Beta readers are more important than most authors realize.
Sometimes, they can mean the difference between your story’s stratospheric success and it completely stalling.
Beta readers are the people who look at your story first, before the general public. This is a relationship you want to foster, a win-win for those readers who love your stories and can help you in your writing career.
They get a first look at your new stuff, and you get feedback on how they enjoyed it: what they liked and why. Use this information well, and your story will inherit the benefit of their insight, or at the very least, their quality control.
But as with anything worth doing, there is a right way and a wrong way, and the better you engage with your beta readers, the more likely you are to realize the benefit.
Here are 5 tips for working with beta readers:
Solicit Honest Opinions
We’re all adult enough here to understand that no matter how many times you tell your spouse, “Be totally honest with me about my book,” they’re not going to tell you it’s crap unless they hate you. With that caveat, do keep encouraging your beta readers to be as honest with you as possible, reminding them that your success and growth depends on accurate feedback.
They probably won’t tell you your book sucks, but a good rule of thumb when receiving feedback from people who like and love you, in order to get a more accurate impression, is to double the negative things they say, then halve the positive.
Honesty always trumps warm fuzzies. This is the future of your book, not a hug.
Ask Specific Questions
Beta readers will generally answer specific queries honestly but hedge on more general ones. Instead of asking a giant question like, “Did you like it?” ask about situations, character motivations, narrative chain, believability of certain moments, and what things surprised them (something better have surprised them!).
The more you drill down, the more honest and objective your readers are likely to be — and you, then, will be able to extrapolate the overall reader experience. For example, your husband might say that he didn’t find what happened in the confrontation scene totally believable, but if that scene is the linchpin of the entire plot, failure in your delivery will lead to a poor reader experience whether your husband will admit it or not.
Specificity on their end will lead to specificity in yours, which will ultimately lead to a better quality book.
Listen to Everything
These people have taken their valuable time to give your work feedback, so listen to what they say. Don’t ignore opinions you don’t like because you’re awesome and they don’t understand your staggering artistic genius. Listen with an open mind, then be as objective as you can in deciding what to change and what to leave alone.
But pay attention and your first readers might offer you some nifty little ideas for future work in the series. Your readers, if they’re engaged — and it’s your job to make them engaged — will offer all sorts of ideas and theories and desires for your story’s future. Listen to them all, and you might find some gems. Even better, keep in mind what your beta readers are: readers. If they have specific hopes for the story, they’re probably not the only ones among your larger readership.
Satisfy your beta readers first. The rest will follow.
Don't Listen to Everything
When you send your work to beta readers, you want opinions and feedback, but you can’t be like a mote of dust in a sunbeam, tossed helplessly about by those opinions. Stand firm as the creator, and listen without feeling compelled to change the manuscript every time someone offers a thought.
The best way to consider beta reader feedback is in aggregate. It might not matter that Tom didn’t like X while Sally loved it, because in aggregate those two opinions cancel each other out. In general, you can usually choose to ignore matters of opinion if only one out of a handful of readers felt it should change and if you want it to remain as is, but if you find that three or four people felt the same way, or are saying the exact same thing, that’s a trend, and you should definitely listen.
Remember, you’re the ultimate authority on your story, but your beta readers are among the group you’re trying to please.
Regardless of whether early readers loved or hated your book, they took the time to read and offer feedback. Respect the time and affection for you and your work that went into their willingness to act as your beta readers.
Smile, say thank you, and maybe do something nice for them from time to time if you use them repeatedly.
Engaging friends and family as your first readers can be a great way for you to get early feedback on your manuscript while involving your most important people in your business and process.
And now, armed with a few tips on how to go about the beta process, you can get the most out of your first readers, and your writing career.