Six Ways to Drive Beta Readers Crazy

Beta readers are like gold. They are awesome, generous people who give their time to help you work the bugs out of your manuscripts before you publish. Just like anyone else you enlist or pay to help you finalize your finished product, it’s a relationship that works best when you have mutual respect, cooperation, and good communication. I’ve been a beta reader and have had my manuscripts read by them. During that time, I’ve learned that there are six guaranteed ways to ruin that relationship and drive the poor betas up the wall:

1. Be really vague about what you need

Long ago, I gave one of my early manuscripts to a beta reader. Something was wrong with the story, but I didn’t know what it needed; therefore, I didn’t know what to ask. So my feedback (“I liked it”) was about as good as my questions. Some beta readers are experienced and thorough, often not needing more than your manuscript. But most, and especially if you’re working with someone who wants to help you but has never done this before, need a bit of coaching. I use a questionnaire that I tailor to each project, depending on my concerns. So don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Does the title fit the story? Does the end feel satisfying? Does this narrative arc make my butt look big? Well, you get the idea.

2. Send several rounds of revised files…while the readers are still reading

Once you ask a beta reader to help you, e-mail the file. After a few days, during which the reader has most likely read a fair chunk of the manuscript and possibly made extensive notes about your less-than-sticky opening chapter, decide that you want to tinker with a couple of sentences in Chapter Six, make the protagonist a pro-golfer, change his name to Marvin, and send the reader the revised file, telling him/her to toss out the first one and read that one instead. Yeah. Who wouldn’t love that?

3. Are you done yet? Are you done yet? Are you done yet?

Most beta readers do not charge for their time. They do it because they like the challenge, want to help the author, want an advanced read of a story, or a myriad of other reasons. They have lives. They often have jobs, partners, children, ailing parents, dogs that haven’t yet learned how to walk themselves. Communicate up front about your expectations. Once you’ve agreed on a timeline, DON’T keep contacting them “just to check.” Find something else to do. Work on your marketing plan. Start writing the next book. Alphabetize your spice rack. Of course, if it’s “go” time for the next stage of your publication schedule (which you’ve both agreed to up front) and you haven’t seen any input, a polite request is in order. And vice-versa. If you know life is getting in the way of completing the beta read in the timeline you’d agreed to, let the author know.

4. Get defensive about their findings

This is the first rule of Constructive Criticism 101: By asking for constructive criticism, you’ve entered into an agreement with the giver of said criticism that if the feedback is indeed constructive (and not a recommendation to change careers) you will not shoot the messenger. You have asked for a sample of reader feedback, albeit a very small sample, and you are getting one. If it might require a huge change to your story, ask your other betas (which is why it’s often a good idea to have more than one) what they think. Try to avoid getting into the mindset of choosing the option that means less work for you. You’re trying to make the story better, after all.

5. Get defensive about their findings…on social media

Want a quick entry in the Hall of Authors Behaving Badly? Grind on your betas’ opinions on your FaceTwit page. Yeah. That’ll make you a lot of friends. And just see what happens when you ask for another favor. Crickets. Or, in my neighborhood, cicadas.

6. Don’t thank them

Yeah, that’s okay. I gave up a week of time I could have used to write my own novel or catch up on episodes of Mad Men so you could ignore me completely once I handed over my carefully worded comments. That’s okay. I’ll just sit over here in the dark.

Have you been a beta reader or had people beta read your work? Let’s hear about your experiences. And remember, this is a family-friendly program.

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

26 thoughts on “Six Ways to Drive Beta Readers Crazy”

  1. Good post. Our relationship with our beta readers ought to be treated with the same effort and respect as any other important relationship in our lives. But, also like any other relationship, it means you have to know what you need from them. I am still learning that. With my first book it was mostly a shot in the dark. Now, with the third, I feel clearer on what it is i need to ask from them.

  2. Excellent advice, Laurie, and a neat way to deliver it.
    I’ve had betas going through my next title, and their feedback is absolutely priceless. They saw so much I couldn’t (or maybe didn’t want to), and for the Indie Author betas go a very long way indeed to taking the role of editor. Certainly it goes without saying that such people should be appreciated and their comments respected. If you don’t want to know what they think, don’t ask!
    One thing I find extremely helpful is to have one beta who is not a native English speaker, because someone who learned English as a second language will read a text differently and can flag items that native speakers sail right over.
    On the rare occasions that I’ve been a beta, I always try to stay positive and ask provocative questions, e.g. “This is really good, but do you think you could improve XYZ and then it would really good!”
    I think we all need honest feedback, but it should be balanced and delivered with sensitivity.

  3. Having good relationship with beta readers is priceless. They are your first fans.
    It takes time to develop a good one and one has to keep in mind that your beta readers have in mind your own success, and happy if you succeed. Make them feel part of the journey.

  4. They are the best and should be treated with respect. Like us, they are readers and we all have different tastes. But once they accept the challenge be ready for their feedback, both positive and negative. They are only trying to help. I do this for a few authors. I show them the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly in a poignant method. The latest one I worked on (three months ago) still has the author scratching his head. It’s one of the stories that’s dying to be released, but the flow has it on hold. He pops a post every now and then, “Still thinking.” That’s what we want from our Beta’s. It can only make us better readers and writers.

    1. Thank you for you comment, Jeff. It’s also really interesting when they disagree, and interesting how beta readers can read the same story and draw such different conclusions. Which might mean clarity problems or a case of preference.

      1. I rack it up as to a case of preference. I received a three star review recently. I gave the reviewer three choices. She took the one not in her wheel house. She was upfront and honest with her 3 star review. She enjoyed the story but not the genre. Still, I’ll take a three star any day of the week. And yes, I thanked her for time and effort. Hope she’ll check out a few more stories. Okay, back to writing and baseball.

  5. Thanks for not mentioning my name on #3, Laurie. 🙂

    Excellent article. I especially like your idea of asking about any things you’re specifically concerned about. Especially for someone who is new to beta reading to give them an idea of the kinds of things to look for while making it clear that feedback doesn’t need to be limited to the things on the list.

    Another one to add is to blame your beta readers if something doesn’t get caught. I’ve seen that at least once.That is a bit of a variation on #3 and the result is much the same.

    1. Good point, Al! It’s so weirdly human that a book can go through betas and several editors and still something fundamental error gets through. That’s another good reason to let your team members do their thing. Now, I have an spice rack to alphabetize… 😉

  6. All good advice. Beta readers are doing such a great thing by reading and giving you feedback, it’s important to let them sit back and do what they’ve agreed. No pestering. And, like with anything in life, these situations work best when everyone is clear on what is needed and expected. Laurie’s advice to tell them what issues you’d like them to look for is spot on. That sets the level of expectations for both. And you don’t need to ask are you done yet if you ask at the outset how long they think it will take them to beta read, and if that’s not in your timeframe, tell them what you need.

    And of course, be nice to anyone kind enough to beta read. Because, if you find a good beta reader, you want to keep them forever.

  7. Excellent points all, and very timely. I’ve got a few beta readers still poring over my latest, even as I’ve already ordered the first proof. I’ve checked in with them once, but otherwise left them to read. Others have given me excellent feedback, but beyond that I asked them a series of questions: did you see x coming? Were you surprised when y happened? Did you expect z? It’s helpful for me to know if I’m revealing enough, but not telegraphing everything. And thanks are essential. I often will endorse on LinkedIn and/or send an autographed copy of the book. Yes, Betas are gold!

    1. Thank you, Melissa! Sometimes I’ll ask a few follow-up questions, which, if you haven’t given a questionnaire or think of something after the fact, is better to talk about while the story is still fresh in his or her mind. Also, if you’re both open to it, this could be a good person to float your blurb in front of, and ask if this sounds like the story the reader read.

  8. I’ve been a beta-reader quite a few times now and I can honestly say, all the authors have been extremely gracious on all counts. I can only hope that if/when/if/when I have a title requiring beta reading assistance I will follow the good examples (and good manners) shown to me.

    A great post, Laurie!

  9. Good article! One more to add. Don’t do any editing. It’s annoying to beta for someone who didn’t even take care to read through their own work.

    1. Yes! Absolutely! That’ll really drive them nuts! In fact, don’t even run it through the spell checker. Thank you for visiting, Linda.

  10. Any criticism can be terrifying, but when it comes from people you trust then it doesn’t have the same sting. Betas should have their own awards. It they did I’d be handing two, no three, out this instant!

  11. Betas are worth their weight in gold. When I began using Betas last year, I really didn’t understand what they were “supposed” to do. After all, I was a virgin Beta user. I look back and wonder why a couple of them didn’t hang me up to the yardarm…perhaps because there wasn’t a yardarm handy. One uses UK English and would offer some things that didn’t apply. I was thankful for the help and said so (that goodness I wasn’t that crass) and used what worked for the book. He was very insecure about the value of his help. Let me clarify, the man is incomparable and his help was GREATLY appreciated, even if I did have to ignore a few suggestions. Every bit helps! I love my Betas–and you know who you are. So i hope I’ve made that clear!

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