Most writers rely on one or more beta readers to help them improve their work. In the right circumstances, beta reading is an invaluable tool. Unfortunately, it’s so full of potential pitfalls, it can weaken stories rather than improve them. Here’s what you should know to make the most of beta reading while avoiding the hazards.
What Beta Readers Can and Can’t Do
The most important thing to understand is the limits of beta reading. Mainly, your readers are not editors. Editors and beta readers both play valuable, but different, roles. Swapping one for the other rarely produces good results.
Editors Make Recommendations
The job of an editor is to instruct the writer on how to revise their story. To do that, they need two essential things:
- Extensive expertise in storytelling and/or writing. Because writing is incredibly susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect, your beta readers may believe they have the expertise for editing, but they probably don’t. If you do know someone who you are confident has enough expertise, you can use them as an editor instead of a test reader, but be careful.
- An understanding of what you want to accomplish. A good editor should ask you about your story to glean what’s important to you and what you want to accomplish. This is generally done after a first read, because knowing this information will bias their interpretation of your story. Once they know, they are no longer an effective beta reader.
Enlisting the help of an editor is the right choice for first drafts, rougher manuscripts, and newer writers. In these cases, major revisions are often needed, and the writer is less likely to know what to do. Whereas an editor can give direction in these cases, beta readers will either leave the writer feeling lost or focus on smaller issues that only waste the writer’s time.
Beta Readers Report Their Experiences
The task of beta readers is to help predict how the story’s real audience would respond to it. This prediction allows the writer to intervene before problems are printed. That requires:
- Using multiple beta readers. People are often unique in their interpretation and responses to stories. It takes multiple data points to identify which reactions to a story are typical and which are rare. The larger the beta reading group, the more accurate the results are.
- Simulating a consumer’s experience. Writers must be careful not to bias beta readers by giving them information about the story ahead of time. Ideally, beta readers should see what a customer would see, such as the final title and cover art. Beta readers can also be affected by their personal knowledge of the writer and any real things the story is based on. Testers should only read the story once.
- Reporting the right information. Writers should instruct beta readers about what kind of responses and feedback are helpful. Otherwise, testers are likely to respond with editing suggestions that are not only unhelpful but also obscure the problems that prompted them to make those suggestions. Many beta readers also need to be encouraged to provide more information.
Beta reading is most effective for stories that already have a great deal of polish. For that reason, it’s a great follow-up to editing. In addition, storytelling expertise is very helpful in both interpreting reader responses and identifying how to fix problems that are revealed. While editors do not make good beta readers, they can help translate the results into actionable steps for the writer.
Beta Readers Can Also Be Sensitivity Readers
Sensitivity readers are specialist beta readers that help writers gauge how a particular group would respond to a work. This is useful when your work is covering issues that will hit close to home for some people. For instance, if your story includes child abuse, you might have a sensitivity reader who was abused as a child. If you have important characters in an underprivileged group that you’re not part of, sensitivity readers who are part of that group can help you write about them respectfully.
Any beta reader with the right background can be a sensitivity reader for a story. However, most writers don’t have a close friend with the background they need. Furthermore, people in underprivileged groups shouldn’t be asked to spend their spare time teaching others how to be respectful, much less reading material that could be upsetting for them. For these reasons, sensitivity readers are usually paid to look over stories.
Because sensitivity readers often have important knowledge that editors lack, it can be helpful to loop them in during earlier stages of production. Otherwise you could find large problems after you thought major revisions were over. If you bring in a sensitivity reader to look over your work in early stages, you’ll want to enlist the help of a different reader in later stages.
Remember that like beta readers, sensitivity readers aren’t there to tell you how to fix your story, though some may offer suggestions. And like beta readers, a single sensitivity reader cannot predict the responses of an entire group. Using sensitivity readers doesn’t relieve writers of the burden of writing respectfully. The more prominently the sensitive content is featured in your story, the more effort you should put into getting it right.
Finding Beta Readers
Unfortunately, a writer’s real testing group and their ideal testing group are never the same. However, knowing what to look for can help you recruit better beta readers. These are the traits to think about:
- Willingness to criticize. You’ll want some beta readers who are picky, because they can catch more problems. However, even less-picky people who are willing to put problems on paper can help you identify bigger issues. Just avoid recruiting people who love anything you write because you wrote it.
- Accommodating. Anyone who grudgingly looks at your story for five minutes while they happen to be in a grocery line will not make a good test reader. You want someone who will spend a little more time giving you not only detailed feedback but also the kind of feedback you’ve requested.
- Reliable. People are busy, and your story can’t draw them in until they start reading it. Possibly, your story won’t draw them in at all. A hundred volunteer readers won’t do you any good unless some of them actually get back to you.
- Right for your story. Your beta readers should be as close to your target audience as you can manage. That means they should like the genre and tone of the story. Don’t send your space-warfare story to someone who doesn’t like space battles. If your story is dark, make sure your readers are okay with dark stories. If your book is for children, test it with the children you know. However, within your target audience, you’ll want as much variety in testers as you can manage.
So you know what your ideal beta reader is like. How do you find them?
Start by asking friends, family, and acquaintances that like the genre you’re writing in. Because they know you personally, they’ll be more accommodating. That results in higher quality feedback. Unfortunately, they won’t always be reliable or willing to criticize. They might also be from a narrower demographic group than would benefit you. However, in general, the strengths of recruiting people you know outweigh the weaknesses.
If you don’t have many friends or family that are interested in your genre, consider joining some online communities that center around your genre and making friends there. Obviously that’s easier said than done, but it’s a long-term investment that will reap later rewards.
While you are making friends online, you can join in-person writer’s groups or online-critique communities. While these groups are dedicated to feedback, and therefore reliable, the quality of feedback is often poor. In-person groups typically provide feedback through open discussions, biasing the responses. Online groups of strangers can give overly harsh feedback. Either way, it’s difficult to get the feedback you need rather than unhelpful suggestions.
Once you have some readers, staying organized can help you make the most of them. I keep a spreadsheet of readers with notes about the type of stories they like, the kind of feedback they give, and how reliable they are. That allows me to look over all my readers and pick the right ones for the right situation.
Splitting Readers into Rounds
For maximum effectiveness, beta reading should be split into multiple rounds. After a round, you’ll make changes to your story, and then you’ll test it again. This is important for two reasons:
- It allows you to assess whether a change has fixed the problems your readers discovered. Problems in a work can be surprisingly stubborn, sometimes taking several rounds to fix. While most readers are happy to offer their opinion on whether a change would fix a problem they encountered, these guesses are often wrong.
- It allows you to get big problems out of the way, so smaller problems can be discovered. If your readers are confused about your plot, it’ll be difficult for them to find plot holes. After you clear up the big stuff, you can move on to smaller issues.
How many people should you put in each round? That depends on you and the number of readers you have. If you have a small pool of readers and need more rounds to resolve problems, you’ll want conserve your readers by putting fewer in each round. You can even have just one per round. However, keep in mind that with only one person, you’ll have little idea of how common the problems they encounter are. It’ll be easy to get side-tracked in an effort to make every person happy.
If you are having trouble sorting out what problems are worth working on and which are just personal opinions, more readers per round can help you find the signal in the noise. Even so, I don’t recommend including more than five people per round unless you have an astounding number of readers. Instead, you can do an extra round or two.
In general, you want to put your least picky readers in the earliest rounds. The biggest problems you might encounter will be noticed by just about everyone. Once you’ve fixed those things, the pickier people can focus on stuff that others wouldn’t notice.
Conducting a Test Read
Now it’s time to send your story to readers. You should do this in whatever manner will lower the effort for each individual reader. I probably don’t need to say this, but no one will install new software on their computer just to read your story. If you’re not sure, ask whether your readers prefer Google Docs, Microsoft Word, or Open Office. If you are using Google Docs, make sure they have permission to edit the document before you send them a share link. While more accommodating readers should be encouraged to use the comments feature of the software, many people will find it easier to type in the document. You might also have readers that must be given stories in person or who will only read hard copies.
Again, it’s helpful if your beta readers are exposed to the same information consumers would see. When possible, finalize your title and put that title where they will see it; doing this will change the results. If you have finalized cover art, you can include that too, but if it isn’t final, I recommend leaving it out.
When you send the story, you’ll want to leave instructions somewhere they cannot miss. You can waive this for the friend who already knows the drill, but this is essential for getting good results from newer recruits. While each writer may do this a little differently, I’ll share the short primer I send to readers.
The purpose of beta reading is to inform the writer of what it’s like to casually read the story for the first time.
- focus on your experience, whether you felt confused or bored, found something unrealistic, were guessing the ending, or enjoyed something
- mark places in the document that stood out to you for whatever reason, and add comments explaining with words what your reaction was (emojis and groans aren’t as clear)
- give an overall summary of whether you enjoyed the work
You don’t need to:
- actively look for ways to improve the work
- suggest any solutions to problems you noticed
- read the story more than once
This is general, basic advice that is ideal for a first round. In the first round, you want your queries to be as open as possible. Sure, it’s fun to send readers hard copies with multiple colored highlighters so they can use one to highlight the funny parts and another to highlight the boring parts. However, it’s hard to predict what issues they might find. If they are focused on using a pink highlighter for the boring parts, they are more likely to neglect the confusing spot in the same place and even less likely to tell you why it confused them. Keeping your instructions general and simple allows them to report what made the biggest impression without interference.
Once earlier rounds have identified weaknesses in your piece, you can send readers more targeted questions or instructions to focus on those issues. For instance, after I found some readers didn’t like a main character in one of my stories, I sent the next round of readers a questionnaire that included “Did you like the main character? Why or why not?” I was still careful to send a variety of questions and keep my questions open ended. If readers know what you are concerned about, it might change their impression of the story.
Soon after you get a response, look it over and send any follow-up questions you have. You can prompt them to give an overall reaction if they didn’t include that, or you can ask them to clarify a comment. When you have no more questions, send them a simple “thanks for your time!” Avoid responding to anything they said or explaining the story to them. These conversations can devolve into arguments fast. If they didn’t give the kind of feedback you wanted, take notes and revise your instructions for the next time. Don’t offer feedback on their feedback. Remember, their opinions are just data points on a chart, not the final word on your story.
With many readers and revisions between rounds, it’s easy to mix up story versions at the most inconvenient times. Clearly mark and organize your documents. I create a new copy for each tester with their name and the round they are in. I also keep a separate document to be the central place where I make revisions after getting results; that way I always know where to find the latest version. Your system may be different, but make sure you have one.
Interpreting and Acting on Results
Now we’re on to the hard part. How do you take all the miscellaneous responses you get and figure out some actionable steps? It will take practice, but I’ll give you some tips to get started.
You’re not trying to make every reader love your story; you’re trying to please your readers as a group. Patterns are much more important than single opinions. If you are only using one reader per round, only fix the most important issues after the first round. Wait on smaller issues until another reader mentions them.
Sometimes it can be tricky to identify when readers are talking about the same thing. Since most readers are not story experts, they don’t always have the language to describe their experiences. In general, readers are better at identifying what bothered them rather than why it bothered them. If you have several readers voice dissatisfaction over the same thing, but they give different reasons for not liking it, consider that a pattern.
Focus on the Big Issues
You’ll want to start with the feedback that most influenced the readers’ experience of the story and that will take the largest revisions to fix. If your readers mention something in open responses about your story as a whole, it was probably important to their experience.
You can also look for commentary on whether they enjoyed major aspects of the story. In particular, I recommend comparing reader feedback to ANTS: my acronym for the four effects that make a story popular among readers. I recommend reading my full post on ANTS; however, I’ll give you a quick summary of what the ANTS effects are:
- Attachment: whether your readers are emotionally invested in elements of your story, particularly your main character.
- Novelty: whether your readers find the details of your story fresh and interesting. If they like the world, atmosphere, or wordcraft, that’s a good sign of novelty.
- Tension: whether your readers find your story gripping. Generally the more conflict in a story, the more tension. However, tension also relies on attachment to work.
- Satisfaction: whether your readers appreciated how you resolved conflicts in the story.
I extrapolated ANTS from reader feedback on stories, and it is useful for judging how well your story is performing in tests. While it often takes significant work to improve your ANTS score, counting your ANTS will make you a better storyteller.
Resist Requests for Tangential Information
One type of feedback is very common but almost never worth addressing. That’s a request for more information about things that aren’t central to the story. This is especially likely in speculative fiction; changing reality opens up a lot of questions. It’s natural for readers to ask those questions, but unfortunately there isn’t time for all the answers.
These are examples of reader feedback that falls in this category:
- “So is [character] like a rack mounted server or something? How does it interact with the world?”
- “I wondered why there are no other kinds of loans – why can’t they get a peace loan?”
- “Monks and priests and acolytes, are the title distinctions important?”
Questions of this type are almost always unique to one person. What’s more, satisfying these requests would require adding explanations that few other readers would care about. I often wonder how many writers have sabotaged their story’s pacing by satisfying the curiosity of test readers.
While most of these questions should be ignored, every story includes information the reader must know in order to enjoy it. If a reader is uncertain of these critical points, you’ll want to clarify. You can also consider adding an explanation if more than one reader asks the same thing.
Sweat the Small Stuff When You Want To
If you succeed in fixing the biggest issues, you’ll be left with a large collection of comments on individual sentences and other small things. They may be unique to each person as far as you can tell, but they can also be easy to fix. In these cases, ask yourself whether you agree with the reader. Maybe when you look at that sentence one more time, you’ll understand why your reader was confused. Improve what you have time to improve, but don’t forget to get your story published.
Getting negative feedback doesn’t always mean your story was written poorly. Sometimes it just means that a critical idea wasn’t obvious to readers. Rewriting a few sentences for clarity can make a world of difference. When you do realize that your characters, plot, or concept are weaker than they need to be, take comfort. You have just become a better storyteller.
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