Want to make your book better? Get beta readers

March 4, 2020

I’m almost finished my new novel and it’s the time when I approach my network of beta readers to read my book. What’s a beta reader you ask? Exactly that – someone who reads your work before publication to provide feedback, flag anything that’s not working and encourage you in your writing.  

I’ve heard a few people say they don’t use beta readers, and for varying reasons (some good, like meeting deadlines, some related to the vanity of not wanting to change their own work).

I am firmly in camp beta reader.

Beta readers are an invaluable part of my writing process. The book I’m working on is a psychological thriller, but I know the plot. I know all the twists and turns. I need people with fresh eyes to read the book, and tell me if the twists are working, if they’re cottoning onto the secrets too early, or if the whole thing is super obvious. I can’t tell, and I know I need help.

Added to this, my main character is Korean-American, and although I’ve lived in South Korea, I’d love a Korean perspective on my work. Does it feel authentic? Is there anything I’m missing or misrepresenting?

In fact, the hardest thing about getting people to read your work is facing the internal critic – what if they hate it? What if the book I’ve been working on for an entire year is terrible?

But the feedback I’ve received in the past has transformed my work. A friend who provided a small note on character dialogue helped change the climax of my last novel for the better. The same beta reader also flagged my use of a beer can in 1856, something which I’d glossed over in my edit. So I recommend opening your work up to beta readers.

Tips for working with beta readers

Get quality beta readers

Your mum is probably not the best beta reader. Sure, give it to her, but she’s more likely to be so proud that you wrote a book that she won’t be critical at all. This is a good thing – I firmly believe we all need ‘cheerleaders’ in writing; the people who root for you no matter what.

In the first instance, I find it helpful to approach writers in your network who write in similar genres. That way they’re not flagging every time a dragon or vampire shows up in your novel; they’re familiar with the tropes of your genre. They will also understand what you’re looking for as a writer. I met many of my beta readers through creative writing groups.  

The second reader is the pure reader. Someone who loves reading but isn’t a writer. Again, it’s helpful to find someone who reads in your genre. They can provide feedback about how a general reader will perceive your work.

The last reader I’ll be approaching is the expert reader. This isn’t necessarily a paid professional, but someone with expertise in the key topics of my book. My novel is set in the world of classical music, so I have a friend who is a professional musician who will read the book.

Also, only ever send your work to beta readers you trust! You don’t want to send your hard work to just any old rando you met on the internet to find out they’ve published your work as an eBook!

Specify what sort of feedback you want

When I approach beta readers, I ask for readers to flag these areas of feedback:

  • What did you like?
  • What didn’t work?
  • What was confusing?
  • What was inaccurate?
  • Was there anything unbelievable?
  • When did you figure out the crime/mystery? (this is particular to crime writers, but there might be a question specific to your genre e.g. Romance – how did you feel during this scene?)

Give them a timeline

Discuss timelines with your readers upfront. I give my beta readers four to six weeks to read a novel, which I try to time in with planned vacations. I’m not going to be working on the book, so it’s a great time for someone else to read it. Be upfront; if they can’t meet the timeline, then that’s fine, but it’s good to know in advance rather than being disappointed later.

Do a hard run on the first chapter

Sometimes beta readers might not have time to read the whole book, but the first chapter is the make or break part of a book. Agents, publishers and readers all decide to read further based on that first chapter. When I was polishing my manuscript for the Debut Dagger competition, I had four of my beta readers give me detailed feedback on the first chapter alone. That feedback helped me make the top 10 entries and eventually get an agent.

You need to listen

It’s hard to take criticism, especially if your book is falling flat with readers. But if all your beta readers say that something is confusing, then it’s likely to be confusing. Check your pride at the door and take it all in. If it is affecting you, don’t read all your beta feedback at once. Break it down into small chunks. Having said that…

Feedback is subjective

You need to discern if the feedback you receive is useful for your work. Think about what you set out to achieve with your book, and how the feedback relates to that purpose. Not everyone will enjoy your work, but be wary of dismissing anything instantly, especially when a reader marks something as confusing or unbelievable.

Offer to return the favour

Finally, offer to return the favour. It’s a jerk thing to do, get all this feedback for free, but then never offer to do it in return.

Conclusion

I love my beta readers. Couldn’t do without them. It helps when one of my most critical readers is my husband! I recommend using them to hone your manuscript for publication.

Do you use beta readers? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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