So, a peculiar thing started to happen to me a few years ago: people began to ask for writing/process advice from me. Which feels weird, because even if I sort of have the hang of my own method of drafting, editing, and publishing, it’s almost a requirement for writers to have overwhelming imposter syndrome.
So here is my version of writing methodology (for now, until another descends from the heavens to show me why my method is inferior– repeat forever). Take it all with a big ol’ grain of salt. If another way works better for you: great! Keep doing it that way. If this helps you: great! I’m glad this made sense.
Working With Beta Readers
Full disclosure: I love my beta readers. They are so important to my personal process, and they provide vital feedback and information. I have never had a beta session end without learning something new about my manuscript that could be improved that I (probably) would never have caught otherwise.
This is not the case for all writers. Especially because my beta readers are usually friends, and I like to do my follow-ups in person (or, in a COVID-19 struck world, via video call). Both of those things might seem a little counterintuitive for anyone in writing advice circles. “Don’t give it to your mom or your friend!” they shout. “You’ll never get honest feedback!” “They’ll be too worried about hurting your feelings, so if you must ask them, have them take notes of their critiques.”
But there’s a method to my madness, and I think the root of it is what I’m specifically looking to get out of my beta rounds.
Advice #1 – Beta reading means it’s been fully revised at least once
Online–and offline if I’m honest–I’ve been handed manuscripts to “beta read” that the author fully admits they either haven’t read, or that are only half finished, or are finished but already have big giant tags for changes.
In my mind, none of those examples are beta drafts. They’re alpha drafts, even if some scenes have been reworked and the author is broadly happy with them.
Before I’m comfortable calling anything a beta draft, I have pretty much taken it (storywise, scenewise, and plotwise) as far as I can on my own. What that means for me is that I’ve finished the first draft, I’ve read it, I’ve noted what was wrong in my opinion, fixed those things to the best of my ability (this means a lot of rewriting), and now have something that feels like a real book to present (in the future I’ll discuss how I go about my revision process, but this is a post about beta reading). There is a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Good rule of thumb? I’m always nervous before a beta read, but I’m also comforted that (aside from some wording tweaks or small grammar/line edit fixes) it’s the best work I can give them on my own.
Advice #2 – Don’t wait for your beta readers to give you their notes
Don’t get me wrong. My beta readers often take excellent notes, and I always ask for those… eventually. The ones who have been around the longest are also usually more forthright expressing their opinions because they know I want honest feedback and criticism and that I don’t take it personally.
But even my amazing betas still aren’t necessarily on the look out for the same things I am. To be honest, I don’t want them to be. The average reader isn’t going to be reading a manuscript the same way the average author does, and having that “reader” perspective is invaluable.
This is partially why I like to facilitate my beta feedback sessions in person, or via video chat. That way I can gauge reactions in real time, and it makes it more obvious when someone is hesitating about particular scenes or characters.
Beta readers are most useful for making sure the story is as tight as it can be with all the necessary description and narrative flair. Beta readers are not for deep corrections on wording or grammar, unless something is totally unreadable to them. It’s okay to ask if things “flowed” okay, but beta readers (at least my beta readers) aren’t there to make sure I have a grasp of grammar and spelling rules.
Advice #3 – What to ask
Some of what I ask is tailored to the individual beta reader. If I know someone who has had an experience or belongs to a culture that I’ve written into my story but have never actually had first-hand, I’ll specifically ask if the details felt authentic and respectful.
Other times, I focus on asking how something reads, particularly if I feel a little insecure about it (again, the scene has still been taken as far as I can on my own) to suss out how well it fits into the story. Sometimes, it’s even more specific to the story’s needs. For example, with my upcoming novel, Vow, the chapters are a more creatively titled than my previous books. I wanted to make sure all of them were equally strong (and not only funny to a crowd of one… comedy is hard.)
There are some broad questions that are useful in pretty much every story, though:
- Was there anything that didn’t make sense within the plot?
- Did the characters feel alive and developed? Why/why not?
- Was there anything boring/slow-moving?
- If you were to re-read, is there anything you’d skip/skim over?
- Did anything confuse you completely?*
- Was the narrative voice clear and consistent?
- Were all the settings present and easy to “see”?
- What did you like?
- What didn’t you like?
- Do you have any notes for me?
*This is a little different than the plot hole question above, this has been more likely to yield questions about descriptive passages, world building, etc vs pure story confusion)
There are more general questions, but that’s a pretty decent start. Before a beta interview session, I like to take a moment to decide what I want to ask for the particular story that’s been read and jot down my questions, leaving space for notes and answers below each one.
Advice #4 – Beta readers are great at showing you what you’re doing right and wrong (let them!)
The other primary reason I like to do my beta interviews face to face is that I can tell if a reader is bored by something, even if they don’t know it. While writing the Rhapsody Quartet, there were a handful of scenes I rewrote post beta because I asked the readers if they liked them (I had thought on some of them that I’d knocked it out of the park) and their response was a flaccid, “Yeah, it was okay. It was fine.” If the scene is supposed to be exciting, or romantic, or thrilling? “Okay” is a big ouch. But a big ouch is better than a mediocre story. You can do something about the ouch.
Conversely, some ideas that I worried were too out there or silly were instantly vindicated when I asked my betas about them. “No! I loved it!” Again, this is a moment where hearing the enthusiasm in their voices really helps you to know it’s not just lip service.
So, How do I Get Beta Readers?
In my case, I just asked. On Facebook. (It was over a decade ago, lay off, man!) It was really that simple.
It can be a little intimidating to put yourself out there on personal social media pages, especially if you’re worried that someone won’t like your book. And it will happen eventually– you can’t win ’em all. Usually, when it happens, it’s obvious: the beta reader is having trouble getting through it in a reasonable time, or they don’t have any feedback when you ask what they think “so far”. If you run into this scenario, thank the reader for checking it out, but assure them that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea and move on.
If you’d rather avoid friends/family/acquaintances, there are lots of online forums and groups to find readers. Check social media tags for #betaread, the r/BetaReading subreddit, Facebook groups, etc for lots of options.
If you ask an author to read for you, be aware that even if they agree (many do not critique for others) they aren’t likely to look at it with strictly “reader” eyes. Experienced authors will juggle world building, dialogue, character development, grammar, and about a hundred other little details in the back of their brains when they read to critique. Additionally, some authors can slip into the dregs of critiquing what they felt you should’ve written vs what you’ve actually written. Speaking as an author who has critiqued her share of work, this is a pretty easy trap to fall into unless you’re vigilant about keeping criticisms of story/world building open ended and remember that it’s not your job to “fix it” by inserting your own writing style or words.
But no matter if your beta readers are friends, acquaintances, or total strangers, be sure to thank them. They are taking time away from their lives to read your manuscript, and even more time to discuss it. I know without mine, my work wouldn’t be nearly as good.