So, you’ve finished a book, spent hours revising and cleaning it up, and now you’re ready for beta readers. Hooray! Well done! That’s a great accomplishment and you have my permission to pat yourself on the back. Just don’t get too eager. Handing over your manuscript takes careful consideration and planning…I learned this the hard way.
I chose family members as my beta readers. That in and of itself wasn’t the issue. I think that choosing the right family members can be very helpful, but I chose only four family members. I handed two of them my manuscript and said, “Here, edit.” They began reading and editing as they went along, but it was slow going. Because they were focusing on what needed to be fixed, they were not able to move quickly through the story. They missed out on “the feel” of the book. It wasn’t a fun experience for them. I told the other two family members to read it straight through, ignore the typos, and only focus on big picture things. Once they were done, they loved it, but I had to ask a lot of questions because they didn’t know what I really wanted from them.
Here’s the rundown on my four betas. One struggled to appreciate the story in the midst of editing. One never finished because it was too time-consuming to edit and read at the same time. One liked it, but had little to offer. And the last one has been my story’s savior because she was willing to read it once as is, then read it again to offer edits. Through my decisions, I discovered the most useless formula for choosing and instructing beta readers. If I could go back, this is what I would do different.
1. Select MORE Beta Readers
I feel that part of the reason behind my sloppy process was that I only had four people. That’s not awful if you get four helpful responses, but the chances for all of them giving you a healthy critique is unlikely. I don’t know if there’s a magic number, although I can tell you that I would go back and choose anywhere from 6-8…maybe 10. More people can’t hurt. You may feel like you need to limit your book’s exposure, but it will be better for you and your story if you can get input from as many avenues as possible. I was shocked when I found simple loopholes or spelling errors that were overlooked by all my readers. Less is not more in this situation. Get several readers!
2. Pick the Right People
I have no problem with the people I chose. Three of them are avid readers and enjoy the genre. The other has a strong understanding of the English language and its proper usage. However, I wish that I had chosen a wider range in age, gender, education, and writing experience. Each of your readers will be able to catch something that the others couldn’t because of their individual circumstances. Varying perspectives can only help you. Just remember that you never want to pick people who don’t read, dislike the genre, are too busy, or won’t take your work seriously. Other writers are a great resource as long as they make the time for your book. Only choose family members and friends who fit within your criteria. Some writers make it a point not to choose family or friends, feeling that they are too nice or too harsh. In general, be sure to choose carefully so you can benefit from the experience.
3. Make a Deadline
This should be simple to understand. Let your readers know beforehand of a cutoff date. Once that due date has passed, they need to turn in whatever they have done. Obviously, you want to give enough time for the assignment but you also don’t have time to waste waiting for their feedback. You can occupy yourself with other things in the meantime, but have a limit so that you aren’t pestering your readers to finish.
4. Save Editing for the Copy Editor
The feedback you get from your beta readers should be big picture things. Leave the copy edits to a copy editor. That doesn’t mean that your readers can’t circle misspelled words or misplaced punctuation, but let them know that you don’t want the flow of the story interrupted. They will be able to give you better critique if they don’t get distracted by simple errors. Copy editors are specially educated for copy edits. Hire a copy editor after you’ve made any necessary changes from your betas. Let the professional worry about copy edits so that your beta readers can worry more about how they feel about the story.
5. Equip Them With the Proper Tools
When handing over your manuscript, be sure to hand them a printed version (digital is too difficult for taking notes) and a red pen. Tell them that they can circle errors as long as it doesn’t distract them. For example; If you use a word twice on the same paragraph, it’s not a bad idea to have that brought to your attention, but their job is to make notes on the story, plot, character development, etc. The pen can also be used for “the line of death”. The line of death is a line that your readers can draw to show where they lost interest or where they would have stopped reading.
Insert a blank page between chapters so your readers can write notes for that particular chapter. A questionnaire at the end of the book is also a great idea. It would provide you the opportunity to ask specific questions while the story is still fresh in their mind. There are many sites that offer questions to ask your beta readers, but be sure to make them geared toward your book. Think about what you want from your readers and what you want your story to convey. Ask questions that will give you these answers.
You can also print off an article on how they can be an effective beta reader. There is a right way and a lot of wrong ways to be a beta reader. Help them, and by helping them understand their role, you’re helping yourself. Don’t bombard them with multiple articles. Pick one that relates to you.
6. Make it Legitimate
Put together a packet to give your beta readers. Put your manuscript, instructions and deadline sheet, questionnaire, pen, and anything else you want to add in a manilla envelope. I had my manuscript clipped with binder clips. If you’re short on money, this is a fine solution. I’m going to have my manuscript spiral bound next time around. Not only will it look more legitimate, it will make me more disciplined to put out my best manuscript for my betas. The more professional you make it, the more your readers will take the assignment seriously. Yes, they are doing you a favor, but this is also your career – treat it that way.