In the previous lesson we examined the best way to self-edit your work and highlighted the ‘best practice’ methods that will ensure your efforts in editing are not wasted. In this lesson we turn are attention to beta readers. If you follow the guidelines set out in this lesson you will learn the best way to interact with beta readers, ensuring you don’t waste time and end up with results that will not improve your novel.
Beta Reader is a relatively new term and is given to a reader who assesses a novel in the stages prior to submission. A beta reader is given the novel with the understanding that they will read the book and provide feedback the writer can use to improve the manuscript. The idea being that by allowing a small number of beta readers to view their manuscript, a reader has the opportunity to correct any major issues before moving onto the next stage.
Picking Beta Readers
There are no hard and fast rules for picking beta readers, though I would add the following suggestions:
- 1. Avoid very close friends and family
- 2. Aim for a small number (3-5) of very good readers, rather than a large number offering average feedback
- 3. If possible arrange to meet them face-to-face to discuss your book (if not then phone/Skype is second best)
- Pick readers who are your target market or, if this is not possible, choose readers that understand your genre
- 4. Make sure they can read your novel within a time frame that fits your needs.
Making the Most of the Feedback
Having picked your beta readers and given them your novel, the next step is to get feedback. At first glance this can seem like a straightforward process, but it is full of potential pitfalls.
The first problem is ensuring the reader is able to give valuable feedback. As I said above, close family and friends are not the best choice. The problem is that your mum/dad/husband/wife/friend all want your novel to be great; they also like you and don’t want to hurt your feelings. This means feedback from this ‘inner circle’ is all but useless. For the best, most honest and most valuable feedback you need to break out of this circle and into the big bad world. The key is to make an effort to seek out the kind of people who would actually read your book in real life. It is these people, real readers, who will give you the kind of feedback that really counts.
When collecting your feedback make sure you listen more than you talk. Getting feedback via email or a Word doc is great, but actually speaking with your reader is the best possible solution. This gives you a chance to watch their body language and prompt them for more insightful answers. However, when interacting with readers you must resist the temptation to explain, just listen. Ask open-ended questions — it is these types of questions that will give you the best results. Typically who/what/when/where/why/how questions all work well. Asking, ‘Did you like chapter 2?’ will produce a limited response. However asking, ‘What did you like about chapter 2?’ or even better, ‘What didn’t you like about chapter 2?’ will produce the best possible feedback.
If you truly seek genuine and valuable feedback then you need to be ready to face the bitter truth. Not everything you hear will be nice. In fact, if all you hear are nice things then you are doing it all wrong. You want to hear about the bits of your work that are rubbish. You need to know which characters are two-dimensional, which scenes don’t work and where the reader lost interest. Will this feedback hurt? Too right it will! It will sting for days… But it will make you a better writer.
Not all feedback is created equal, and not all readers are capable of giving you the kind of feedback you need. It is therefore essential that you are able to filter the feedback, be it good or bad. Resist the temptation to leap into action. Instead of reacting instantly to one comment, take a step back and assess. The first step is to make sure you get enough feedback. One reader is not enough, you need at least three readers to have assessed your book before you go making major changes. If you get enough feedback then you can concentrate on looking for trends and patterns in the reader’s comments. If all the feedback says Chapter 1 is too short, then it’s time to revisit Chapter 1. However, if just one reader says Chapter 1 is too short, it’s probably best to ignore this comment and make no changes.
In the next section we consider the pros and cons of paying for professional feedback.