Although writing a novel is a solitary craft, there are usually many more people involved in getting a book to publication. In addition to the editor and publisher there are the often unsung heroes – the beta readers.
Beta readers are trusted volunteers who test-drive the manuscript and give you their honest opinion. Their purpose is to flag up plot holes, character inconsistencies, things that irritated or weren’t properly explained or places where their interest dipped.
Who should you ask and how many?
It’s good to ask at least three people but probably not more than six or you could find they all give conflicting advice, sending you round in circles.
Obviously there is a risk with asking people you know – it’s quite nerve-racking as a writer to ask people’s opinion of your work and equally pretty scary to be asked to comment as a reader. A novel is a very personal thing and potentially friendships could be broken over it. No writer should ask beta readers for their opinion if they are going to shoot the messenger. But equally there is little point in someone saying the book is fabulous when it isn’t as that won’t help you improve it.
I asked people I knew because they were all avid readers and either involved in writing or could give me their expert opinion on relevant sections. They were also people with strong opinions who knew I could trust to be honest.
But if you don’t want to ask people you know you could post a request in an online book group or offer to swap critiques with another writer. The most important thing is that you pick people who are regular readers, especially of your book’s genre.
No matter how many times you read through your work there are sure to be things that you won’t notice simply because you wrote them. We all have little things that annoy us when we’re reading and some of these are probably unreasonable (The word ‘chuckle’ sets my teeth on edge when used outside of a children’s story or a pantomime) but others might make you rethink how you phrase things. I will try to never again use the word ‘like’ when I mean ‘as though’! It was also helpful to have a friend with a Modern Languages degree point out that the meaning of an Italian word wasn’t obvious without some explanation.
What they need from you
Beta readers will need clear instructions about what sort of feedback you want and how it should be presented. I wanted mine to give examples where possible – “I didn’t really warm to this character” is helpful but it would be so much more useful to know why – the character’s lack of reaction to the crisis on p16, their attitude to their wife on p24 or the way they spoke to the police on p54.
I drew up a list of questions I wanted my readers to bear in mind when reading – these were about the main characters, the ending and a couple of key scenes.
It’s only fair to ask how readers would prefer to receive the manuscript as they are giving up their time to help. I printed off a hard copy and gave it to my first reader with some coloured post-it notes. I then printed off a second copy and gave it to my second reader with different coloured post-its. One of these was then passed to the third reader with a different coloured set of post-its. They each scrawled their comments on the page and marked it with a post-it and I then copied all of these comments into a file.
The other readers were happy to read the novel in a Word document. One of these gave me an extremely detailed handwritten list with page number references, the others preferred to go over the changes face to face or on the phone.
One thing I would recommend is to not make any changes until you have everyone’s feedback. Otherwise the pages and line numbers will change and it can be hard to find the points people are referring to.
The other thing I found is that it all takes time! Readers have other things going on in their lives. They might fall ill, go on holiday or be busy at work. You’ll need to agree a time limit and build in a bit of leeway.
Dealing with criticism
You might not agree with the advice offered and you don’t have to take it. You might also find that readers give conflicting advice but if the same point is raised by several people it must be worth thinking about. And the way I look at it, any criticism, however hard to hear, is worth having if it helps you improve the book.
I’d love to hear about your experience as a writer or a beta reader.
And to my beta readers I just want to say an enormous thank you – I couldn’t have done it without you!