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  • Writer's pictureBarbra A. Rodriguez

4 Strategies for Effective Beta Reader Feedback

At a writers’ gathering recently, I lucked into talking with an engaging academic who plans to retire in a few years. Tom, I’ll call him, had a few self-published novels under his belt, and was active in a local writers' group, as well as attending workshops that in one case meant driving an hour away for several days of intensive training. He was sharp when discussing his field, too, such as setting a rigorous, logic-based standard for whether he’d take new findings in the field seriously.


Yet when it came to his draft manuscripts, Tom mostly relied on feedback provided by whoever responded on a low-cost critique website for writers. At the moment, he lamented, he had a dozen sets of comments to sort through on an early chapter of his latest work. The feedback varied in focus from perceived grammar glitches to big picture comments. Money didn’t seem an issue. But Tom called his book work a past-time. So, I wasn’t shocked when he was nonplussed at a mention of a website that would provide more tailored feedback at a greater cost.


In part, he might’ve bought into the myth that all things writing-related should take an open-ended, discovery approach because it’s a creative endeavor. While it is important to not rein things in while writing draft content (to stay open to new story possibilities), being loose about how you handle feedback could mean missing out on higher quality, more actionable input that comes with a strategic approach to review. Here are my top four tips on how to make the most of beta readers and other early feedback options for your work-in-progress.


A traditional desk clock in a green frame, resting on a sandy beach
Knowing traditional and other timing approaches helps

When to Ask for Feedback

Perhaps because of the rise of self-publishing, different writers and publishing outlets use the term beta reader differently, and some may even talk about alpha readers, or use other unfamiliar terms about the stage of work being reviewed. To give context to your approach, here’s how the external review process often works in traditional publishing.


Traditionally, an author might get very early input on a manuscript from alpha readers who provide a general “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” review of its readability; for an academic, for instance, this might be from some colleagues within the same department at their university (while independent authors might use critique partners for this same purpose, as part of building their writing community).


If the manuscript still felt rough to the acquiring editor at a publishing house, university press, etc., they might then recommend the author work with an independent book coach or developmental editor like me to polish the work before copy editing occurs (often internally). Depending on how well the writer understands craft, or if it’s a work of fiction where craft is highlighted more, an added stage of polishing the work may occur, which coaches/editors like me refer to as line editing (for voice and style).


Beta readers would traditionally be called in once the detailed copy editing for grammar, spelling, etc., is done, and the text has been typeset (laid out). In the publishing world, the work would be called an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), or galley proof, at this stage. The beta reader would comment broadly on what things work and what big picture challenges pulled a reader out of story mode, whether it is difficulties with the style of writing, story arc, dialogue, the arc of change a protagonist goes through, whether the work comes to a satisfying conclusion and so on. Factors such as content repetition, confusion, and grammar challenges might also be mentioned, with all comments being overall impressions (as compared to a real developmental or line edit).


Nowadays, some writers will instead call for a beta read before they developmentally edit it; if you’re going to work with a professional coach or editor, waiting until after the developmental/structural edit makes more sense, as a way to catch what that professional may not have picked up on – or even, waiting till the work has been line edited. Having a book that’s further along before review will allow feedback to occur on a narrower range of items, potentially revealing patterns in their comments that will focus your efforts better, moving forward.

A man, two women, and another man of diverse genders, holding speech bubbles above their heads as they stand in a row, outdoors
The best reviewers may match the audience, and more

Who to Ask for Feedback

Unless you have family or friends who are unusually skilled at being objective, and your skin is as thick as a crocodile’s, it’s best to look elsewhere as part of ensuring you get truthful feedback. In part, those reviewers might not know a thing about writing craft, or genre expectations, so their comments have some context. Besides hunting online for editors or others who provide beta reading services*, an option where you can pay for professional beta review is The Spun Yarn, which I’ve heard good things about.

 

Knowing who your primary readers will be (as covered in this blogpost) can help you select some of your reviewers to match this background, too. For instance, will your book benefit people who are new to a subject the most, or veterans on the subject? Perhaps you’ve written a book that involves some special knowledge, as well, such as discussing the importance of using nutritional supplements to maintain health as a 50-something female. Getting a registered dietitian and a pharmacist, preferably with a focus on that age group, to be among the initial critique group could be important, as part of ensuring there are no major red flags, medically speaking. Meanwhile, a historical fiction author who covers blacksmith techniques from the late 1800s might well call on an expert in this area, while an academic on the representation of underrepresented minorities in higher education could benefit from calling on a few colleagues in their field who’d be best at catching any holes in their arguments based on insider knowledge of the field.


When the work being reviewed is in the near-final stage, asking authors of similar published works to provide feedback can be great—potentially while asking them for a paragraph-or-so endorsement of the work that might be included in the published copy as enticement for reader purchases. Bloggers and book reviewers could also be thought of as being beta readers, in this sense, because they review the earliest version of the work that is being used for marketing purposes (the ARC, in publishing speak). For instance, some authors pay to have a book review done by Kirkus Reviews.


What to Ask Reviewers, and to Offer Them

One concern I had for Tom about his scattershot review approach was that he failed to use the option to ask the online community members specific questions (perhaps from fear of influencing how they approached the work).  I’ve found that authors often have some sense of what’s not ideal about their work.  Or, if you work with a book coach or developmental editor, they’ll have a good feel for where readers might have challenges, to help guide you on what’s best to get feedback about so your manuscript development moves forward in the most efficient way.


With having pre-emptive questions, that also means you can reduce the number of reviewers, because patterns will be easier to see (that is, a point that’s repeated by several reviewers suggests it’s more likely to be a general reader concern).  About four engaged readers often suffices, when the questions they’re provided with are well thought out, and their backgrounds, well vetted. Among the common questions to ask are whether a reader ever stopped wanting to read on (and if so, at what point), how compellingly presented the subject matter is, or whether they reacted strongly to the protagonist(s) in fiction, and whether the early reader found the first chapter, and the ending wrap-up, to be compelling.


There are myriad ways to share review questions, with some authors embedding them as Comments at the end of chapters in a shared version of the book, while others send a stand-alone questions list to be scanned. Other writers might use software to manage the beta reading process (betabooks.co and betareader.io are examples).


A small metal basket filled with five wrapped gifts
Offering a free copy of your book, an Acknowledgment mention, or something else is a nice thank you

If you won't be able to hire professional beta readers, it’s common to offer to swap this service with another writer, when they next have a manuscript ready for early review. For someone who’s an expert in their field, perhaps you’d offer to provide editorial input on their next research article in exchange.


And for the general public, or all your early readers, you might provide a digital or print copy of the final book for free, In addition, or


instead, you might list those who provided critiques by name in the Acknowledgments section of your work.


When to Step Back

Publishing houses will sometimes pull a book from the production pipeline if early reviews or other feedback suggests there is a global issue, such as several story elements that are off, or insensitivity to an underprivileged culture. If you are an indie author, and early readers or a coach/dev. editor suggest that the pacing is off in quite a few chapters, the characters don’t feel as emotionally deep as possible, and that the dialogue feels clunky, I’d recommend thinking along the same lines of halting production plans for a while (even if you’ve got marketing plans in the works, as would be true at publishing houses that do the same). Trust me, I’ve worked with authors who’ve ignored this advice, and later regretted it.


Unfortunate though that feedback is, if you want a professional writing career, that is a good moment to step back and think strategically about being in it for the long haul; most things that are worth doing take time, and your book will be a stand-in for you and your reputation. Stepping back could mean setting the manuscript aside for a while as you hunt for courses or books that help overcome the specific challenges early readers noted, or hiring a book coach for assistance. After all, beta readers are just one part of the book services community that can help the quality of your work stand out from the many other offerings readers could turn to.

   

By Barbra A. Rodriguez

 

To receive my brief Scoops4Scribes shares on the writing life, style matters, and writing hacks, click here.


Other takes on using beta readers are here and here.


Some free beta reader sources are listed toward the end of this piece:


Ways to build your writing community:



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