Saturday 30 May 2020

Writers’ Questions: How should I work with beta readers?

Welcome back! In my Writers’ Questions series, I’ve been answering questions other writers have been asking me since I first announced the publication of my debut novel. My historical novel, Bronte’s Mistress, will be released by Atria Books on August 4th, but, in the meantime, I’ve been working on a new project. This manuscript (also historical fiction) is currently with the all-important beta readers.

Counting down the days until Bronte's Mistress is published

What are beta readers?
Beta readers are early readers. They read a drafted novel from beginning to end, and give the writer feedback to make their novel stronger.

What are beta readers not?
Alpha Readers/Morale Boosters
Some writers have alpha readers—readers who act as their cheerleaders, reading chapters as they’re being produced. But beta readers are different. Their job isn’t to tell a writer “this is great” but to deliver tangible feedback and valid criticisms based on their reading experience.

Writers’ Groups
I am a member of two writers’ group (one historical fiction focused, one multi-genre), which give me chapter-by-chapter feedback. The valuable feedback I receive from these groups tends to be detail-oriented and technical (after all, I’m hearing from other writers here!). But it’s hard for these groups to comment on overall plot and character arcs since they’re only reading one (or half a) chapter every two weeks, and it’s nearly impossible for writers to put themselves in the shoes of non-writing readers.

It’s not the job of a beta reader to catch your spelling mistakes (and it’ll get really annoying if multiple people are telling you about the same typo!). Spell and grammar check your work yourself or hire a freelance editor if you need support.

How do I find beta readers?
My criteria for beta readers are very straightforward. Betas should…

1. Read fiction frequently (I don’t want people who don’t read or who only read non-fiction)
2. Be reliable (I’m working to personal deadlines so don’t have time to wait around for others)
3. Be honest (people may struggle to deliver harsh feedback and that’s okay, but you have to believe that their intention is to be as honest as possible—more on how to get the actual truth out of them later)

Generally speaking, I don’t want my beta readers to be other fiction writers. This is because writers tend to try to “fix” problems and tell you what they would have done vs. just pointing out their responses. However, I do make exceptions and think it depends how many betas you have. Of the eight people currently reading my next novel, one is a fellow novelist.

Among the others, there are non-writing expertise and experiences represented that I find helpful e.g. one of my betas is a historian, and others in the group have lived experiences that mirror those of some of my characters.

I ask people I know to beta read, ranging from close family members to acquaintances. There are also beta reading services and swaps online, none of which I’ve tried. With beta read swaps, you’re going to be getting feedback from other writers, which I find less helpful. With paid services, well, you’re going to have to pay! These options could be helpful though if you’re struggling to find people you know to ask.

How many beta readers should I have?
I typically recruit 7-10 beta readers, which is a lot, but I think the volume of responses really helps me. If I hear a piece of feedback from just one or two beta readers, I could chalk the response up to personal preference. If three or more people are saying the same thing, it forces me to listen.

Life is also complicated and messy. By having more beta readers, even if one or two of them have to drop out and/or have something obstructive happen in their lives in the next few weeks, I still have more than enough people giving me feedback.

Can you describe the beta reading process?
I know my 5-step process may seem a little intense, but I’ve gone through it three times and it works well for me.

Step 1: Beta Reader Recruitment
Ask people to beta read for you. It’s better to do this over text vs. face to face and to give them an easy out. For instance, this time around I mentioned that I knew people had a lot going on right now because of the pandemic. I told them I wouldn’t be upset if they said no, but I valued their opinion and would be delighted if they said yes.

The aim of recruitment isn’t just to get beta readers. It’s to get beta readers who genuinely want to beta read and didn’t feel pressured into saying yes.

Mistakes I’ve made in the past: asking people when we’re out drinking (drunk people say yes to anything), and asking people just because I was worried about offending them by not asking. Don’t do these things!

Step 2: Email Kick-Off
Here’s an anonymized version of the email I send to kick things off. Feel free to crib from it.

Thank you all so much for agreeing to be beta readers for my novel, TITLE (attached). 

I've asked you for your help because I value your opinions and want to use your feedback to make the book better.

Reminders for everyone and rules of the road for new beta readers:
Try to finish the novel by DATE
Contact me as soon as you finish the novel (don't wait 'til DATE if you finish earlier)
Please read the manuscript like you would any other book. No need to take notes or sit with a red pen in hand
At a couple of points in the novel, there are pages asking you to pause your reading and answer a few quick questions. Please do that!
Don't copyedit
Be honest!
Don’t talk to the other beta readers about the book before giving me your feedback
Once you let me know you're finished, I will set up time to video interview you about the novel in depth

My promises to you:
I’m going to consider any feedback you give me seriously
I’m not going to check in on your progress before DATE
I’m not going to like you any less for anything you say about the novel

Thank you so much again for reading for me. Please confirm receipt of this email. Then I'll leave you to read in peace. J

Step 3: In-Manuscript Questions
As I mention in the email above, I include a few “pause” moments within the manuscript itself. These are pages in the PDF where I ask betas to jot down their answers to a few quick questions.

I didn’t do this the first time I had beta readers and wish I had (people will find it hard to remember their earlier reactions). The second time I used beta readers I inserted questions at the 1/3 and 2/3 marks, as well as at the end. This time I’m doing questions at 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 and the end.

Here are the questions I’m including this time:

Q1 Questions
What do you think of the novel so far? [2-3 sentences]
Would you keep reading if you were reading this for fun/not as a beta reader. Why or why not?

Q2 Questions
Write down 2-3 sentences about how you are feeling at this point in the novel.
Who are your favourite and least favourite characters in the novel so far? Why?
Write down 2-3 predictions of things that will happen in the rest of the book.

Q3 Question
How do you think the novel might end?

Q4 Questions
Write a short paragraph on what you thought of the novel overall.
Send me answers to all the beta reading questions via email.

Step 4: Review Emailed Answers and Schedule Interviews
I then read and digest the emailed responses. If anyone has said something really negative (“I hated this book!”, “it sucked”), this gives me time to toughen up privately, rather than hearing this for the first time in person or during our interview.

I try to schedule interviews as soon as possible after someone has finished reading (people forget details quickly!).

Step 5: Interviews
This is the most important step. I interview each of my beta readers alone, asking them the same list of questions as each other using a discussion guide I create beforehand. This discussion guide is similar to what a qualitative researcher might use (something I learned about thanks to my advertising day job).

I don’t answer any questions the betas have for me until the end of the interview (something I tell them upfront). It’s my job to ask the questions and take notes on their answers—not to be drawn into discussion.

Generally speaking, if your beta readers know and like you, their overall comments will be complimentary (or at the very least they will soften their criticisms). But it’s hard for someone to be consistently dishonest when you’re asking them detailed questions. This is when the truth will come out.

Here’s an anonymized skeleton for the discussion guide, which may be of use to you.

How would you describe PROTAGONIST’s character? Did you like this character? Why? Why not?
What does PROTAGONIST look like?
How did PROTAGONIST change over the course of the novel?
Who was your favourite character in the book? Why?
Who was your least favourite character in the book? Why?
Did you mix up/get confused between any of the characters in the novel? Which ones?
Pick one other character from the novel, whom you have a detailed picture of in your mind. Who are they? What do they look like?
Describe the relationship between CHARACTER A and CHARACTER B. [I have a few versions of this question for all main relationships in the novel]
Were there any characters you wish you’d learned more about in the course of the novel?
Did you identify with any of the characters in the novel in any way? Who and why?

What did you think of the opening of the novel?
Did the novel grab your interest straight away?
[If you’re debating whether you need a prologue, ask about this here]

Did you spot any plot holes in the novel? Is there anything in the plot that still confuses you?
Did you guess in advance anything that happened in the novel? What?
Were there any big surprises for you in the novel? What were they?
[If you have any specific plot concerns, ask specific questions about these here]

What did your think of the ending?
Did the novel end as you expected?
How did the ending leave you feeling?
Was there anything about the ending that was unsatisfying and/or felt unfinished?

Reading experience:
Did the novel feel long or short to you?
How quickly did you read the novel?
How many chapters did you generally read at a go?
Were there any parts of the novel that felt rushed?
Were there any parts of the novel that felt slow/boring?

When was the novel set? [especially important for historical fiction]
Did the novel seem realistic for the time period it was set in? Did anything strike you as unrealistic? [especially important for historical fiction]
Which specific locations mentioned in the novel can you picture most vividly (e.g. rooms, houses, streets etc.)? Can you describe one for me?

Sex and romance:
Which sex scenes can you recall in the novel?
What did you like about the sex scenes? What did you dislike about them?
Were any parts of the novel romantic?
[This section may not be relevant for your book, but insert sections on themes and topics that are]

How would you describe the language the novel was written in?
Was there anything you didn’t like about the language of the novel/the way it was written?
Were there any words/phrases/sentence structures that stood out as being over-used in the novel?
What did you think of the dialogue in the novel? Was there enough of it? Did it feel believable?
Do you have any comments on the imagery (similes, metaphors etc.) used in the novel?
Was there enough description in the novel?
[Most beta readers will have little to say in this section, but I ask the questions anyway]

Other people/books:
What genre is the novel?
How would you describe the novel to a stranger? Would you recommend it?
Who do you think would enjoy this novel?
Did the novel remind you of any other books you’ve read? Which ones? Why?

How did the novel compare OTHER NOVELS OF YOURS THEY’VE BETA READ?
Do you have any questions for me about the novel?

Step 6: Review Feedback
When I’ve done all my interviews I then review the feedback as a whole. Importantly, I don’t go reader-by-reader, but question-by-question. This allows me to a) spot patterns and trends, and b) emotionally disconnect from the relationship I have with any particular reader.

By the end of my review I have a list of updates to make to the novel based on the feedback I’ve received.

I then thank my beta readers, verbally, with drinks/dinner and in my book acknowledgements. They dedicated a lot of time to helping you.

What are beta reading problems and what should I do about them?
Most beta reading problems boil down to two buckets:

“One beta reader was rude and unreliable or was unhelpful in their feedback"
Solution = Don’t ask that person to beta read again

“All my beta readers ghosted me”
Solution = There is probably something wrong with your book. Consider finding a writers’ group and/or class to learn more.

Writers, I’d love to hear about your experiences with beta readers and how your process compares to mine! Get in touch in the comments below, via Instagram, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist. If you’re interested in my forthcoming novel, Bronte’s Mistress, which is now available for pre-order, click this link or sign up for my email mailing list below. I just checked back. In total I had 15,000 words (!!) of beta reader feedback, which helped make that book as good as it needed to be to get published.

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  1. That's a terrifically detailed set of questions - just fabulous. With my last - and so far only - set of beta readers nine people volunteered, two dropping out. One of the problems I found was that done of the readers we're too kind and not specific enough. I suspect I need to be more thorough with my questions. How did you deal with contrasting opinions? Go with your gut or with the majority?

    1. So glad they were helpful! Yes, people are normally so kind. I think, ultimately, as a writer you need to go with your gut, but if 3+ people are saying the same comment, there is probably a problem of some sort. I might not embrace the solution they suggest, but I will probably change SOMETHING

  2. I really wish that someday I write a book on my own, and I will remember these points. Thanks for such a lovely blog.