Beta Testing, Testing 1-2-3… | The Role Of A Beta Reader

 In fields like computer programming or video game design, beta testing is a way to assess a product from the view of its consumers by giving them allowing them to use and explore the product in the interest of debugging, figuring out what works, and where it fails. This way, these issues can be addressed before it is released to the general public. It’s similar to a technical rehearsal in a play, where the actors perform the show in full dress with set changes and other effects being run by the crew. This gives the directors and others a chance to watch the performance and make notes to improve various aspects ahead of opening night.

This idea is also used by writers in the form of beta readers.

A beta reader reads through an unpublished manuscript from the perspective of an average reader in order to provide feedback for the author.

Different from a critique partner, beta readers are enlisted to read through your book and give feedback from the view of a general reader, whereas a critique partner is often a writer and therefore often gives feedback on a more technical level because they see things through the eyes of a writer. Beta readers are also different than sensitivity readers, who are brought in to assess a more specific thing like an LGBTQ+ character’s experiences if you’re a cishet author or a character with a medical condition you yourself do not have like a chronic illness. This ensures your depictions are not only accurate and realistic, but respectful.

Beta readers are often brought in to evaluate a manuscript before an author pursuing a traditional publication path begins querying agents, or begins the process of self-publishing (a topic I am not familiar enough with to feel I may discuss it at length for the moment).

In the case of Bound to the Heart, I brought in betas after two rounds of self-edits and feeling that I had done all that I could on my own.

When I started looking for betas, I reached out to several writer friends from college as well as posting on Twitter to ensure I would receive unbiased feedback.

An essential aspect of a beta reader’s role is being able to give constructive criticism, which is why people often advise against asking friends and family to be betas. Depending on who you ask, they may feel that they have to be nice to you regardless of the quality of your writing and therefore will only offer praise and compliments. While this can feel great at the time, it can hinder you in the long run because you will not know where you need to improve.

Unbiased feedback is essential.

Your friends and family will (ideally) not be the only people who read your book. A majority of readers will not know you personally, and therefore cannot be relied upon to love you regardless.

Unbiased feedback gives you a better sense of how the general reader may receive your book, and having that unbiased feedback come from beta readers provides that insight before it is released, rather than leaving it subject to ruthless reviewers. 

The fact is, your book is not as good as you think it is. It may come as a rude awakening at first, but remember that you’re not asking your betas to praise your writing, but instead tell you what you need to fix. So you need beta readers who can do that.

Reliability is also a key factor in selecting betas. You want to enlist people who you know will not only read through your manuscript, but respond to the questions you ask and get that feedback to you in a reasonable amount of time. This feedback should also extend beyond answering “Yes” or “No” to your questions, but elaborating on why.

While “Good” and “I don’t like this” can be helpful, what can be more helpful are comments like “I love the banter between these characters but I think this conversation needs to be expanded on” and “I don’t know what this phrase means” because they’ll give you more insight as to what you need to do when you dive into the next round of edits.

While you may already have a good sense of who is dependable and who is not among your friends and family members, this can be a little more difficult to discern when bringing outside sources from social media platforms or forums.

My “Stranger Betas” as I call them, are individuals who I have not met in real life. What I know of them comes from their online presence, in this case Twitter.

Having attended elementary school in the 2000s, when the internet was still a new thing and we couldn’t use the landline while checking our email, stranger danger took on a new meaning. When my fifth grade class participated in D.A.R.E., there was a brief unit on internet safety that went beyond Disney Channel’s “Hey, kids! Get your parent’s permission before playing 625 Sandwich Stacker” PSA that aired during commercial breaks. Here, the officer spoke about why we shouldn’t talk to people we don’t know online, not to share our personal information or give our passwords with friends, and remembering to limit our daily screen time.

These concepts are worth keeping in mind when reaching out to “Stranger Betas” through social media.

When selecting beta readers through Twitter, I made sure they were users I had interacted with before and had been following for a while. This established a level of trust that was important to me heading into this process.

Your manuscript is one of the most personal things in the world, so you don’t want to send it to just anybody. Exercising a little caution goes a long way.

Typically, a beta reader is a reader within your genre or target audience because they know what to look for. If you’re handing off a romance novel to a romance reader, they’ll be able to recognize which tropes or genre conventions are appearing, if the lovebirds’ relationship is indeed romantic and worth rooting for or if it could be seen as toxic, and if you succeed in driving the emotion you aim to spark in your reader. If you’re writing a middle-grade fantasy novel and you have a friend with a child that age, ask them to give it a read. A beta reader that is within your target audience or familiar with your genre can ensure you’re doing your job as an author.

I tend to suggest looking for betas not only in your genre but outside it, because your book could very well be the first or the first of a few in your genre that someone reads.

My critique partner writes YA Dystopian, so when we were exchanging our sections of our book for feedback, I would frequently ask how easily she was able to orient herself in the setting and how clearly the details relating to historical facts were presented. This way, I knew if I had to explain something like primogeniture in a clearer way or if my characters’ use of Regency Era slang and cant impeded her ability to follow along with the conversation.

In turn, I gave similar comments as a casual YA Dystopian reader who has only read a limited number of titles in that genre like The Hunger Games and Divergent back in high school.

Beta readers outside of your genre can provide feedback from the perspective of a general reader, making sure it can be enjoyed by a broader audience rather than a smaller, more specific group.

Regardless of how well-versed your beta reader is in your specific genre, what does not change is the cost.

A beta reader is FREE. 

I bring this up because when I was seeking betas for Bound to the Heart and posted about it on Twitter, someone contacted me with a link to their Fiverr page with an offer to read my manuscript—for a price.

I cannot stress this enough. Beta readers are volunteers. They are not hired.

There are plenty of services an author will likely pay for ahead of a book’s release including and not limited to a professional edit, cover design, and various forms of marketing, but beta readers should not be among these costs.

You also should limit how many betas you involve. There’s something to be said for having too many cooks in the kitchen. My first round of betas was limited to five people: three friends from college and two fellow writers from Twitter.

Having more than one beta reader means you’ll get more than one perspective on your story, resulting in having that much more to implement in the next round of edits, but having to too much to sort through can be overwhelming and lead you in circles.

There’s a phrase I’ve heard writers toss around concerning beta feedback, and that’s two out of three must agree. 

This comes into play once you being looking through the comments you’ve received. For example, you might ask your betas to provide feedback about a specific chapter’s ending. Two betas might say the cliffhanger was effective and made them eager to read on, while one might tell you it annoyed them.

In this case, this would suggest the cliffhanger does as intended.

You could also have multiple people point out that a line of dialogue was confusing to them, while one person got it. Whether or not you rephrase that particular line could depend on a few factors. If it’s being spoken by a character who has a habit of mixing up phrases, or if you intended for the line to be confusing or misleading, it may be worth keeping as it is.

On the other hand, if the line is meant to provide information about what is going on, it could be better to consider rephrasing it.

Taking your beta’s advice can be incredibly helpful, but there are going to be times where it would be better disregarded. In the end it is up to the writer’s discretion.

When I sent Bound to the Heart out to my betas, it was done via email. Along with the document, I also included a series of questions and things I wanted looked at. Some of these were general, like how well my readers were able to settle into the historical setting, as well as things more specific to my story like if there were any areas in my descriptions of Zach’s bookbinding or use of the printing press that needed more explanation.

I also let them know that the majority of feedback I was looking for was on a general basis, just an overview of their thoughts as they read, along with leaving them an additional space designated specifically for any feedback they wanted to leave me outside of the provided questions.

Looking back, one of the things I wish I had done differently was the way I sent my story out. When I was familiarizing myself with the process, several articles had suggested sending the manuscript in its entirety so your readers could “stop organically,” as one blog put it.  This way, you might be able to assess where the story drags compared to piquing your interest that makes your audience crave the next chapter. Another popular point included with templates or lists of things to include in your survey was “Where was the first point that you put the book down? Why?”

Writers strive to make their books unputdownable, meaning that the continue to maintain their readers’ interest and keep them invested in the story rather than reaching a point for an intermission to go do other things (which some fear may result in them never picking up the book again or at least not for a while).

With this advice in mind, I sent all of Bound to the Heart in one fell swoop, and I’m not sure that was the best approach.  

Back when I was working with my critique partner on a different project, we exchanged our work in segments, typically no more than thirty pages unless the chapter went beyond that limit, on a weekly basis. This not only made it more manageable and easier to work into our busy college kid schedules, but also gave us time to make adjustments to upcoming sections before the next swap. This decreased the likelihood that a recurring error in one chunk would not be found in the next and also let us ask questions more specific to those individual chapters, which can be harder to do when you’re dumping thirty-something chapters in your beta reader’s inbox.

I wish I had put both options out there and asked my betas which they would have preferred.

For the next round of betas I enlist for Bound to the Heart, sending it out in chunks rather than all at once will probably be the way I handle the process.

It’s also recommended that you establish a deadline. This way, you’re not waiting around for feedback to eventually find its way to you.

Typically, a few weeks to a month will suffice. Again, these folks are volunteering their time, so you cannot expect them to drop absolutely everything in their lives to read. This reading also includes making notes, so it’s going to take longer to do.

Don’t be afraid to check in with your betas, but don’t be rude about it. As I often say on the blog, life finds a way to get in the way. Things happen. You might have a beta who was super-enthusiastic to read your book and got halfway through before a family emergency required their attention, meaning their feedback might be delayed. 

Give them a nudge, not a shove. You might want to send out a reminder a couple of weeks before the deadline to let them know that you are eagerly awaiting their assessments of your work, but don’t be demanding in doing so.

Also keep in mind that you may not hear back from everyone (I didn’t). It’s possible that a beta doesn’t finish reading it, or they do read the whole thing but don’t remember to send their feedback.

If you experience this, the best advice I can give is to send them a friendly email to ask about their progress, but know you may not get a response; at this point, consider looking for a replacement.

You might be excited to read the feedback when it starts finding its way back to your inbox, but don’t jump into reading their comments when you’re not in a good headspace because this will only make the criticism harder to take. Instead, set aside an afternoon to take it all in. It will take some time to sort through everything.

There is a good chance they will say something about your story that you do not like or agree with. That is what they are there for.

One of your betas might suggest cutting out a scene because they feel like it is out of place and doesn’t serve the story. However, you might have the urge to launch into an essay-length email explaining how you know what is and isn’t essential to the story because you wrote, that it needs to be there for the sake of developing a secondary character and because the reader needs to be familiar with the setting because they need to recognize it later on.

Don’t be this person.

Beta readers are people, too. You asked them to read your unpolished manuscript for the sake of highlighting problems within it. Take a day or two to consider what your betas have said. It may hurt at first, especially if more than one beta is telling you to murder the same darling, but remember that this feedback is intended to improve the story as a whole. After some time, you may begin to see the reasons this might have been said and might even have an idea of how to make these changes in the best way.

If you’re still confused or unsure why your betas have made these suggestions, reach out and kindly ask them to elaborate. A simple “Hey, I noticed that you mentioned feeling unsure if Chapter Eighteen was needed. I was hoping you could tell me a little bit more about why” can go a long way.

Be kind. Beta readers are doing you a favor by reading your book, especially when it is unpolished and still undergoing edits. When this happens, it is not a reason for you to start an argument with them. Instead, perhaps ask what about the story made them feel that way and see how you can improve.

I included a letter of appreciation along with my questions when I sent my materials to my betas, thanking them for their time and willingness to be of assistance.

Being a beta is not an easy task because it requires more than just reading a book to read a book.

A beta reader helps make a book worth reading.

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