Okay, I’ve written my magnum opus. I’ve elicited friends, family and beta-readers to read it, and I’m waiting on pins and needles for the feedback. I’m sitting with fingers and toes crossed, holding my breath, checking e-mail every five seconds, hoping against hope that the readers will like it. Then I get the first response: “I liked it. It’s good.”
Helpful? Yeah, no. Of course I would love to have my first readers ooh and ahh over the book, but this very non-specific comment is not constructive. Nice as it is, it tells me nothing.
The purpose of beta-readers is not to stroke my writer’s ego. That job belongs to my mother. The purpose of beta-readers is to find all the shortcomings in my writing before I push the publish button. They need to take that puppy out for a rigorous shake-down cruise and find every bug, every glitch, every typo, misplaced comma, and inconsistent tense. It’s painful to get feedback with a laundry list of problems, but would I rather see that list now, in a private e-mail before publication, or see it pasted up in a lambasting Amazon review for all the world to read?
(And if you have to think about that, writing is not the business for you.)
The two things writers need from beta-readers are honesty and specificity. Honesty because, “I liked it,” when you didn’t is not helpful. I know, we all want to encourage our friends, we want to be supportive. But tough love is the rule here. Did you have to force yourself to finish the book when you really just wanted to throw it in a corner and forget about it? Did you find yourself groaning again and again over the wrong use of it’s for its? Did you roll your eyes at every exchange of dialog because, really, who talks like that? Or did you have to re-read sentences or even whole paragraphs because they just didn’t make sense?
Really. I need to know. I’ll thank you for it. (Well, maybe not right away. But eventually. Probably.)
Okay, I can hear it now: How do I tell her the book stinks? How do I tell her it bored the pants off me? I’ll make her mad. I’ll hurt her feelings. I can’t do that.
Yes, you can. I need you to do that. My ruffled feelings will heal. If I publish a book that’s full of errors and bad writing, that stays out there in the public eye for a long, long time.
Enter the next criteria: specificity. Be as specific as you can be in your feedback. Cushion it if you like in the soft cotton of personal opinion (which is perfectly valid) to soften the blow, but remember always that you and the writer are working as a team toward the same goal: making the book the best it can be. In this vein, here are some examples of what you might need to say and what the writer needs to hear.
I like your main character, but he’s so blind to the lies of the female lead that I just found him frustratingly stupid. I understand he thinks he loves her, but I felt it was unrealistic of him to not notice how she was using him.
You change POVs a lot, jumping from one character to the next and I found it hard to keep up with who was thinking what.
I found the premise of using human sacrifice to gain power to be totally unbelievable, and you never really established why the character thought that would work.
All three of your main characters have names that start with D. I found it difficult to separate them out at first, and it made it hard to get to know each one individually.
You introduce 15 characters in the first three pages without giving me any distinguishing characteristics to separate them. I need fewer names, more descriptions to keep them straight.
On the first page, you said the main character’s last name was Johnson, but in Chapter 21, you say it’s Jones. You might want to pick one, then do a search and replace to make them all the same.
By the same token, give positive specific feedback when you can. Believe me, writers love to know when something works.
I love your description of the mountains and the valley below. I felt like I could actually see it in my mind.
The twists and turns of the story really had me guessing and the ending was a total surprise. I never saw that coming.
I thought your dialog was excellent; it sounded completely realistic.
And finally, one last point. If you can respond to me in this way, YOU ARE GOLD. Having an extra set of eyes look at the book, having a fresh, open mind take my text journey, and then giving me your honest impression is worth more than you know. Because I have the entire story in my head — everything from what happened to my character when he was five years old to what he had for breakfast this morning — I’m not always sure if I have put enough of that on the paper — or too much. Your feedback is priceless. Believe me, Beta-Readers, you seriously rock.
37 thoughts on “Open Letter to Beta-Readers”
Right on, Melissa. I got that the first time, too, so now I send out specific questions for them to answer. In my case, though, i don’t ask for spelling or grammar comments as I have my editor take care of that afterward.
I’ve learned to ask specific questions, also. It definitely helps to narrow the focus and get the feedback down to specifics.
Yup! That’s the beta reader’s job — to keep us from looking like idiots when we hit “publish.”
Yes, we need them to help save us from ourselves!
Right on, Melissa. Beta readers are most valuable when they give specific feedback.
Yup, I think we’re all agreed on that, RJ. Thanks.
So true, Melissa. I’ve tried to tell a few people who read my work in progress and gave the same answer, “I liked it. It’s good” how important the nitty gritty feedback is. Sharing.
Thanks, Sandy. We may have to pry it out of our beta-readers, but painful as it might be, the nitty gritty is what we need.Glad this was useful.
Great post, Melissa — i would make a terrible beta reader because it is so hard to tell a writer their work sucks — the best reading for others i do is when the work is already very good but there are some important problems with it that the author obviously cannot see but i, as the reader can. The other day I read a terrific English crime fiction novel and loved it until i came to the end — when the author really truly screwed up in my estimation — the novel got critical acclaim, and i was shocked that no one pointed out that his final revelation was just not credible…at least that was a glaring error to me…so yes, the exacting beta-reader is vital — my problem is how to get them! Any ideas?
Mira, you might look for beta-reader groups on both Facebook and Goodreads, also LinkedIn. They’re out there. Re: your other point about telling an author the bad news, don’t forget you can couch it in the personal, i.e. “this didn’t work for me,” or, “I felt this was not credible.” Helps to soften the blow. But at least that way, the author can think about it, consider what you’ve said and see if they agree.
Definitely, Melissa. I send my beta-readers each self-revised (and proofread externally) manuscript with a list of specific questions. This helps the beta-readers focus on the areas you mention and that are crucial to achieve a good result.
Thanks Massimo — that’s a great idea…
Massimo, good idea! I had not thought about sending along a list of questions before they read. Hmm, not sure if I would want them to focus on ideas or just read fresh and open. I’ll have to think about that.
Good post, and I wholly agree with you, I want honest and critical feedback. If something ain’t right, I want to know about it. It’s not about what I think once we get to this stage, it’s what the readers are going to think and understand that matters.
Ego oriented writers should give u and make mirrors for a living.
Ian, LOL about the mirrors! Ouch! But very true. Once we hone the work into an amazing, polished gem, then we can bask in our own glory–after recognizing our support team, of course!
I don’t want to bask in any glory. I want my work to get any glory, and we should all recognise that writing and publishing is a team effort, even by those who SP and say they do it all themselves. They have families and friends, all of whom contribute, if unknowingly, though support and encouragement.
Yes, we all need to acknowledge those who helped make it possible as well as those involved.
For “Suppose”, I e-mailed all my beta readers a questionnaire. The beta copy repeated the questionnaire in a separate chapter at the beginning of the anthology. As a result, my beta readers provided targeted feedback that helped me and the other three contributing authors improve our stories.
Kathy, so you sent the questions before they read? Did they also give feedback on things not asked about specifically?
Yes. I e-mailed the questions along with the beta version, and decided to include them as a separate chapter as well. I know how easy it is to lose or forget e-mails.
I received general as well as specific feedback.
Note for Beta Readers
Thanks for agreeing to be a beta reader for “Suppose”. All the authors would appreciate your help with the following:
Please list your favorite story or stories.
Please list your least favorite story or stories.
Which story or stories made you laugh?
Which brought tears to your eyes?
Are there any stories you would like to see developed into novels?
Are there any characters you would like to see incorporated into novels?
Should any of the stories have been longer?
Please list any plot holes or inconsistencies.
Did you find any errors? Please list by location, page number, or story title.
Do you have any suggestions for changes, different endings, or plot twists?
Great inventory! I think these are excellent questions because along with editing issues, they target the emotional responses. When we’re writing fiction, it’s all about emotions. Thanks very much for sharing.
Massimo’s idea is brilliant, but why not send questions to some beta readers and not to others? Then you cover both angles, a bit like doing drug trials with placebos.
I’d love to have some beta-readers weigh in here; what would you rather have? Questions up front, or just a wide-open, fresh read and questions after the fact?
So what kind of questions do you all ask? Very specific, i.e. What did you think of the MC’s relationship with her father, or general, i.e. Did the ending surprise you? Do you ask yes/no questions or open-ended?
When someone asks me to beta read their manuscript I give them a warning first, informing them that I don’t sugarcoat, I don’t do political correctness and I don’t sandwich criticism between layers of praise. Fortunately, most writers report back that they wouldn’t want it any other way.
Sadly, some authors don’t seem to understand what beta reading means. On my first gig as a beta reader, I spent some ten hours on it, resulting in four pages of mostly criticism (yes, the manuscript really was that badly written), only to find out that the author thought beta readers existed to leave five star reviews on Amazon right after she hit the ‘Publish’ button… 🙁
Well, good thing you disabused her of THAT notion right away! Little did she know that you were doing her a far greater service with your time and feedback. I like your opening disclaimer, too; gives us time to get used to the idea that the feedback might be harsh. We need to be able to put our feelings aside and concentrate on what the story needs. Thanks for sharing.
Melissa, I find it odd that you didn’t include me in your list of beta readers. I recall being an “honest” one for your novel, Stone’s Ghost…
I think authors should create a checklist/survey/questionnaire for their readers, for their books. Asking general questions is not enough. Perhaps a rating system might be employed, too… like a 1-5 scale for each component. Hmm. Anyone want to work on a Google Doc to create one?
Lorraine, holy cow, did I miss you?? Sorry! I will fix that. (Great thing about self-pubbing; can upload a fixed version anytime!) I think your idea of a checklist is a good one, altho obviously it would need to be tweaked for each individual book. On the scale idea, are you saying make a scale of 1-5 for each question, like Kathy’s, above? That might be easier for the beta-reader to tick off a box, but the written response would be (in my mind) so much more useful.
Not sure how you missed me. But I think a generalized version of a checklist will give people ideas about what to ask/say and then other, more specific questions will result from those. I would prefer a written response, too, btw. 😉
Fantastic, Melissa. I want to send your article to everyone I ask to beta read! 😀 I do the checklist thing, too. Especially if I have specific concerns. Some readers use it, some ignore it, that’s fine. I’m grateful for their help.
Thanks, Laurie. If it helps to define what we need, great!
Totally agree with you, Melissa–betas ROCK. I’m lucky in that most of my betas are brutally honest with their opinions. That brutal honesty is what makes my books so much better, IMO. I certainly need to know what works and what doesn’t. Otherwise, it feels like I’m writing in a vacuum and seriously, who needs that? I’m going to start using a checklist, I think, at least for a few things. Thanks for the idea 🙂
Thanks, DV; sounds like you’re ahead of the curve with your betas anyway, but a little help never hurts. BTW, love your new pic.
Good article. But some beta readers do not critique honestly, particularly if your books are in their own genre.
Matt, true enough; we always have to be aware of the human element in this. However, I would guess (hope) that a reader’s personal agenda would be evident by the feedback. And, as always, the writer should carefully consider the feedback for how it fits the story (regardless of the intent) and use it or not.
Just want to add that trust is a huge element in any beta/author relationship. We authors have to trust that our betas are being constructive and NOT AT ALL MALICIOUS! The betas have to trust that we will be grown up enough to accept negative comments in the way they were intended – to improve the story. I’d be lost without my betas. 🙂
I think you nailed it–we all need to be grown up about the process, set our egos aside and serve the story. I’ve heard of authors behaving badly over feedback and of course that will immediately destroy the relationship with betas, not to mention making them gun-shy. If we’re putting our life work out there for everyone to see, we need to pull up our big kid panties and stand tall and deal with it.
lol – in my case I think that’s big kid bloomers! 😀
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