Step 3 – Beta readers

When you’ve worked through the changes from your first read-through, it’s time to find yourself someone to read the novel.

This is one of the hardest things to do for most writers to do. And if this is your first book, it’s even harder. Writing a novel is an incredibly personal thing to do. You nurtured the idea from conception and pondered on every aspect for months/years. And now you’re about to let someone else read it. Every one of us feels what you will feel, so don’t worry.

Beta readers come in different forms and each form can offer different perspectives. And this is why it’s important to have an eclectic group on your list (that’s right. It’s time to make a list).

Reach out to people. Ask them if they are interested in beta reading your novel. Tell them what the book is about: how long it is, the genre, time frame, any scenes that may trigger them (sexual/violent/child or animal harm etc) and what you require of them. And if they agree, send them a few chapters and list of questions that you want them to think.

Freelance Beta Readers

These are professionals who charge for their service. A professional beta reader will know what to look for and what you should be looking for. Therefore, if you are uncertain, tell them and they will guide you. Communicate with your chosen professional and tell them about yourself. Let them know that you are new to this game. If you don’t know what you are looking for, they will happily suggest areas such as characters, main story, sub-plots, etc. And then they’ll go to work for you.

If you don’t engage with them and try to act like a seasoned writer, they will treat you like one and could over-complicate your feedback.

Be open, be honest, and ask for advice. Like I said above, they charge for their services, but in return, they will provide you with thorough feedback. And if you work well together, you know where to go for your next book.

Reading groups

Your local library or community centre will likely have reading groups who get together weekly, monthly etc. Most would be happy to read your work, discuss it at a group meeting, and provide you with feedback. This is often free, though I would always look for a way to pay them back for their time and effort. Offer a few signed copies of your finished novel, mentioning them on social media, or donating to a cause on their behalf.

But it isn’t as simple as delivering your manuscript and waiting for feedback. Sometimes, you’ll have to dig a bit deeper. Go and meet with them. Tell them about yourself and why you wrote your book. Some of them may not read your particular genre for any number of reasons. But if they know you as a person, they may be willing to try it.

Personally, I love reading groups. As writers (and readers), we should champion and support them.

Individual beta readers

I was approached by someone on social media not too long ago, and asked if I would read a few chapters of their work in progress. They explained the genre and what they were looking for. In this particular case, the writer was from the USA but had set his story in the UK. And with me being from the east side of the pond, he wanted me to advise him on the accuracy of the “Britishness” of it. I was more than happy to help and provided him with my observations.

If you have been active in the writing community on social media, you may already have friends/associates who will gladly give up their time to help. But don’t throw ninety-thousand words at them. That’s a big read. Send them a few chapters at a time and then talk to them about their thoughts.

Family/friends

I wasn’t very active on social media when I got to this stage. Instead of asking well-read strangers, I asked my sister and a friend to beta read my work.

Most people will tell you not to ask family or friends because you will never get “real” feedback. This is a judgement call that only you can make.

I was lucky. My sister is a veracious reader but also a constructive and honest critic. She knew what my goal was and didn’t want me to look like an ass to the reading world. So, she told me what any professional beta reader would tell me. Also, with her being a post-graduate academic, she identified what was required and stayed on task; exclusively focusing on the overall story and character development (though I’m sure the other issues bugged her).

Thanks to her honest feedback, I was able to understand my writing from a different perspective. And in doing so, made some changes that removed a lot of assumptions a reader might make about my main character.

My friend on the other hand, was distracted by occasional spelling mistakes and couldn’t remain objective. Because of this, when he gave his feedback, it became uncomfortable and my defences went up. And in turn, so did his.

Although he enjoys reading (at least one book per week), he couldn’t quite understand what the beta reading phase was about, and tried to become an editor and ghost writer.

His feedback was good for some points, but when it turned into “you should do this,” or “I would write that scene like this,” I realised that not everyone is able to be objective.

Final thoughts

Things to remember about feedback from beta readers–you don’t want people to kiss your ass and tell you how wonderful your writing is. Your writing will (hopefully) be consumed by readers around the world. And if it’s anything less than what is should be, it will be read, discarded and forgotten about.

That being said, you don’t want someone who cannot see the potential and is unable to give you encouragement. Not that my friend was discouraging. Quite the opposite. He wanted me to succeed, but just didn’t know how to deliver constructive criticism.

A great way to receive feedback from your beta reader is to sit down with a brew and talk about the book as a whole. Make sure you have a notebook to hand. It has to be a conversation about the story and how it develops. Did the story build up appropriately? Were there any flat points that were boring? Did the narrative have any holes or confusing scenes, and what could’ve made them better? These are things that are difficult to convey in an email. Get on the phone or Skype and talk to each other.

And the question I always ask is this at the end is this- were there any lines, phrases, paragraphs that needed to be read twice? This can be a big problem to a reader and is something that really annoys me as a reader. And this is why we read our books out loud during the self-edit.

JENNA has a great video on beta reading advice. She is passionate about writing (a nice way to say she swears on occasion), and her advice is top quality. I would encourage you to subscribe to her channel and watch her content.

Good luck with your beta readers.

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