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Beta readers – a goldmine of valuable feedback

Written By: Eddie Snipes - Sep• 06•11

In a previous article we talked about strategies, advantages, and pitfalls in critiquing. We all need the eyes of others to look over our work, but once the critiquing process is complete, the manuscript isn’t yet ready. It is my opinion that every manuscript should be read by non-writers. We as writers have a different mindset. We often look for mistakes in the work of others that we are watching for in our own work. Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. We’re looking so closely at the craft that we miss things in the story. Plus, writers tend to be more critical in things that readers don’t care about and may not notice things readers do care about. For this and many other reasons, we need to step outside of our publishing circles and get feedback from non-industry sources. After all, it’s the reader whose opinion matters most.

Non-writers are the greatest source of honest feedback from the ground level, so if a book passes our reader test, it’s a good bet it will be enjoyed by the masses. Think of eight to ten people who have nothing to do with writing or publishing and offer them the chance to become a beta reader. The book should have already been edited and critiqued. This is one area where friends and family are valuable in your publishing goals. While it’s true that your mother always thinks your work is fabulous, even her biased opinion can help you with the beta testing if you provide good guidelines.

The first time I tried this approach, I got generic feedback and a good amount of praise. While praise does well to inflate the ego, it has no value in finding problems with the book. When I approached my beta readers, I asked for any recommendations of what they would like to see improved or fixed. The answer I received was, “Well, I just don’t feel comfortable critiquing your work.”

Try as I might, none of my beta readers wanted to give negative feedback. This makes sense, after all, they are non-writers. Most people probably have the attitude of, “Who am I to question your work seeing I don’t know anything about writing.”

After realizing that people didn’t feel comfortable questioning me or were afraid they would offend, I decided to come up with specific questions that would get the feedback I wanted. I also realize that most people don’t have a lot of time, so in order to get my beta readers to respond, it needed to be something that could be completed in 5 – 10 minutes.

Once I provided the survey, the feedback I received was invaluable and helped me identify problems that I didn’t see. Nor were these problems discovered in editing and critiquing. One thing about self-editing is that since the story is in our heads, it’s nearly impossible to see what’s missing in print. We fill in the gaps. Discovering these problems is the difference between a satisfied reader and a bland book. If you can find what turns readers off before it goes to production, disappointment can be avoided.

Here is a sample survey I provided my beta readers.

Thank you for taking the time to read my upcoming book. Your ideas are valuable and greatly appreciated. I treasure your opinions and feedback. Can you please take a few minutes to fill out this survey and email it back to me? The answers are short and should only take 10 minutes or less.

1. Did the story grab your attention from the beginning?

2. Was there any point in the story that you lost interest?

3. Was there anything you found confusing or didn’t make sense?

4. Did you feel connected to the characters in the story?

5. Was there anything that bothered you about the characters?

6. Did you see anything that seemed like a contradiction? I.E. eye color, hair color, etc.

7. Did the story have a satisfactory ending?

8. Is there any other feedback you’d like to give?

Notice one important thing about the survey. It isn’t ‘my’ story, it is ‘the’ story. Make the survey appear factual so they are evaluating the object of the story and not you as the writer. This way your beta reader won’t feel like negative feedback is an insult to you.

When two people bring up a similar concern, that’s a big red flag. You can’t explain your book to the reader, so don’t try to explain away any of the criticism you get. Anything the beta reader doesn’t understand should be looked at to see if it needs to be reworded or written into the manuscript.

One last thing. Always, always, always thank your beta reader. Let them know the feedback is appreciated. Otherwise you won’t get honest feedback in the future. It’s better to get a little criticism now than get it in the form of 1 star reviews.

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10 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for the helpful blog. I will do that with the manuscript I am currently writing.

  2. Cindy Patterson says:

    I will definitely use this! Great idea! Thanks so much, Eddie
    Cindy Patterson:)

  3. Heidi says:

    Excellent post. 🙂

  4. Heidi says:

    How do you select beta readers? Do you simply ask friends and family?

    • Eddie Snipes says:

      There’s not really a good formula for picking readers. It would depend on genre. If someone doesn’t read your genre, you wouldn’t want them to give feedback since they won’t identify with the story. Poll different people and ask if they would enjoy the type of book you are writing.

  5. BK Jackson says:

    For numerous reasons I had come to the conclusion that I need to do just this with my completed manuscript. The only problem was I wasn’t sure how to go about asking for feedback once they read it. Not only because people who know you hesitate to be honest, but also because people tend to give short one-word answers–which isn’t always helpful.

    So my question to you is–using this formula of questions, did they open up enough? Do you get responses back from all beta readers?

    And, like the commenter above, I would like to know how you go about selecting your betas. Thanks!

    • Eddie Snipes says:

      Yes, the readers answered the questions. That’s the purpose of the survey questions.

      As far as finding beta readers, that would depend on your circle of contacts. You have to decide which readers are best. I made a point to choose non-writers. The reason is that I’m already using writers for critiques. Writers have a different viewpoint. We need non-writers for feedback from the average reader’s perspective.

      There’s not really a good formula for picking readers. It would depend on genre. If someone doesn’t read your genre, you wouldn’t want them to give feedback since they won’t identify with the story. Poll different people and ask if they would enjoy the type of book you are writing.

  6. Eddie Snipes says:

    Thanks for the helpful comments. I appreciate everyone who contributed to the conversation!

  7. Penny Zeller says:

    Great post, Eddie. I had never thought of beta readers…think I’m going to do that for my current manuscript. Thanks so much for the helpful info!

  8. Linda Yezak says:

    Terrific post. I’d been wondering what a beta reader was. So, is a critique partner an alpha reader?

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