19 August 2020

#WritersLife: The Good and Bad of Working with Beta Readers

You’ve finished writing your story. You’ve self-edited it to the nines, and elicited family members and friends to read your manuscript. It's ready for beta readers. 

The purpose of beta readers is not to stroke your writer's ego. Their job is to find your story's shortcomings before it is published. While it can be painful to receive feedback filled with a laundry list of issues, it's preferable to see that list in a private message, rather than plastered on the internet as part of a book review.

However, as with everything in life, this method of weeding out your masterpiece's flaws comes with its own pros and cons. I thought it would be beneficial to share the good and the bad of working with beta readers before publishing your book, based on my own and some of my fellow writer friends' experiences.

Free or low-cost feedback
Obviously, one of the most beneficial aspects of selecting beta readers to read your manuscript is the potential for free or low-cost feedback. However, low cost or free doesn’t necessarily ensure quality.

Expeditious turnaround
You could begin to receive feedback rather quickly, depending on your beta readers' availability and reliability. Some readers offer fragments of input along the way, while others only provide feedback after reading the entire thing. If you are only looking for partial input on the opening or the first few chapters of your story, you could receive comments sooner rather than later.

Beta reading arrangement
Some beta readers might offer to read parts or all of your manuscript if you return the favor. This is a good idea if you don't have strict time constraints. Being a beta reader can be time-consuming. A mutual beta reading arrangement holds both parties accountable and promotes empathy when providing feedback.

A potential future critique partner
If a swap goes well, it could potentially lead to an on-going critique partnership arrangement. Expanding your author network is always a good thing. Swapping your stories with fellow writers is a great way to build mutually advantageous connections.

Easy to organize
Organizing beta readers is relatively easy and straightforward. I found mine, or I should say, they found me, as they are part of my loyal readership. Some of my fellow writer friends found many of theirs online through dedicated FB and LI groups. They furnished the following information to their potential beta readers:

-Premise of the story
-Word count and genre of the manuscript
-Which parts of the book they specifically wanted feedback about
-Offer to beta read for others in return
-Preferred schedule

Providing this information beforehand meant they stood a better chance of gaining readers who were fans of the genre, were able to provide feedback by a specific date, and who understood the expectations. 

Unrealistic expectations
A good thing to remember is that beta readers are, in most cases, not your friends or professional editors. Many times, reading an entire book takes hours. If a person offers to spend time doing that and comment on your work, that’s fantastic. Especially if they are doing it for free. Just remember: You need them more than they need you. So, be reasonable in your expectations.

For that matter, readers might have exceptionally high expectations of your book. So, it’s essential to consider what you send them. If your book is still a rough draft, then at least let them know beforehand. That gives them the option to decide if they want to read it or not. Just keep in mind that a manuscript containing a mess of fonts and riddled with grammatical errors does not bode well for positive feedback, no matter how good the story might be.

Disregarding set parameters
You’ve made your expectations and preferred method of communication clear to your readers. So, there shouldn't be any problems. Right? Unfortunately, reality looks a bit different. When one of your beta readers ignores your parameters and starts bombarding you with late-night messages, that’s definitely not a sign of positive collaboration. On the other hand, pestering your beta readers for additional feedback after they've already commented on your book is also not a good idea. Just think about how you would feel if the roles were reversed.

The silent treatment
It happens to the best of us. People tell you they’re going to beta read for you, but after a couple of emails - radio silence. It’s definitely frustrating when they don’t let you know what's going on. Especially if you were prepared to fulfill your end of the bargain. If this happens to you: Just move on and don't waste your time crying over spilled milk! You have no idea what’s happening in other people’s lives. As "the good" section already covered, finding additional or replacement beta readers is always an option. 

Not genre experts
While it's preferable to ask for beta readers familiar with your genre, it doesn’t mean they’re experts of said genre, just because they like to read it. Your chances of finding the ideal reader from those who reply to your request are quite slim. After all, you are wholly reliant on the kindness of people willing to spend their precious time reading your work for free or in exchange for a nominal fee.

Irrelevant or callous feedback
Although receiving free input from beta readers is one of the positives, you might end up with irrelevant or even insensitive feedback instead. Callous or flippant comments could result in a confidence knock, especially for a first-time author. While I'm not advocating lying to the author, the old adage still rings true: If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything! There's no reason to be rude. 

Beta readers are absolutely entitled to their views. After all, that is their role. However, constructive feedback is far more beneficial to an author than rude or tactless comments. In such cases, it's usually best to cut your losses and look for someone new.

With the good and the bad in mind, here are some pointers for a more beneficial experience with your beta readers:

Look for a mixture
To maximize your chances of quality feedback, try to find a mix of free and paid beta readers and offer to beta read in exchange. Selecting a variety of readers also accounts for possible mismatches, or should any one of them do a disappearing act.

Let them go if necessary
It doesn't take long to get a sense of which reader(s) might not be a good fit. In such cases, it’s okay to cancel your collaboration.

Set deadlines and expectations
To set a professional tone from the beginning, start by naming the genre of your book, word count, book blurb, preferred timeframe, and whether you're willing to beta read for them.

Ask specific questions
Knowing which part of your book you most want feedback on really helps you and your beta readers. If you’re only asking them for comments about one or two elements, rather than the entire novel, it might make them feel less inundated.

Protect your work
Selecting beta readers from trusted sources should reduce any worries you might have about sharing your work with strangers. But in order to alleviate further concerns about potential plagiarism, copyright your manuscript, watermark it, or make it a read-only document or PDF.

Have you utilized beta readers? Was your collaboration useful? Good, bad, indifferent? Feel free to add your experience in the comment section.

Piper is the author of several non-fiction books, and recently added five historical fiction novels to her ever-expanding collection of published writings, In the Shadow of Her MajestyThe Country Girl EmpressA Life in the Shadow of the Crown, The Perpetual Traveler, and Excerpts from the Imperial Diary. When she isn't busy typing on her computer, she can be found chasing after her furry children or holding on tightly to a good cup of coffee. Follow her on LinkedInFacebookInstagram, and Goodreads.
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