (See Beta Reading for helpful survey results.)
Surprisingly, we authors may be most at fault here. If we haven't done our homework, how can we expect the betas to do theirs? I believe with a little preparation and planning, authors can head off these problems before they start. Based on my research and recent encounters with my 8 beta readers, here are 10 tips to create a worthwhile, productive experience between the beta readers and the author.
1. Choose wisely! Choose beta readers that either write or read your genre. No matter how much someone likes or supports your writing efforts, they may never connect to your manuscript if it is not in their preferred genre. "Paranormal-vampire" readers may be bored with the slower pace of a regency novel and never finish it.
2. Choose beta readers that represent your target market and have time to critique. Your betas should know up front, the length and word count of your manuscript, so they can decide if they have the time to devote to your project. In addition, I would suggest that you use readers of various ages. My beta readers ranged from 23-75 years old and the differing viewpoints offered a rich source of information.
Something that worked quite well for me was a "book club approach". When I enlisted their help, I let all 8 of the betas know they were reading the same chapters at the same time and all had the same completion date, after which we would schedule a critique session. Knowing we were all in this together, sustained the focus on the manuscript.
3. Complete your manuscript before enlisting the aid of beta readers. Don't keep your betas waiting for chapters or installments, or they'll lose interest. Make sure your manuscript is as polished as possible, otherwise, beta readers may be turned off by numerous mistakes and errors they find in the early chapters. Before my betas saw the manuscript, I had done two rounds of editing. I was finally to a point where I was proud of my effort and needed more pairs of eyes to look it over.
4. Clarify your expectations to your beta readers. Communicate to your betas what you want them to do. Are you looking for help with grammar and spelling? Do you need more feedback on plot movement? In my case, I asked my readers to ignore grammatical errors for the time being, and focus on the flow and continuity of the story. Were the characters engaging? Did they care about them? Was this a plausible plot? What scenes could I cut? I needed to know these things more than spelling or passive voice errors.
I suggest authors don't bog down beta readers with detailed requirements. That is a professional editor's job and probably out of the scope of most beta readers. Keep it general. This will increase your chances that your betas will complete the entire manuscript.
5. Clarify your expectations for beta readers' feedback. What is your preferred format? Will it be a face-to-face verbal discussions with your readers, or do you prefer Microsoft's track changes feature? How often are you expecting to receive feedback from betas? Be specific.
6. Discuss and clarify amount of manuscript you will be sending to your readers, then stay on schedule. Do your readers prefer one big chunk of manuscript up front or would they prefer smaller doses? According to the "Beta Reading" article mentioned above, most readers prefer a few chapters at a time or else they feel overwhelmed and bogged down. This was the preferred method of my beta readers as well. Every week I sent 4-6 chapters to them in their emails and gauged their progress. For most, this was the appropriate amount per week.
7. Set a final deadline for completion of the reading. Deadlines are the best motivators for most of us, and beta readers are no different. However, you must be flexible on this. Remember the readers have a life outside of your manuscript and they are giving up their time, without pay, to help you. Adjust the deadline, if necessary. I didn’t confer enough with my readers as the deadline approached and found out later, that three of the eight did not finish the manuscript before the appointed deadline.
8. Stay in contact with your readers. This is crucial for maintaining the morale of your readers and touching base on their progress. But don't bug them! An occasional email asking if they have received the appropriate chapters or if they have any questions will suffice. They need to know that what they are doing matters and their efforts are appreciated. Thank them every chance you get, don't just wait until the end to thank them for their time and effort. A kind word goes a long way when it comes to cooperation.
9. Construct and distribute a critique worksheet for your readers. One of my best ideas as confirmed by the betas! After they had completed the reading of the manuscript, I sent each of them a critique-group discussion worksheet asking for their honest opinions on things like "scenes they loved and why" and "scenes that bothered them and why". I provided a chapter by chapter synopsis as a reference guide. I wanted the betas to reflect individually on these points, before we discussed these together, thereby reducing peer pressure. (More about the worksheet in Friday's post.)
10. Host a Beta Reader Critique Party. This may not be possible for every author, but I am blessed to have all my betas living within a 30-mile radius from me. A critique party thrown in their honor, seemed like the perfect thank you for their efforts. From the dinner menu to the decorations, the theme for the evening was based on the book. Each beta brought their completed worksheets to the party and this served as an outline to help streamline our critique discussion . (More beta party ideas in a future post.)
These are my best tips, but maybe you have more.
Your turn: Have I left anything out? Do you have any more tips you'd like to add?Any positive or negative beta experiences you'd like to share? Which tip or tips do you find the most helpful?
Coming Up: The Beauty of the Beta Reader worksheet.