How to Be a Better Beta Reader

Beta-2A

“Tell me, honestly, do these pants make me look fat?”

How many times have you wanted to answer that question with a resounding “YES! THEY HAVE ‘HINDENBURG’ WRITTEN ACROSS THE ASS! IN NEON!”

We don’t ever say it. Not if we want to keep our friends and loved ones. Our jobs. Peace with the neighbors. Tell the truth and you will be shunned. The closest we can come is a very tactful, “That’s not your best look. I like (fill in the blank) on you so much better.”

But that’s exactly what I want, need, prize in a beta reader.

What exactly is a beta reader you ask? Only the most important support person in that village it takes to get an indie book published. Indie authors cultivate a group of beta readers. These are the first people who see a manuscript, often at a point in development where it is nearly finished but not totally polished. They serve as a consumer focus group to give feedback about a book before it is published.

This is critically important to indie writer/publishers. Traditional publishing houses suffer from a huge deficit. They have a long food chain to support and they have to nurture projects that they know will sell. This results in slick, cookie-cutter books by big name authors that often play to the lowest common denominator, at the direction of their editors.

An indie author/publisher has a food chain of 1. He/she may farm out aspects of the publishing process, or an indie author may do it all themselves, editing, proof-reading, cover design and formatting. There is one thing an indie author cannot do. An indie author cannot experience their book the way a reader will.

One nifty thing about being an indie author is being able to take risks. Be different. Pursue a niche category. I don’t have to convince an editor that my book will sell. I only have to please myself and my readers. I value the beta readers who give me feedback on my books because they help me do a better job of serving my audience.

It’s hard to find good beta readers. Why? Social conditioning. The fear of hurting someone’s feelings, of offending, of damaging a relationship. So often a newbie beta reader will respond with some typo corrections and a vague “I liked it, it was good.”

Beta-1

While we really, really want you to love it, that response is always vaguely unsatisfying. I know I’m not perfect. I want to be better. In order to be better I need your raw, unfiltered, unvarnished response (okay, you can use a little tact and I won’t mind). I’ll pull on my big girl panties when I review your feedback and take care of my own ego.

My favorite beta reader once decided I was using a certain word too many times. She began numbering the instances in red pen, with the numbers getting larger with each instance. She added exclamation marks, first one, then two, then three. She circled and underlined. It let me know how annoying it was. I cut most of them out and we are still valued friends.

My usual method of working with a local beta reader is to supply them with a paper copy of the manuscript. If they don’t have a red pen, I will supply one. My fondest wish is that the reader use the red pen to scribble commentary as they go along.

I supply computer files for remote readers. In the best of all instances, they have full Word functionality on their device so they can add comments as they go along and return it to me with the comments included. Otherwise, they just take notes and send those back.

Go ahead, scrawl “BORING” right across that four page info dump. Lose track of who’s talking in a conversation? Let me know. Like something? You can put little hearts on it, I won’t mind. Did I put the bullet in his left arm in chapter 3 and bandage the bullet hole on the right arm in chapter 4? Point that out. If I say Lia rode west, into the sunrise, for heaven’s sake, correct me!

Beta-2B

Does it drag? I really, really want to know that. If it drags for you, it’ll drag for other people, too, and they won’t bother to finish the book.

I know it’s hard. It’s like telling someone their fly is down. If your fly was down, and you were about to enter a room full of people, wouldn’t you want to know?

Some Hints:

1. Be a good match. Only beta books in genres and styles you like. I stopped using one beta reader because she kept pointing me at John Grisham, her favorite writer. I am very lukewarm about John Grisham and I absolutely don’t want to be him!

2. Be yourself. Don’t try to give me the “correct” response. Give me yours. I want to now what did and didn’t work for you.

3. Read for pleasure. Make comments when you notice something, but don’t feel like you have to comment on everything.

4. Don’t rewrite my book for me. That’s my job. Stick with feedback. “Too gory” “more mushy stuff,” (or “too mushy” “more gore”).

5. We want you to be totally immersed in the world we’ve created. If anything catches your attention and jars you out of that world, point it out. It could be an obvious error, weird word usage, an overwrought metaphor or something else.

6. Don’t assume I meant to do something. When I first wrote Drool Baby, I wasn’t sure if I was going to stick with the mystery format or go for a thriller format that revealed the killer early in the book. After I decided to stick with the mystery format, I failed to erase all instances of my murderers name. None of my betas mentioned it. It was published with the killer revealed a good sixty pages before the final confrontation. (It was corrected soon after, thankfully)

7. If you happen to catch a typo, sure, go ahead and mark it, but don’t search for them. I’d rather you were in the flow of the book instead. I’ve got someone else who proofreads. It’s a different mindset.

8. I may agree with you or I may not. Your opinion still provides valuable information to me.

Authors – Do you have any tips/hints for beta readers you’d like to add?

6 thoughts on “How to Be a Better Beta Reader”

  1. I always want to know that I’ve connected all the dots – if you see any loose ends by the end of the story, then I need to make sure I tie those up and the story makes sense to the reader. Beta readers do a wonderful service for writers and your feedback as a reader is greatly appreciated!

    Like

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