Over the years, as I have collected feedback on many, many drafts. Along the way I’ve learned a few things about how to work with beta readers. Here are my top 7 tips for working with beta readers.
1. Choose a Reader in Your Genre
The first and most important qualification in a beta reader is that they read books, lots of them. There is simply no way a person can give you feedback on how your book measures up to real, published books if they haven’t read one in a decade. Also, choose at least one beta readers who is a big fan of the genre you’re writing in. They will help you spot areas where your story deviates from the conventions of the genre.
2. Also, Don’t
On the flip side, I try to pick one beta reader who does not specialize in the type of writing I do. For instance, my husband is a screenwriter and he is my go-to guy for plot and dialogue. He can appreciate the finer nuances of literary fiction, sure, but where his feedback excels is with character motivations.
3. Pay Them?
For the most part, I don’t pay beta readers. They are generally people who love me and/or people for whom I will, at some point, be a beta reader. But there are exceptions. On my most recent book, which is largely historical, I wanted both topic experts and sensitivity readers. These were not friends or fellow writers. They were people who took time out of their busy lives to read some or (in some cases) all of my manuscript. Out of respect for that, I offered modest payment. The most I paid was $200, plus acknowledgments in the finished book. I would have loved to pay more, and some day when I’m a big time, best-selling author, I’m sure I will, but that’s what I could swing this time around.
4. Plan Ahead
Ask well ahead of time. This is important if you are trying to keep momentum up on your project. If you’re planning to have a draft done next month, ask a potential beta reader if they will be available to spend some time reading your book and giving you feedback. If it’s a hectic time for them, you can assure them they will get to read it at some point and just find someone else.
5. Take Your Beta Readers to Dinner
When they’re ready to give you feedback, buy them some food. The great thing about this strategy (besides just being a nice thing to do for your beta reader) is that it locks them in for a set period of time. You’ll go over their official notes, but then, as you eat, the conversation will continue and sometimes things come up that might not have gotten a mention otherwise.
6. Stay Quiet
Never, ever, explain or defend your writing. If your reader missed a key plot point or a thematic element, it’s on you. If they say “I don’t get why…” just make a note and say “okay, I’ll look at that.” And if all of your readers didn’t get it, it wasn’t on the page. Now you know what needs editing. This is a good thing.
7. Keep it Manageable
Limit the number of beta readers you choose. I know, this one is hard. People want to read your book. You’ve been working on it FOREVER and they want to be supportive, but believe me, getting feedback from ten people is a waste of time. They will contradict each other and you will be overwhelmed. Try for 3 or 5, no more. I like an odd number in case they disagree on a major point – it allows me to consider which way the majority went.
Once you’ve got the feedback in hand, take a deep breath and dig in. You are doing the work. And the feedback from your trusted beta readers is going to help you get us across that finish line. Make those edits, and when you write your acknowledgments, don’t forget to thank them by name.