Working With Beta Readers

You’ve finished your manuscript. You’ve read it over countless times. You’re ready to share it. Time to sound the Horn of Gondor and call to the world, “Beta readers, assemble!”

…Or not. This isn’t Lord of the Rings or anything. Getting beta readers is a challenge, yes, but it’s one you can achieve (and you don’t have to be a Gondorian ruler to do it). Here are some steps you might want to try.

1. Find Your Readers

This step is simpler than some might think. Just gather a mix of viewpoints: writers and non-writers, readers and non-readers, genre fans and non-genre fans. Gathering a variety of opinions helps you cast a wide net over any potential issues. And that, of course, is the whole point of the exercise.

For my recently completed novella manuscript (which I hope to have published soon, so stay tuned), I asked pretty much everyone I know. That included my fiancee, my parents, and most of my writer’s group. Don’t stress out over who you ask and don’t ask. Just get as many people as you can.

2. Ask Specific Questions

Offering actionable feedback is already tricky. Offering actionable feedback on an entire manuscript? Now that’s a tall order. So do your beta readers a solid and include guiding questions.

Some examples: Does the protagonist have a satisfying character arc? Does the setting feel authentic? What do you think of the dialogue between characters A and B in chapter four? I find it works best to include these at the end of the manuscript rather than upfront, just so I don’t shape readers’ opinions too much. However, where you place your questions is completely up to you.

Likewise, it’s helpful to mention what you’re not looking for as well. For example, one member of my writer’s group sometimes mentions when he’s not going to make huge structural changes. Feel free to do the same. If you love your story the way it is and aren’t going to change that shocking plot twist, let folks know ahead of time. It’ll save them (and you) the added effort.

3. Collect Your Comments

This one takes a while. I’ve done it on a smaller scale for short stories, though not yet for my novella, since I’m still waiting to hear back from everyone. That said, you don’t necessarily need complete feedback before starting this step. For example, one of my beta readers mentioned that Cadillacs don’t have hubcaps. In my novella, I make specific mention to a Cadillac with a hubcap. I don’t need further input on that one.

Important: You don’t need to make every change your beta readers suggest. Ponder their comments. If you agree with them, then make the changes. If you like things the way they are, kindly ignore those suggestions. Be careful, though. If you love your character’s elongated opening monologue yet every single beta reader hates it, you might have a legitimate problem.

Ultimately, this is your story and you’re putting in the work. Do what you think is best.

4. Make the Changes!

Once you know what changes you’re going to make, make them! This part can take a long time, but it’s certainly worth it. Also, remember that this is one of the last steps before sending your story to editors, agents, or what have you. How cool is that?

5. Pat Yourself (and Your Beta Readers) on the Back

Make sure to thank everyone who offered feedback. Enjoy your sweet new draft!

Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York. His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. To stay current with Kyle’s work, subscribe to his email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.

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4 thoughts on “Working With Beta Readers

  1. Excellent advice. Number 4 is probably the trickiest. I will make a change if two (yes, only two) beta readers make the same comment, but I look carefully at every comment. I figure if someone actually took the time to jot it down, it’s worthy of my attention. And then there are those completely opposite impressions where one reader loves a scene that another hates! 😀

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