You’ve written ‘THE END’ on your first, second, eighth – or if you’re me it will mostly likely be my third draft. You know it’s not perfect, but you’re happy you have taken your manuscript as far as you can. What next?
Alpha / Beta readers
As I approach the end of my first draft this concept is becoming more than just a twinkle in my eye. It’s quietly growing into the elephant in the corner of the room.
What are beta readers? How do I get one? How long will it take? Will they tear my work to pieces?
Why use a Beta reader at all?
GEOFF – You need someone to tell you the story hangs together. That is what I want. Not a clean up on typos and grammar though that is useful, but is the plot engaging, do the characters work, does the story flow, make sense etc. to me a beta reader is not a paid for editor who could do the same job but a friendly help mate who is prepared to offer a view, possibly in return for you reading their work. Ideally, it is someone you know and trust to tell you as it is without some other agenda. But I’m not sure there’s any difference between a beta reader and the right sort of editor – clearly you need an editor as well for grammar and typos but that is different to a beta reader.
DYLAN – As a writer you are too close to your work. Even when you leave a manuscript to rest for a few weeks before going back to it, you know the story intimately. You know the character’s motivations and their backstories. You need beta readers to tell you what you’ve actually written, rather than what you intended to write. They give you insight to things you’ve missed out, things you’ve never thought of, plot holes, characterisation issues and so on.
How do you find your Beta readers?
GEOFF – Word of mouth, brazenly asking people, posting about the book and asking for help – personally I have found people love to help albeit that sometimes they don’t realise quite what is involved.
DYLAN – By asking people nicely.
When choosing a Beta reader, do you look for a certain type of reader? i.e. someone who does or doesn’t read your particular genre, and why?
GEOFF – I want someone who will take the job seriously. Ideally they will have a fondness for the genre but they must be open-minded. My first work – a comedic book – was easy enough to place. For my current WIP I had three aspects where a specific Beta would be useful. I found someone to cover two of the three.
DYLAN – I think it’s important to get a spread of people who are likely to view your work differently. Try to get writers and readers, those that are immersed in your genre and those that aren’t. Most important, get people who aren’t afraid to tell you the truth.
How long do you expect a Beta reader to take to read your work – do you agree a time?
GEOFF – I always tell them when I need the results by and I’m realistic to make sure I give them at least a month and often longer.
DYLAN – I try to set them a deadline of around a month, giving them warning beforehand, but they get as much time as they need.
How much feedback do you expect to receive or give when going through a beta reading process?
GEOFF – Piece of string. I tell Beta readers that I want more than ‘well done’ but then they know that. I try and give them at least three things to have in mind as they read. In all honesty I’m grateful for whatever I get, given they aren’t being paid and if they are shit I don’t ask again. I have the luxury of no deadlines so if I find the Beta reader or Beta readers I have asked aren’t any good I can circle back and recalibrate my timings.
DYLAN – Each beta reader is different. Based on their background and inclination I like to give an overview of how I felt about the book and then break it down into plot, setting, pacing and characterisation.
Do you set any guidelines or ask any specific questions of beta readers before giving them your work?
GEOFF – Yes to questions, no to guidelines. I want the Beta reader to work as they feel comfortable. If they ask for guidelines then I discuss with them. Recently I had a Beta reader respond in three parts – plot, dialogue and other but that was their choice and they were looking at my writing about American characters hence dialogue as a separate topic.
DYLAN – I’ll ask them to cover the areas I mentioned above beforehand, and occasionally point them to a specific scene I’m concerned about, but otherwise I leave it to them. Any feedback is gold dust and I don’t want to either restrict them or steer them too much.
What does beta read feedback look like? Or maybe more importantly feel like?
GEOFF – I don’t think there is one way it is set out. The best is someone who will take a word version and annotate it with comments and changes but an email explaining is just as good. I don’t feel feedback – that’s far too spinach and quorn for me.
DYLAN – Again, it’s different depending on who the beta reader is. I like my beta readers to be blunt and honest. I don’t need the feedback sugar-coated because it’s important I get both their thoughts and emotions at the time of reading. All I ask is that it’s constructive. I always say “don’t tell me it’s shit, tell me it’s shit because…”
How do you receive feedback? All in one go or chapter by chapter? In a word doc, or hand written scrawls across the page?
GEOFF – See above; I had all sorts. I prefer not hand written scrawls and I prefer not face to face. I want to absorb their ideas. Some however prefer to explain themselves. There I have learnt to button my lip and not ask anything unless I really don’t understand what they are trying to say.
DYLAN – Most send me feedback electronically. Some like to give general thoughts, others a more detailed chapter by chapter run through.
Have you ever been stung or pleasantly surprised by beta reading?
GEOFF – My first Beta reader – my wife – hated it. I realised how hard it was and after that have always been grateful for whatever is said, even if it pulls something apart. No one, yet, has been obviously out to destroy so I take whatever they say in good faith. Have I been pleasantly surprised? Once; my current WIP contains a lot of the science of genetics and I had two biology graduates from oxford read it. They both made the same points and both complemented me on my understanding; since I stopped biology aged 12 I was quietly pleased!
DYLAN – I’m always pleasantly surprised by the feedback my beta readers give me, even if it’s pointing out terrible writing or major errors.
What’s the best advice you could give someone about to embark on the Beta reading phase?
GEOFF – Ask anyone who you think might be good, if they’d do it. Even if you don’t use them there will be another occasion. Work hard to make them feel comfortable; they know how much this means to you but if they are really going to be helpful they need to be made really comfortable that you’ll not eat them or, worse, if they are friends, you’ll not hate them. Remember: once you give them your manuscript it’s no longer yours, it is theirs and anything they say is right. Treat them with kid gloves and respect; if they haven’t understood something, chances are you haven’t told it very well. However if they suggest a solution be very wary about accepting it. Only you know your own book.
DYLAN – For the writer, be very grateful for the feedback you receive, positive or negative, and remember that any comments the beta reader makes is because they want to improve the book. You don’t have to take all points on board but you should read and consider each one carefully.
For the beta reader, be honest and constructive. These are your opinions so they can’t be wrong. And yes, we’ll still be speaking at the end of this!
So here are my top 10 tips for the Beta reading stage: