How Writers Can Prepare For a Fantastic Beta Reader Experience
A little beta reader feedback can go a long way toward improving the quality of your work.
In last week’s article, I answered six common questions about working with beta readers, including what beta readers are, why their feedback is invaluable, and how you can find the beta readers who will provide the most constructive feedback on your work. Today, I’m following that introduction with a guide to creating the very best beta experience for both you and your readers.
Remember, beta readers are providing you with a free service, taking the time to read your manuscript and share feedback on how you can improve it before you publish. That’s a lot of work! It’s your job to make that work as enjoyable as possible for your beta readers. And when you do, you may just find that you set yourself up for a fantastic beta reader experience as well.
Before sending your manuscript to beta readers…
In June, I had the pleasure of working with beta readers for the first time on my upcoming book for writers, Build Your Best Writing Life, and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. The feedback I received was incredibly kind, detailed, and most importantly, honest. My beta readers were truly the best, and I’m grateful for their time and effort.
In preparing to work with betas for the first time, I made sure to do my research. I wanted to respect my readers by making the beta-reading experience as enjoyable as possible, and I wanted to respect my work by ensuring I set myself up to receive the most helpful feedback. Here are the key steps I ultimately took before sending my work to beta readers:
Step #1: Prepare a readable manuscript.
If your betas are struggling to get through your manuscript because every page requires them to interpret what exactly you’re trying to say, you aren’t respecting their time and effort. Your project certainly doesn’t need to be polished and publishable before you send it out to betas, but it should be readable.
Now, I don’t know about you, but my first drafts are messy. Very messy. Before sending Build Your Best Writing Life out to betas, I made sure to revise the content to the best of my ability since I was seeking feedback on content and structure. I also gave the prose a quick polish so it didn’t read like a fifth grader’s last-minute school assignment.
Step #2: Be clear about the feedback you’re looking for.
When I sent Build Your Best Writing Life out to my betas, I made sure they knew I was only interested in feedback on the content, structure, and overall tone of the book. I knew I may need to rewrite or revise large sections of the manuscript, so I didn’t want betas to waste their time critiquing the book line-by-line.
Ensuring your betas know exactly what type of feedback you’re looking for not only saves them time and energy but ensures you receive the feedback that’s most helpful for where you’re at in the writing process.
To provide further feedback guidance, you can also send your betas a list of questions they can answer if they so choose. Below, I’ve shared the exact list of questions I sent to my betas for my non-fiction project, as well as a list of questions you might send when seeking developmental feedback on a work of fiction.
Non-Fiction Question List
• What did you like about this book? What parts of the book did you find most helpful?
• What parts of the book did you not find helpful?
• Were there any chapters you found confusing or unclear?
• Was anything missing from the book? Would you like to see any sections expanded?
• Did the book have a logical flow? Do any chapters or parts need to be rearranged?
• Did you start to get bored at any point in the book?
• Did the book have a clear mission and audience?
• Did the book leave you feeling inspired and empowered? Did you find the content actionable?
• Is there any other feedback you’d like to add?
Fiction Question List
• Did this story hold your attention? What did you like about the book?
• Did you get bored (or even frustrated) at any point while reading? If so, where?
• Did you find any scenes confusing or unclear?
• Did the plot flow in a logical way? Was it well-paced?
• Did the characters feel real to you? Did you understand their actions and emotions? Did you have any trouble understanding who was who?
• Was the setting clear in each scene? Did the setting descriptions immerse you in the story world?
• Did the dialogue seem real and true to the characters?
• Was the ending satisfying and believable?
• Is there any other feedback you’d like to add?
Step #3: Set a clear deadline.
Even if you aren’t working on a strict timeline, giving your beta readers a deadline for feedback is a great way to show them that you’re treating your work and their own with respect. A deadline also provides accountability, encouraging your betas to fulfill the promise they’ve made to critique your work.
When setting a deadline, take into account the length of your project, the type of feedback you’re interested in receiving, and the general busyness of life. The second draft of Build Your Best Writing Life topped out at 38,000 words, and the feedback I sought concerned the general content and structure of the book rather than a detailed assessment. Knowing this, I asked my betas to share their feedback within three weeks.
Knowing that life can get crazy, I also made sure my betas knew they could opt-out of providing feedback at any time. I simply asked that they let me know so I didn’t wait around for their response.
Step #4: Provide common formats.
Sending your manuscript to beta readers in several different formats allows them to choose the format they find most convenient, making their beta reading experience more enjoyable. Common formats include PDFs, Microsoft Word documents, and Google Docs.
If you have Scrivener, you can also compile your project as a .mobi file for Kindle or an .epub file for other e-readers. I offered these formats to my beta readers and several shared that they loved the ease of reading Build Your Best Writing Life via a traditional ebook file.
After receiving feedback from your beta readers…
Ensuring a great beta reader experience doesn’t stop after sending your project out to betas. After receiving feedback, here are a few steps you can take to finalize a fantastic experience for both you and your readers:
Step #1: process feedback in a good headspace.
Handling constructive criticism with grace can be difficult. Opening yourself up to feedback is a vulnerable experience, and it’s easy to take critical suggestions personally, allowing them to affect your self-worth. To avoid the brunt of that pain, make sure you’re in a good headspace when processing feedback.
I know it’s tempting to tear through feedback the second it hits your inbox, but if you’re tired, stressed, or otherwise not feeling your best, you’re going to take constructive criticism and apply it in a destructive way. Be intentional. Sit down with a cup of tea, get comfy, and explore feedback with an open mind.
Historically, I’ve had quite the thin skin. Knowing this, I took extra care to work on my mindset before processing beta feedback, and I’m still floored with how well I handled constructive criticism. I knew my beta readers wanted the best for my work, and that knowledge sustained me through every high and low.
Step #2: Follow-up with any questions.
If you have questions about the feedback you receive, ask. Your beta readers can’t help you improve your work if you don’t understand their concerns and suggestions. And in my experience, beta readers are more than willing to clarify their thoughts.
I responded to several of my beta readers with follow-up questions: 1) Could you explain what you didn’t like about the introduction? 2) You mentioned that the ongoing metaphor in Chapter #7 didn’t work for you. Could you explain why? And every single reader was kind enough to share additional thoughts, which clarified their criticisms and helped me create a much stronger plan for revision.
Step #3: Show your gratitude.
Beta readers put a lot of time and effort into critiquing your manuscript, and they often do it for free. Make sure they know just how much you appreciate their work. Send a follow-up email noting your gratitude, and consider including your betas in your book’s acknowledgments — with their permission, of course.
If you can afford to do so, you can also send your beta readers a signed copy of your book when you publish. If one or more of your beta readers is a writer themselves, consider offering to beta read for them in return. It’s a great way to show your gratitude and build a deeper relationship with that writer.
Step #4: Apply feedback mindfully.
When creating your revision plan based on beta feedback, remember that criticism is simply one reader’s opinion on how you can improve your work. You don’t have to make every suggested change, though you should note patterns in the feedback you receive and weigh those suggestions more heavily.
For example, about a third of my beta readers felt that chapters one and two of Build Your Best Writing Life were a bit muddled and redundant. Initially, I disagreed. These were chapters that I had worked on more intensely than others, and I was proud of how they’d turned out.
But when the suggestion to clarify or combine those chapters kept recurring, I decided to reread them with an ultra critical eye — and quickly realized my beta readers were right. I’ve since combined those chapters and refined the topics discussed, and my book is much stronger for it.
No matter how well you’ve developed your self-editing skills, seeking constructive criticism is a vital step in improving the quality of your writing. When working with beta readers, remember that you don’t have to cross your fingers and hope for a fantastic experience. Take a few simple steps to prepare, then follow-up with an attitude of appreciation and of growth. When you do, you’ll find that working with beta readers can be an enjoyable and enriching experience for everyone involved.