I’ve recently finished my fourth book, and beta readers are on my mind. While it is always a good idea to have a stranger read your book, our first beta readers are often friends and family. Here’s some thoughts on the matter.
Anyone who writes is going to eventually need people to read what they’ve written. Be it a friend, family member, beta reader, editor, or agent, someone is going to read words that you have written. With that in mind, I offer you a list of guidelines. Let me make this very clear, these aren’t guidelines for your readers, they are guidelines for you.
Don’t Apologize for Your Work
You’ve spent time, tears, and assorted bits of your soul writing your words. Now, it’s time to find some readers.
“Please read this! Please! I know it’s my first book and it’s probably not very good but if you can find it in your heart to read it–”
Stop. I see this more with female writers. Our society teaches us to be more apologetic than our male counterparts. I recently read a study about business correspondence and how women in business use the word “sorry” far too often. Today I read the first draft of someone’s query letter. It began with a plea. Not cool. Not needed.
The other side of this is Don’t Be a Dick.
“You are in for such a treat! I am Mr. Awesomesauce, and I have written the most awesome book ever written in the history of writing! I envy you the experience of reading my awesome words for the first time.”
Ask people to read. Ask them with a goodly measure of politeness, but don’t beg and don’t be a dick about it. Let your writing speak for itself.
Speaking of which–
Let Your Writing Speak For Itself
Say you are asking someone to beta read. This conversation should not start with a verbal rendition of the entire plot of the book. You should not tell them about all the characters. You should not mention theme. What you are looking for is fresh eyes on your story. What you don’t want are eyes tinted by your own preconceived notions.
I sent my new book out to my intrepid beta readers this week. Know what I said about it?
“It’s a horror farce of 70k words. There’s some gross stuff in it, but it’s pretty light hearted.”
That is what your readers want to know. Genre is important. I have a beta who loves romances, but won’t read anything that even hints of tragedy or horror, and that’s cool. Not all genres are everyone’s cup of tea, and you don’t want a horror-phobe reading your horror piece anyway. Also mention the length. Face it. People have lives. They may not be able or willing to commit to your 200k manuscript, and that doesn’t make them bad people. Don’t try to bully people into reading something they may just not be that into, or may not have the time for.
Don’t Be a Bully
Ask people to read your work. If they say no, or make a polite excuse, then let it go. Don’t try to talk them into it, bully them into it, or force them to read it just to shut you up. After all, you are not looking for any old reader, you want people that are excited about the project. People that read of their own free will are going to be more forthcoming with feedback.
Once someone agrees to read, don’t start asking them a bunch of questions about it.
“Have you started reading yet? How about now? And now?”
“Have you finished it yet?”
“Where are you at in the story?”
“What did you think about that one specific thing in the second chapter?”
Let them alone. Let them read the entire thing before you start asking them anything. In fact, be careful about asking them anything, ever. Let them tell you whatever they chose. Find out which parts they felt were important in the book, instead of asking them about the parts you thought were important.
Some Won’t Finish, and That’s Okay
There will always be people who offer to read your work, and never finish it, or never start it at all. That’s okay. Maybe it wasn’t their cup of tea. Maybe they have too many things in their lives at the moment. Don’t harass them. Let it go.
The Reader is never Wrong
Each reader will have their own opinion about what they read. You may disagree or agree with their opinion, but you must never tell them they are wrong. Opinions, unlike facts, are never wrong. When a writer gets feedback, they have some serious thinking to do. They must decide what feedback is useful, what advice they will take, and what advice they will ignore. If multiple readers mention the same issue, then a writer needs to pay attention, and find a way to make their writing more clear.
The Reader Often Does Not Know How to Fix an Issue
Pay attention to content issues your readers find. They may make suggestions on how to fix those issues. Sometimes they are right, but most often they are not. While they know there is a problem, they often don’t know the best way to fix it. Listen, then find your own way to fix it.
Anyone who volunteers to beta read your work is inherently awesome. It doesn’t matter if they give you an in depth constructive criticism, or only tell you that they liked it. Be grateful that they took some time out of their lives to read your work, regardless of amount of feedback. Thank them.
I agree about women being more apologetic and pleading. I have started being polite and professional but not apologizing or saying please multiple times in any communications I have, especially professionally. I was really bad about it. No more.
Good for you, Tina. I hope others follow your good example!
Where you start – Let them alone…next sentence you have – Let the read the entire – I think you mean – Let them read the entire….
This is a very good guide on getting a beta reader.
I love your point that opinions are never wrong. I’ve been a reader for a lot of different people’s work and some writers do NOT take criticism well, but if you just remember that what you’re asking for isn’t a definitive declaration of the quality of your work, you’re asking for one reader’s opinion, I think it can be easier to swallow. I know as a writer, the part I have the hardest time with is resisting the urge to explain away something a reader didn’t like or understand. I should just take note of it and move on.
Well said. And it’s very true that some writers have not yet learned how to take criticism. You have to develop a thick skin, and the ability to not take crit personally. Sometimes, writers can be very defensive. I remind myself that if I have to explain something verbally to my reader, then my writing wasn’t doing its job.
That’s a good point. The work should be able to speak for itself.
Once someone agrees to read, don’t start asking them a bunch of questions about it. – That’s pretty crucial in my experience. For starters reading is quite an organic thing it happens or it doesn’t, added pressure just kills someones will to read especially if they weren’t that keen anyway.
When some of my betas (ones I thought 100% would read my manuscript) agreed to read failed to, I let it go, and if it was mentioned I was like don’t worry, it’d be great if you can, but no rush, whenever you can etc.
You have the right attitude! That’s exactly the way to handle it.