Beta-Readers and Feedback
Alpha-readers are those to whom you have shown your manuscript—in part or whole—while still a work-in-progress:
"How does this scene look?" you ask of a spouse, or you present the first chapter to a friend.
"Do you want to keep reading? Or the perennial, "Does the sex sound real here?"
Proofreading—finding errors in spelling, punctuation, capitalizaton, consistancy of tense, etc.— is one of the functions of professional editors.
Alpha readers should be employed to weed out spelling and grammatical errors; anyone interested enough to read part of your work should be engaged
to read with a pencil in hand and help you in that way. Similarly, Beta-Readers can also contribute, though they should be asked to participate as an
While there is no prohibition against allowing alpha-readers to pars your edited manuscript,
Beta-readers should not have seen unedited versions of your work. They should not have been alpha-readers and not have any greater
insight into the book than they'd glean from the cover blurb.
Beta-Readers should not be paid. Anyone who reads your book for money is an editor, not a beta-reader, and there is value in that
class of editing if you can find a proven professional and can afford their fees. Otherwise, coaxing someone with no editing experience to
read your book for cash will not elicit a quality response.
Beta-readers should not know you well enough to unconsciosly read your book in your voice. How often has someone relayed
a conversation they've had with your spouse, sibling, or a mutual friend, and you've laughed and responded, "That sounds like her."
It did. We each have a mode of speech, use of words, phrasiology, and meter that is as characteristic as our voice, and we embue
our writing with a dimension of that pattern. When a spouse reads your manuscript, they read it with your voice in their head; it
distracts from the work.
Beta-readers should not be anyone you know, or are behoden to someone you know, that their criticism might be softened
with compassion, preventing them from giving the most brutally honest assessment of your work. Your spouse, siblings, parents, relatives of any distance,
coworkers, and friends, therefore, do not qualify.
Sometimes we write crap. If someone doesn't tell us, we'll waste irretrievable time on a dead-end project when we should be onto our next work.
What's crap? You may have the most elegantly edited manuscript, but the story is tedious (boring, monotonous, dull), trite, too derivative,
or some combination thereof. Perhaps the plot is convoluted and impossible to follow. If the work is your first, some of the prime directives
may not have been adhered to: you told instead of shown, used generalities rather than specific details,
didn't allow characters to grow, or employed a hackneyed storyline.
Unless you anticipate impending end-of-life, you have time to write another. If you do anticipate impending end-of-life,
that's likely a better story than the one you've written.
How is it possible to give a sense of the story without revealing the story? Few obligations of the wannabe author are as dreaded
as the writing of a hundred or so words teasing a would-be reader to purchase their book.
Remember those five books in your genre you were assigned to read back while Preparing to Write?
You know the stories. Read their cover blurbs. Get a feeling for how those authors attacked
At random, I pulled from my spouses's nightstand:
The Last Flight by Julie Clark.
Two women. Two flights. One last chance to disappear.
You might know a husband like Claire's. Ambitious, admired, with deep pockets. But behind closed doors,
he has a temper that burns as bright as his promising political career, and he's not above using his staff
to track Claire's every move. What he doesn't know is that Claire has worked for months on a plan to vanish.
A chance meeting in an airport brings her together with a woman who seems equally desperate to flee her life.
Together, they make a last-minute decision to switch tickets—Claire taking Eva's fight to Oakland,
and Eva traveling to Puerto Rico as Claire. But when the Puerto Rico plane crashes, Claire's options narrow to
one impossible choice: assume Eva's identity, and along with it, the secrets Eva fought so hard to keep hidden.
With your back against a wall, would you be brave enough to take the chance you're given?
156 words. The storyline is revealed; cliffhangers abound. What are Eva's secrets? Will Claire assimilate into a new life?
Will her control-freak husband find her? It promises
to be an emotional roller-coaster. That's what readers want: they want to feel your story.
As important, take note of the writing of the blurb. It is of a quality that promises an interesting, dynamic read that flows with excitement. It's fun
to read. It screams, "Buy this book!"
Follow the template:
The first draft of the blurb may be five-hundred words long. It is always easier to cut than add. Edit as you did in the manuscript.
Cut words, rearrange phrases, take out repetitive sentences.
- Write the framework for your story up to the crisis.
- Include intriguing settings whether the action occurs in a remote log cabin or a palace on the seashore.
- Name your characters and state their challenge.
- Put the reader in the story—ask a question.
- And write it with a prosaic flourish that magnitizes the readers attention to the words.
This may not be the final cover blurb, but it is something needed for the next step.
Writers, or people who fancy themselves writers, read with a different perspective, always evaluating phrases and descriptions with
mental background chatter, "I would have used 'vermillion' instead of 'crimson.'"
You may agree with some of their suggestions, so fellow participants in writers groups who volunteer should be welcomed, however you need some civilians.
Friends of friends and family, not friends and family, make the best readers.
Solicit friends and family to invite others to read your book. No two people who are more than casual aquaintances in a friend's or
family member's circle should be invited; you don't want them discussing your work and feeding off each other. Again, they must not know you.
Advise your inviters that the most important qualifier for invitees is they should be avid readers who enjoy at least one or two books a month.
Provide Beta-Reader Agreements to those who will ask others to read
your book. It explains the rules and what readers should expect:
Agreement to read
By Author A. Author
How many times have your read a book and wished you could have offered suggestions to the author? Here's your opportunity.
My book is a [375 page espionage novel set in cold-war Europe].
I understand that you are an avid reader who enjoys one or two novels each month.
I offer you a thrilling story—and an autographed copy when it is published—in exchange for your valuable feedback.
However, quite candidly, if you choose to read the work, I would like your commitment to:
Below is a draft of the blurb that will appear on the jacket cover.
- Finish reading it within 30 days.
- Notify me when you're done so we may discuss by phone or in person your impression of the work.
- Be brutally honest regarding your opinion of the story, how it is told, and how you would rate the presentation
relative to other works you've read. Whether you find it wonderful or terrible, I need to know the truth.
- While there is no obligation, circling typographical errors or marking areas where the reading becomes
difficult—hopefully, rare passages—would be appreciated. However, I don't want to distract you from the reading and
enjoyment of the story, so this is entirely optional.
- Contact me if you choose not to complete reading the book.
- Return the book when done.
[INSERT DRAFT BLURB HERE]
Thank you for your time in considering this Agreement. Please contact me directly if you choose to participate so I may send or deliver the book to you.
Author A. Author
How many Beta-Readers? This is the first round. Three to five plus a writer or two, if available.
Preparing the Manuscript for Beta-Readers
Most readers will want a printed copy:
Provide a self-addressed, stamped envelope with which the reader will return the manuscript if pick-up is not possible. This may cost
a few dollars, but it's part of the process.
- Print on 8-1/2" x 11" white paper. Inexpensive copy paper is acceptable.
- Margins may vary, but 1" top and bottom and 3/4" right and left are optimum.
- 12 pt, Times New Roman font.
- At least 1.5, preferably double spaced
- Paragraph indent 0.2". It is not necessary to bother with other final-print formatting such as beginning a new chapter half down a page, etc. unless
- Title page with the title, a by-line, your phone and email address, and your copyright. It is not necessary to copyright every page.
- Because you will be retrieving the manuscripts and the reader may have written comments on the pages, include a "Prepared for:" line on the title page
for reader-specific follow up. Also include, "Please return before:" so there is no confusion about when it should be returned or that it must be returned.
- Number the pages.
- Do not bind.
- If you have the facility to print 2-sided pages, that will reduce the cost of printing and shipping to and from the reader.
Keep a record of to whom and when you send manuscripts. Enter their phone numbers with Reader-John Doe in your phone so should they
call, you don't dismiss the call as spam.
Some readers may prefer to read on their computers or e-readers. Unless you have the expertise to prepare e-reader format—or the
services of someone who does—a .PDF file is the best option.
MSWord can Save as a .PDF and it is presumed other word processors
and writing applications do as well.
Keep a record of to whom and when you email manuscripts. Enter their phone numbers with Reader-John Doe in your phone so should they
call, you don't dismiss the call as spam.
Do Not Re-Read Your Manuscript
This is another rest period.
Until Beta-Readers are Done.
You do not have to wait for the last manuscript to be returned. Interview readers as soon after each has completed the manuscript as is practical.
Do not perform a group interview. Debrief readers individually.
Because readers have no experience critiquing a manuscript, they won't have focus.
Therefore, it's important that you structure the Beta-Reader interview. It is appropriate to have your list of questions in hand
and a notepad on which you take note of their answers.
A pad and pencil is an excellent prop, even if you only jot down a few key words of their remarks. It may be necessary to have questions written
in advance if you're an introvert: one who can compose staggeringly clever dialog for a jet setting bon vivant on paper, but
stammers when ordering fast-food takeout.
I suggest against recording the interview. Decency—and in some places, the law—demands you advise your reader that you
are doing so, and even with someone who's cooperative, it could change the dynamics of the interaction.
This list of topics and direct questions is comprehensive. Not every reader need be badgered by every one of these details.
- Whether by phone or in person, begin with a warm greeting, thank them for their participation, and ensure them that they are contributing
to something important.
- Engaging the reader in a conversation is essential. Don't interrupt. Don't correct if they use the wrong term. Don't finish their sentences;
allow them to gather their thoughts if they go silent for a moment.
- Practice active listening. Don't allow your mind to wander. Gold is panned from mud.
- Do NOT use writer jargon. For example: "What did you think of the story arc?" is not clear to the unitiated.
The same question: "How did you feel about the way the story flowed?" is better. Refer to it as a book, not a manuscript. Main chracter
not protagonist... unless they use the term first. In short, speak to them as if you were a normal person.
- Discuss generalities first, then drill down to specifics.
- Ask the title and author of the most recent book they've read before yours, whether they enjoyed it, and if it's not obvious,
what kind (not genre) of book it was. That's your base line.
- Inform them you'd like to begin with an overall impression. Assure them that they can be honest and forthright. "On a scale of 1 to 5,
did you enjoy the book? 5 is loved it, 1 is hated it, 3 is, 'it was just a book', 2 and 4 in between."
- Regardless of their answer, the more important question is why? Can they articulate why they loved, hated, or were indifferent to it?
- Had they spent $18.95, would they be satisfied with their purchase or write it off as the occasional disappointment?
- Questions about format:
- Where the chapters too long or too short and choppy?
- Overall sentence length? If they didn't notice, that's good.
- Use of language? Too simple, too sophisticated, or Goldilocks?
- If their overall impression is good:
If their overall impression was mediocre:
- "Who was your favorite character? Did you identify with them?"
- "Compared to other books you've enjoyed, was the writing—the use of language—comparable?"
- "Did you like the ending?"
- "Would you read a sequel?"
- "Did you find the characters unsympathetic?"
- "Were there times you found yourself skimming rather than reading? Do you remember during which scenes?"
- "What could have been done to make the book more satisfying?"
These are suggestions. You must stear the conversation corresponding to their earlier responses.
Perhaps you have uncertainties about a character, scene, or a stretch of dialogue. Be prepared to ask details:
- Do you remember Roscoe? What did you think of him?
- Did you get what Angela was implying to Sheila in their conversation on the beach on page 56?
[Ask the reader to open the manuscript and review the exchange if necessary and appropriate.]
- Expect some comments to be petty and picky, and focus
on what you consider, the smallest and most inconsequential details. "You know that part where he drives off the cliff? Wouldn't there
be guard rails?" Always thankfully acknowledge; never argue or explain. "You know, maybe I should throw in a line like, 'A dangerous curve, the guard rails had been
demolished in previous accidents.'" That provides positive feedback, establishes that they are contributing, and fosters greater cooperation.
- A reader may have missed the point, not understanding the deep philosophical message subtley camoflaged in the dialog. The symbolism
of your character names and settings may have remained undetected.
Consider that it may be your fault, not theirs.
- You may have a dullard among your readers, but more likely...
- You may have buried an Easter egg wth the expectation that a five-year-old will notice the newly disturbed dirt on the lawn
prompting them to excavate it: your allusions may have been obtuse.
- Don't overstay your welcome, even for a phone interview. Fifteen or twenty minutes is long enough.
- However, should the reader opt to give you
a detailed analysis, prolonging the conversation, allow it. Take notes. They may be spokesperson for others who did not fully express their opinions.
- Or they could be blow-hards... but they invested a number of hours with your book, the least you can do is return
the favor and spend an extra five or ten minutes with them.
- Express gratitude for their time, and say so: "Thank you for your time. If you'd like, I'll let your know the status as it approaches
publication." Keep the notes of your conversation with their phone number and email address.
- After publication, keep your promise to send them an autographed copy whether they want it or not.
A dud is the reader whose eyes may have moved over every word,
but they weren't paying attention. Their opinions are indecisive and they have little to contribute.
Be grateful and courteous and conclude the interview quickly.
An excercise in prepartion for the Beta-Reader interview:
Write a scene in which a person who thinks they've written a blockbuster best-seller is inteviewing a few people who have read the
book in advance of publication.
Think it through. Create a best-case scenario and a worst. Take all the time you need.
- What questions should the writer ask them about the manuscript?
- Including reactions from readers who loved it and those who didn't, what might they say?
- What internal dialog might the writer experience while listening?
- What internal dialog might the readers have?
Review your notes. Take time to play back the interviews in your mind.
Do not arbitrarily dismiss any comment. Think long and hard about them. If two of five readers focused on the same chapter or scene as
leaving them uneasy, though neither could articular why, that's 40%. Consider a rewrite even if you just don't see it.
- If in-person interviews were performed, did you notice body-language that contradicted a reader's words?
- How did the tone and inflection of readers's voices correlate to what you were being told?
- Were there any remarks common to more than one reader?
- Were specific areas—characters, scenes, settings—noted negatively that might be altered, rewritten, or deleted?
- Were there confusing passages?
- Are there any typos highighted or other comments written in the retrieved manuscrpts?
If anyone didn't like your book, learn as much about why as you can. It may be fixable,
or they may be too far from their genre-of-choice to ever have enjoyed it. To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone With the Wind, and
For Whom the Bell Tolls were not universally acclaimed when published. It took a few days.
Correct typos, spelling, and grammatical errors readers have highlighted.
Take everything you've heard from your Beta-Readers seriously and consider their input. They are your audience.
If you feel more feedback is necessary, get new blood and run another round of Beta-Readers.
- Some sentences, perhaps paragraphs, may require restructuring for clarity.
- If no one remembers Roscoe, was he necessary?
- An isolated scene that was too sexual or graphic may need revision or excision.
- One or more chapters may be too long.
Unless in response to reader suggestions, do not add or expand scenes. Do not enter into another round
of creativity. To do so requires starting from the beginning, editing your new work, and ensuring it doesn't duplicate in
language or function other scenes.
No one liked it.
- The story may be too controversial (politically, religiously, or socially) or too edgy, though it could have a niche market. Another round of Beta-Reading by those within the community
you address could be productive.
- Over-the-top scenes depicting of the abuse of women, children, other acts of torture, or radical sexuality in which descriptions are
intensely graphic may turn people off for the entire work. Some may be reticent to voice that view simply because
to recall it would be to relive their revulsion. Ask them if there were any particular scenes they hated. They may allude to those:
"Oh, there was that thing in the basement." Those scenes may need to be softened or taken out entirely.
If readers find it difficult to pinpoint why they didn't enjoy the book
and comments fall into the "I just didn't get into it," category, the story may be uninspiring or unconvincing.
- What was the consensus? Ask if it was the story or the writing.
- If the writing, it can be improved if you wish to invest the time.
Perhaps a reader says, "It was kinda like Gone With the Wind set in Vietnam." The story may be too derivative.
Prominent writers have had dead-end works discovered by a descendant years after their death.
They're ultimately published entirely for their historical value, but would have
had frosty receptions at the time of the writing.
Save the file, print a clean copy and put it on your shelf, chalk it up to practice and experience, and move on to your next project. Times
may change, your perspective on the story may evolve, and your expertise will certainly mature. A few years from now,
it may be worth looking at again.
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