I recently published what I consider my debut novella, “Merchant Magician”. As part of the process, I had a number of beta readers provide feedback on it. Overall, it was mixed experience.
What is a Beta Reader?
A beta reader is someone who reads your about-to-be-published work and gives you feedback from a reader’s perspective. They ARE NOT a collaborator, development editor, line editor, or proof reader. Instead they tell you what parts they liked or disliked, how they felt about characters and any plot holes or issues they saw as a reader.
This feedback gives the writer a final chance to make fixes to their publication before it “goes to press”.
Before discussing the benefits to me as a writer, it’s important to point out that agreeing to be a beta reader is an incredibly generous act. Everyone who gave me any feedback took time out of their busy lives to fight their way through my work-in-progress and then spent time writing up feedback. When it didn’t work out well, the fault was mine.
I’ve thanked all my beta readers personally and I remain in their debt. I would be heart broken if any of them read this and took it as a slight against the feedback they provided. It’s not, I remain very grateful to you all!
My Experience, the Good
The good was that beta readers can point out issues that, if something comes up repeatedly, are probably worth rethinking. Any problems you can fix before you publish you clearly should, so it’s very helpful to get any eyes on it you can. I made changes based on beta-reader feedback, so it was definitely worth doing.
Different readers, of course, had different reactions to the work. A section that one reader said was the weakest part, might be another reader’s favorite. The first lesson I had about beta reading was to NOT view feedback as a list of changes to make, but instead to use it IN THE AGGREGATE to identify areas that might need more work. If something was only mentioned once, by a single beta reader, unless it hits you like a bolt of lightning that they’re absolutely and unquestionably right, you should probably ignore it.
In “Merchant Magician”, I never name or describe the protagonist. This was intentional on my part, to make him more universal, but also as part of the inherent intimacy of the first person narrative that I’d used. Three beta readers noticed and objected to this, while far more than three never commented on it. Although it bothered those three readers, I considered the experiment a success and that I’d “gotten away with it”.
My Experience, the Bad
The biggest issue I found is when the reader just isn’t a fan of your genre or the type of writing you’re doing.
What would *REALLY* improve this Regency romance is if the main character was a Wookie and if it was a space opera instead of a Regency romance…
If the person isn’t your target reader, you have to then tease out whether their feedback is about your writing versus their reading preferences. You want to make absolutely sure that they’re the exact type of person who would read your book. This is close to impossible if it’s your first book. I imagine the ideal situation would be to recruit beta readers for a series from fans of the previously published books in that same series. The second best option would be to recruit fans from your past works that are similar to what you’re currently writing. If you don’t have either of these, I think a case could be made for avoiding beta readers completely.
Fellow Writers as Beta Readers
Other writers naturally think about how they would write things, which isn’t what you want from a beta-reader. I’ve found you want answers to questions in the form of “what did you like? what did you dislike? What parts were exciting? What parts were boring?” Writers will tend to brainstorm new scenes and characters for you, thinking about how they would write the book.
Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
― Neil Gaiman
I’ve found this is a general problem with feedback. I’ve designed board games in the past, and when I’d try to get feedback from friends who enjoy board games, they wanted to brainstorm ways to expand my design. Regardless of how many times I asked them to identify what was fun or not fun, they kept wanting to talk about the “awesome mechanic” they’d add.
Rather than give me feedback as a potential consumer, they wanted to be my co-creator.
Beta Readers as a Focus Group
More than anything, I’ve found you need to think of your beta readers like focus group participants and be very careful what information you solicit from them and how you use that information.
D.E. Haggerty had a delightful (and informative) post “Why I don’t use beta readers.” In addition to having lost a friend over a bad beta reading experience (ouch!), she found that people either ignored her feedback document and gave her unusable feedback, or they followed it and found it so much work they refused to ever do it again. If you properly treat beta readers like a focus group, it’s likely that they’ll find it an especially demanding experience.
Never Argue With a Beta Reader
It should go without saying, but you should never, ever, ever argue with a beta reader’s feedback. It’s their reaction to the writing, so by definition they can’t be wrong.
At best, you’ll make it far less likely that they’ll beta read for you or anyone ever again. Additionally, you’re likely making them less likely to give honest feedback to people in the future. Finally, you might end a friendship.
Will I Use Beta Readers in the Future?
Maybe. If I have contact with people who I am very certain fit the exact type of reader who would buy the book, yes. If not, no.