After you send your manuscript to a handful of beta readers, two of them give you conflicting advice for fixing a scene. And another has an opinion about your protagonist that doesn’t make sense. Who do you listen to?
Beta readers are a writer’s best friends, but they don’t come with user manuals. Their comments are less systematic and more open to interpretation than feedback from a professional editor. You need a strategy for communicating and cooperating with them so the experience is positive for both parties—and your book emerges stronger than ever!
I’m going to walk you through the process of acquiring a team of beta readers and provide tips on how to handle the challenges you’ll face as you interact with them.
1. Why You Should Enlist Alpha Readers
First, what are alpha readers? And how are they different from beta readers? Maybe you’ve heard the terms used interchangeably. “Beta reader” can refer to any non-editor who critiques your manuscript before publication, and the job description of an alpha reader may vary depending on who you ask.
Technically, however, alphas preview the earliest version (first or second draft) of your story, whereas betas look at later versions that have cohesive plot structure and characterization but still need fine-tuning.
Writers who rigorously self-edit their manuscripts before seeking outside input miss a huge opportunity. Alpha readers make excellent brainstorming partners. They can help you understand characters you’re struggling to portray authentically and propose scenes that never would have occurred to you. Personally, I prefer to send my first draft to alpha readers as I write it. That way, they can warn me if my story derails and I won’t waste months on a plot riddled with holes or characters who lack compelling motivations.
A good alpha must have enough faith to stick with you through dull as well as entertaining chapters, enough kindness to keep you enthralled with your story, and enough meanness to point out areas that need improvement.
2. When to Share Your Manuscript with Beta Readers
A fine line exists between respecting beta readers’ time and abusing your own. You don’t want to overwhelm betas with an error-laden draft. However, should you root out every typo when you might end up cutting sections in the next draft? And how stable should your plot be? Do you need to finish large-scale revisions beforehand, or are beta readers necessary to accurately identify problems? Where is the limit?
To determine the optimal timing, I recommend following two rules:
- Strive for balance. You will fall too far to one side or the other, but making equilibrium your goal will reduce stress.
- Take a break before beginning a new draft. Don’t touch your manuscript for at least a month. Work on another project. When you return, you’ll see your manuscript’s weaknesses ten times as clearly. I’ve found that this is an especially important habit after completing a second or third round of revisions. By then, I’m so familiar with the story that detecting problems becomes nearly impossible. I once sent beta readers a draft that was in worse shape than it should have been because I immediately dived into more edits instead of setting my manuscript aside for a time.
3. How to Find the Right Beta Readers
As you begin your search for beta readers, you need to prioritize two qualities: skill and diversity.
Skilled beta readers have a solid grasp of writing theory. They’re opinionated, analytical, and always eager to discuss or study techniques. They may not be able to write their own masterpieces yet (putting knowledge into practice is hard), but they’ll recognize what makes a story succeed or fail.
Beta readers with diverse personalities and lifestyles will notice issues you’ve overlooked. Try to gather a variety of people—those who do and don’t read your genre, young and old, male and female, encouragers and critics. Also seek out beta readers with experience pertaining to your story. For instance, if you’re writing a revolutionary war novel about a mother and her two boys, you’ll want betas with military backgrounds and expertise on the revolutionary war, as well as mothers and sons.
Your beta reader numbers may vary depending upon their availability and your preferences, but I wouldn’t advise querying or publishing a story with fewer than six. Ten to fifteen is ideal. More than that is fantastic but difficult to manage. Remember that quality trumps quantity! However, not everyone who volunteers to beta read will follow through, so recruit a couple extras as backup.
4. How to Guide Beta Readers to Be as Helpful as Possible
No matter how intelligent your beta readers are, they’ll always perform better if you explain your needs upfront. You know your story (and your own foibles) inside out, right? So specify where your betas ought to focus their energy. Over time you’ll learn what kind of feedback helps you the most and can adjust your instructions accordingly. As an example, here’s the game plan I lay out for my beta readers:
- Unnecessary Feedback. Don’t fuss over minor details like spelling (unless you can’t resist) or constantly compliment me (positive comments show me where I’m hitting the mark, but you needn’t go overboard).
- Desired Feedback. The primary issues I’d like brought to my attention are those that could ruin my novel: confusing narration and dialogue, scenes that drag, poor or inconsistent characterization, unrealistic elements, plot holes, etc.
- Insecurities. In the previous draft, my protagonist’s motivations were unclear. I believe I’ve remedied that, but please speak up if you feel I haven’t.
- Flaws to Watch for. On the spectrum between blatant telling and obscure subtlety, I lean toward the latter. I sometimes assume that scenes and character arcs make sense when they actually don’t. However, I’m more interested in your interpretation of the text than advice on repairing it. Even if nothing seems wrong with a scene, I appreciate hearing your impressions so I can see if I expressed myself how I intended to. What do you think is influencing the protagonist’s choices? Why are you drawn to or repulsed by a character? When did the story move too slowly and why? More than anything, I need data, though if you have a solution to suggest as well, I’m all ears.
You can optimize your game plan even further by tailoring it to an individual’s strengths. Profile your beta readers and assign them tasks they’re suited to. If one of your writing buddies is oblivious to subtext but a wizard at diagnosing plot problems, he might be more useful as an alpha reader than as a beta. And if another friend is a killer brainstormer, you can call on her when you’re out of ideas. The goal is to minimize your beta readers’ workload and maximize the results.
5. How to Address Perplexing Feedback
Beta reader feedback can be frustrating. You can’t fathom why one reader hates X. Another is so enthusiastic that you wonder if she’s being honest. And two have given you conflicting advice. How do you respond wisely and appropriately?
Two principles will save you from a headache:
- With the exception of trolls, beta readers always have reasons for their opinions.
- The quality of any part of your story depends on three factors: moral rating (objective), enjoyment value (subjective), and artistic value (objective). (Josiah DeGraaf wrote a whole article on this topic.)
When two beta readers disagree, you may be tempted to dismiss the side you’re most resistant to. But if you keep the above principles in mind and continue probing, you’ll discover that beta readers typically contradict each other due to differing values and tastes.
If opposing values are the source of the conflict, respect your beta readers’ convictions, but listen to your own conscience. When personal tastes clash, you’ll likewise need to exercise your own judgment, but consider how the naysayer’s comprehension of the story will be affected if you don’t make changes. For instance, a beta reader complained that a poem in my work-in-progress was too long. I imagine she’d feel the same about the poems in Lord of the Rings, which I love. However, my poem contains crucial information, and if someone skims it (as she did), that will lead to apparent inconsistencies later in the book. I now have to decide whether that small hitch is worth shortening the poem over.
Distinguishing between objective and subjective comments is (understatedly) tricky. Feedback will often be a mixture of both, and sometimes the only reason your beta readers don’t concur with each other is because one party misunderstands your intent. I spent a while scratching my head over the latter scenario with a recent draft of mine.
My protagonist excited some of my beta readers and bored others. At first, I concluded that they simply had different tastes about character arcs. Investigation, however, revealed the truth. The beta readers who disliked him had missed aspects of his arc because I was too vague. When I described the outcome I was hoping to achieve, though, they all approved. The character arc was objectively good. The way I’d communicated it was not.
How did I figure that out? My magic tools were Google Docs and email. My favorite feature of Google Docs is how I can reply to a comment and beta readers receive a notification within an hour, while the chapter is still fresh in their minds. This lets me explore deeper questions their feedback raises. If my thoughts are tangly, I’ll transition to email and start a discussion with several beta readers. This back-and-forth was how I finally drilled down what was wrong with my protagonist.
When a beta reader’s comments are confusing or harsh, she probably assumed you’d get what she’s saying because the problem is obvious to her. Instead of becoming defensive, try to find out why she holds that viewpoint. Explain what you were attempting to do and ask, “Did you read this another way, or does my approach not work?” When she answers, you may realize that personal tastes were driving her all along, but other times her insight will blow you away.
The same tactics apply when you’re evaluating glowing versus brutal feedback. The trouble here is judging your book according to entertainment value (which is entirely subjective). Just because your book has serious issues doesn’t mean it won’t leave readers gobsmacked. And just because someone bashes your book doesn’t mean it’s objectively bad.
Once you assimilate why beta readers are gushing over your manuscript or tearing it to shreds, you’ll be in a position to become a better writer, and your pride won’t wound as easily.
6. Why You Should Divide Your Beta Readers into Groups
Here’s a secret: skilled beta readers tend to criticize masterpieces more than garbage. Why? The tiniest blemishes stand out when surrounded by gold, but only the biggest flaws are noticeable among dross. No one wants to edit a disaster with a fine-toothed comb (unless you pay them well).
If you throw a rough draft at all your betas, everyone will flag the broad issues, and feedback will overlap. But what if you give your draft to a smaller group, revise in light of their suggestions, and then share the updated version with a new set of betas? Your writing will steadily grow stronger, and you’ll avoid repetitive comments.
I split my beta readers into two groups. I hand the complete draft to the first group. As soon as most of them have gone through a chapter, I’ll pass it to group two. This can save weeks or even months compared to waiting until group one is finished with the full manuscript.
Be warned, however, that this system is only effective under two conditions. First, you must be confident that your draft won’t require major rewriting. If it does, you won’t need a slew of beta readers—you’ll only need one to pronounce how much work is ahead of you! Second, you need to be aware of your beta readers’ unique styles. Don’t place the beta readers who excel at prose in the first wave and the beta readers who excel at plot in the second wave. The order should be reversed.
If you put your manuscript through alpha readers, two groups of beta readers, and a couple professional editors (one for content and one for style/grammar), that equals five rounds of revisions (in addition to self-editing), which should be sufficient in most cases.
The Power of a Team
Beta readers are selfless, giving so much of their time to you. So treat them with respect in how you communicate. The more clearly you outline your expectations and strive to understand each of your betas, the more insight you’ll glean on how to polish your manuscript.
And, ultimately, that’s what beta readers want—to help you release a beautiful story into the world.
Many moons ago, a series of suspiciously providential events led Daeus to cast his lot among the worldwide community of Christian storytellers. Since then, no reports indicate that he has come back out. Perhaps he is lost among those fine gallivanters forever. Rest in peace, Daeus Lamb.
Daeus dreams impossibly large (which doesn’t bother him a bit) and tends to bite off more than he can chew. Watch this in action as he tries to capture the depths of the fantasy genre on his YouTube channel, or as he seeks to express the meaning of life in just a short novelette. (Psst. It’s a popular little book called God of Manna and you can get it for free here.)