Using beta readers in revision

The process of revising long-form fiction or journalism is a lonely one filled with self-doubt and frustration. Beta readers (the people that read your piece prior to pursuit of publication) ease the process and can motivate the author to take the piece to new heights. As with all parts of the writing process, choosing and utilizing beta readers needs to be done carefully. Their comments hold great power over the piece that you may have spent months or years developing.

On her Write & Publish like a Pro blog, Belinda Pollard writes that she considers beta readers the

superheroes of self-publishing as well as great for people pursuing traditional publishing. They’re superheroes because they can truly “save the day” on mistakes that an author might not see.

After a frustrating experience with a critique group, I was nervous to share my writing with people I knew, but after finishing the third draft of my novel, I knew it was time to gain an audience.

My manuscript was a whopping 150,000 words, and I knew it needed cutting down. I also knew that my beta readers would wonder what sort of bad karma landed them with 450 pages that they probably didn’t want to read. I sent an e-mail to five friends (some of whom I hadn’t spoken to in years) with a gentle plea for help.

Here’s what I learned from the process: 

  • Sharing the novel in chunks has advantages and disadvantages. I decided to only share part one of my novel rather than all five parts for a few reasons. I didn’t want to overwhelm my readers, and I figured that if they found something glaring in part one, I could make changes before sending them parts 2-5. I’m glad I did. My character had an affectation of saying “God,” before many sentences and every reader told me he/she found it distracting. I “command f’d” the “Gods” out of my manuscript and never looked back. The downside, to distributing the novel in chunks is that I have to send FIVE PLEAS to my betas begging them to read my work. Even at part two, they’ve slowed down and begun to tell me that they’re going to get around to it in a week or so. I’ve lost my mojo with my betas and risk losing them.
  • Take their advice with a grain of salt, and give it some time. Everyone reads differently, and the process of being a beta reader is not natural. Most people you ask have probably never previewed a novel or long-form journalism piece; they don’t know how to read something naturally while giving honest feedback. My novel is set in Japan, so the people that lived in Japan that I asked gave me important feedback on setting. I took some of their advice, but I realized I needed to stop adding setting to each scene before I wrote a travel book. My novel isn’t so much about Japan as people living in Japan, and if I over-emphasize setting, I’d lose some of the readers that know little about the country. I didn’t rush to languish in the beauty and strangeness of Japan’s setting, but I found key moments where it worked. The rest, I kept in my head.
  • In your e-mail request, give clear expectations. This one was tricky for me. Do I ask my betas to think of specific questions during the reading, or do I get a cold reaction. I opted to do half and half. My wife flat out refused to hear my spiel before she read it, and I’m grateful for her insights. The other betas received five questions. In some cases I regret planting these seeds (I asked about one particular character, how I used setting, etc), but in the end it paid off because I was able to clarify enough of my expectations of my piece that they knew how to read it…
  • But make sure you don’t ask for a line reading. One of my readers, god bless her, marked up almost every line of the text. Granted, she does this when she reads books for pleasure, but knowing that I’d revise swaths of the novel, I didn’t need a line reading. I needed a general reaction, so I could re-conceptualize my work.
  • Diversify your readers, but work with your target market. The mistake that I made with my critique group was that they were so far outside of my target market that their advice was at times soul-crushing. Though I’m grateful for their early feedback, their concerns would NOT be the concerns of the target audience. For example, I need to assume my audience has a basic knowledge of how concerts operate, and they didn’t.  The beta readers were a great resource that I could hand-pick. At the same time, I didn’t pick five people that were alike. I mixed up gender, age, occupations.
  • Know your readers will see you in the work. The disadvantage of using beta readers that know you is they’ll see you in the work and silently cheer you on. My novel has a first person narrator that resembles me in many ways; I’m sure my betas see me (but a little taller with a stranger haircut) when they’re in the story. So…
  • Find a beta that doesn’t know you well. Though my critique circle didn’t work out, I did gain a writing partner from it. She knows very little about me, so she was able to call the main character a doofus without worrying about hurting my feelings. Her advice has been invaluable in letting me realize the things that were totally obvious to me, but that a reader would miss.
  • Get ready for round two. Hopefully, one or two of your betas will stick around through the next revision, but that’s a lot to ask. Ideally, you’ll have another three or four friends that can read the new and improved manuscript with fresh eyes. If someone is willing to read through multiple revisions, then take that person to the Sizzler on his/her birthday!
  • Most importantly, have faith in the universe that your betas’ comments will help you. Accept them with grace, even if/when they’re hurtful. Be happy your writing has been heard and people took the time to give you feedback. So far, every beta has had at least a small stamp on my novel. I make sure to let them know that.

Need a beta reader and don’t want to ask your friends? Here are some resources: 

Goodreads Beta Readers Group: You can ask strangers to give you feedback. But it’s not an editor’s service. Be sure to read the rules before you post!

Absolute Write: I linked to the advice section for newbies, and there’s a lot of it. But, by posting you about your writing, you can find a like-minded author that needs the same sort of beta reader that you do. And a critique partner is found.

Beta Readers’ Hub: A simple site that where people offer or request beta readers.

About Michael

Hello, I’m Michael Cullinane, a high school English and Journalism teacher presently working toward my Masters in Digital Storytelling, using every free moment to complete the revisions of my first novel.

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