Successful authors have a multitude of tools to aid in their writing. One of those tools is the beta reader. Not to be confused with critique partners, beta readers read the entire manuscript at once, preferably after it's been significantly edited and is in the final stages. The feedback you get from them depends upon what you ask for, but should be more thorough than what you'll get from the typical critique group.
We all know that it can be tricky to find the right critique group, but it can also be hard to find a beta reader who can provide what you're looking for. There are various pitfalls that come along with asking someone to put in so much effort for you, and it's hard to deal with it on your end, because you have to keep in mind that this is a big favor. Unfortunately, this can tie your hands when it comes to dealing with someone not delivering.
Recently, I put out a call for beta readers on Facebook. I got six responses, four authors (two published, two not published) and two non-authors. I felt this was a good mix, so went ahead and contacted them with information. Ultimately, two people got it to me by the deadline, one got it to me slightly after the deadline, and one got it to me a couple months past the deadline. That leaves two who never got back to me at all, though one did apologize and explain what had happened. What I got back from people varied significantly, as well. From what I've heard, this was all to be expected.
To be expected, sure, but frustrating on my end. In order to help out those of you approaching a beta reading situation for the first time, I'm going to lay out the process from the beginning, in hopes that you can take what I learned and improve on it, possibly avoiding some unnecessary frustration and heartache.
1. Gather Data - Look at what others have done. Ask them what worked and what didn't work, and if they have any recommendations going forward. Figure out how you want to go about it in advance.
2. The Ask - Do you want to post on your social media for volunteers or contact specific people and request their help? I've done both, and I doubt either one works any better than the other, so it comes down to your preferences and your circle. If you don't have people you'd think would be good for this, consider asking in a writer's group or related entity or posting in their social media. You can ask friends to put out a call, as well. Decide in advance how many readers you want. Provide yourself a cushion by asking for more beta readers than you need. This way, if some don't deliver, you still get a good amount of feedback.
Having said that, remember that you don't have to accept everyone who offers. Choose people you believe will be honest and reliable. Don't ask family or your best friend unless you know they can and will be honest with you. Otherwise, you'll get back a "good job," which, while nice to hear, isn't helpful. Be clear on the genre of your story, providing them an elevator pitch of sorts about it, so they accept knowing what they're getting into. Try to have both writers and non-writers in order to get different sorts of feedback. Often, writers will pay more attention to the writing dynamics and logistics, while non-writers will pay closer attention to the story and characters.
3. Be Specific - Write up a set of questions that specifically address your concerns. Are you wondering if your character is too much of a wimp or whether the love interest will read as sexy? Perhaps you're concerned about the slow spots, pacing, tension, setting, descriptions, etc. Be honest and ask the questions you want answers to. Point out details you want them to focus on. Ask them to jot down reactions anywhere they feel strongly. Did they especially like this action scene? Was this scene too slow? Did they laugh here? Cry? State whether you want grammar notes or if you'd prefer they avoid them.
Just because you send questions and suggestions on where to focus does not mean your readers will address them. Three of my readers (including one who jumped in to help when the others failed to follow through on their promise) both answered my questions and put feedback throughout the manuscript. The others were a mix of either answering the questions, putting feedback throughout, or doing a write up with their notes. You can give suggestions and try to lead where you'd like it to go, but people will ultimately do what they're comfortable with.
4. Time Frame - Pick a deadline. It should be reasonable. One to two months is fine, depending upon your needs. It's a good idea to state your time frame up front so only those who feel they can get it done in that time volunteer. If it's vital you have it before a certain date, build in a buffer of a week or two to better your chances.
5. Niceties - Keep in mind that you're asking a lot of your beta readers. Consider what you might do in return. Be friendly. Write them a nice letter with your expectations and thanking them for their help. I offered to beta read in return should they need someone. For the non-authors, I asked them to let me know in the future if I could return the favor in some way. I also thanked them once I got the feedback. No matter what, they volunteered to do this in order to help me better my manuscript.
6. The Send - After getting their email address (since I'd put the call out on Facebook), I sent an email with the manuscript in .doc as an attachment, as well as the letter and questions in .doc, and expressed my willingness to send it in a different format upon request. I forgot to initially include the deadline, even though I had one in mind, so that came later. When I gave it, I asked them to let me know if they had issues with that time frame. I actually recommend you give the deadline with The Ask, then remind them of the deadline in The Send.
7. Follow Up - When the deadline arrived, I sent out an email to those who had not returned any feedback. I stated that the deadline had arrived, and asked them to let me know if they felt they could finish it and when I could expect it. I assured them that I would not be upset if they could not finish, and that their honesty would allow me to find someone else to read for me instead. Everyone remaining assured me they would still get it done. I now know this not to be true, so here's where you can learn from my mistake. If people do not finish, feel free to reach out to them, but also consider opening your call back up if you don't feel you got sufficient feedback from the others. I don't recommend continuing to bug them about it. If they haven't done it by the deadline, chances are they won't. If life is busy, it will continue to be busy. While your manuscript may be your life's focus right now, it won't be theirs. Find someone else.
A beta reader can be a huge help. Looking at your story in one big chunk, rather than the piecemeal way of critique groups, allows them to see the big picture and find story mistakes someone reading a chapter each month might not. It lets them look at the finer details, check character and story arc, etc. However, you're opening yourself up to a possible let down when someone doesn't deliver. Learn from my mistakes. Choose your beta readers carefully and, if they don't respond in time, pursue other beta readers instead of waiting on the ones you already secured. After all, beta readers are human, and they'll have all too human issues that might eclipse doing you a favor. Hopefully, the feedback you do get will more than makeup for what you don't get, and your beta readers will have provided this valuable service.
Have you had beta readers? How did it go? What did you learn from the experience? What tips might you offer a first timer?
A fan of all things fantastical and frightening, Shannon Lawrence writes primarily horror and fantasy. Her stories can be found in anthologies and magazines, including Once Upon a Scream, Dark Moon Digest, and The Deep Dark Woods. When she's not writing, she's hiking through the wilds of Colorado and photographing her magnificent surroundings, where, coincidentally, there's always a place to hide a body or birth a monster. Find her at www.thewarriormuse.com.