The Right Crowd: Finding and Working With Your Ideal Beta Readers
Most writers want to know if what they’ve written is any good. You know what you meant to say, but is it coming across the way you intended? Enter your beta readers.
They can provide honest, constructive feedback that will help you smooth out inconsistencies and clear up confusion ahead of working with your chosen editor. In order for them to be helpful, though, you’ve got to make sure they’re a good match for your project. Your betas should reflect your intended target market, such as: 25 to 45 year-olds who like speculative fiction with a strong female lead. Make a point of recruiting a variety of perspectives—including opinions that counter yours. Perspective is key: diverse readers will help to ensure you’re not missing something important.
You can find potential beta readers online at places like the Twitter #WritingCommunity or #betareaders hashtags, or on the NaNoWriMo forums by searching your genre. You can find local betas through your Meet-Up writing community or on Facebook writing groups. You can also search for #sensitivityreaders if you’re looking for feedback on how well you presented delicate issues of ethnicity, religion, gender, or social class.
What to Expect
Some betas like to read chapter-by-chapter, others tackle a whole book at a time. Make sure your intentions are clear from the outset. Don’t forget to outline how best you receive feedback: clinical and honest? Balancing positive and negative? Gently pointing things out? It helps if the other person has a solid grasp on grammar (and the language you are writing in), but if you’re just looking for reader impact, sharing a love of the genre may be enough. If you’re planning a long-term partnership (termed a Critique Partner), it’s best to ensure you are giving as much as you are getting so that both of you can sustain the relationship. I recommend starting with a sample, to see what their feedback is like, before diving into a deeper commitment.
Know that life happens, and you won’t always get responses back from all of your betas. It’s best to ask more people than you need, check in with them consistently (say once every two weeks to once a month), and set a firm deadline. Ask to get feedback sooner than you’ll actually need it. Personally, I try for 12 betas per draft for novels, with the expectation that around 50% of them will provide full notes, and around 6 for short stories. I have a pool of people I match up to different projects. Some offer to re-read the revised version to see if my changes addressed their concerns.
But how do you know what changes to make? You will find that a lot of the feedback you get will be both subjective and contradictory. Good betas will frame personal opinions with comments like “I’m not familiar with the expectations of this genre but…” or “It’s not my personal taste, but I think you handled X well…”. These are helpful to flag some recommendations as not necessarily actionable.
You can guide feedback by providing a questionnaire of items you’d like them to look for while reading. This can include character development/likeability, plot structure, pacing, worldbuilding, emotional impact, etc. When you get many responses to set questions, it becomes easier to find patterns. If everyone noticed an issue in the same scene, it definitely should be revised. If there’s an even split of opinions, dig deeper until you oust the underlying problem. I use Neil Gaiman’s maxim here: “If someone tells you something in your story isn’t working, 9 times out of 10, they’re right; if they tell you how to fix it, 9 times out of 10, they’re wrong.”
Trust Your Gut
Your betas are not you. They do not speak with your voice, and they do not fully embody your vision. Trust your gut, but be flexible. Be willing to see if things could be made better. Be willing to cut or change things that aren’t serving your larger goals. But be gracious; you can ask your betas questions to better understand their perspective, but never berate them for their opinions. If someone's commentary is unhelpful, just let it go—and perhaps don’t ask that person to beta again.
In the end, this is your project, and you need to steer the ship. Only you can write your story.
As a queer author focused on inclusive worldbuilding, Astra Crompton seeks to write complex characters whose identities, sexualities, and motivations span across a nuanced spectrum. She's published short stories in anthologies including Blood Moon Rising and Anthology for a Green Planet, and for the tabletop RPG game Unity, as well as numerous self-published works. You can find her at www.astracrompton.com or on Twitter at @ulzaorith.
Writing about writing.