A lot has been written on the beta reader experience, but every writer experiences this process differently. I’ve just gone through the first round of beta readers and let me tell you, I’ve never felt so conflicted about reader feedback as I do now. Still, I did my research about beta readers and knew they were an integral part of the process for my memoir Accidental Soldier: What My Service in the Israel Defense Forces Taught Me about Faith, Courage and Love. But receiving their feedback doesn’t make the entire process any easier until you go in with real important understandings.
Now that my manuscript will soon reach the copyeditor (oh man, how good it feels to say that!) I understand how necessary beta readers are, but there are several things to take into consideration during this stage.
1. You should send out a very polished draft, the best you can make it with an editor. What you put out in terms of the quality of your draft is the kind of feedback you’ll get in the end. You want to push for feedback that will reveal any loose ends with characterization, story, dialogue. If you give your beta readers a “meh-meh” draft, then expect to receive a lot of other editorial comments. Your readers will be distracted by all the other unresolved stuff so you don’t want to mess up your beta readers’ reading experience.
2. Understand that they are beta readers. Beta readers are not editors. They are readers. They haven’t experienced your transformation as a writer. They don’t see your tears and pain. They only see the final polished draft. They will give you their cold hard thoughts as a reader. Be prepared for that and lower your expectations as much as possible.
3. Claim your story. There will be beta readers who want more explanation of this and less explanation of that. There will be beta readers who have certain preferences about your characters. As Kathy Pooler of Memoir Writer’s Journey so wisely said, “the beta process can be grueling because you really want constructive feedback, but not everyone will agree with how you’ve written it or what you’ve written. And it does sting. But I learned to filter out the feedback that made sense to me and disregard the rest. I tried to keep an open mind because what I wanted most was to present my story in the best possible way. Most of my beta readers were very validating BUT a few were very critical and suggested sweeping changes. This is where I drew the line and claimed my story, the only one I could write.”
4. Find beta readers who are willing to work with your time frame, but don’t be pushy with their schedules. If you are under a time constraint or need feedback immediately, you may not get that as quickly as you wish. Remember, your beta readers are working people too. On the flip side, find beta readers who actually have the time to critique your manuscript so you don’t feel ignored. This has happened to me with a few beta readers and believe me, it’s not a great feeling especially when they express a keen interest in reading your work.
5. Explicitly communicate your needs and requests. Instead of providing a slew of questions, I asked my beta readers just one question: as a reader, what disturbed the flow of your reading experience? Asking the question in this way would give me an idea of what specifically interfered with their reading experience. I did not ask for any line editing.
6. Find beta readers familiar with your genre. This can be a hard one. I reached out to several writer friends but they only had experience writing novels and I found their feedback quite nit-picky because they didn’t quite understand the genre of memoir. I mainly approached an alumni group of memoir writers who I knew from a former mentorship with my editor Brooke Warner who taught the online program Write Your Memoir in Six Months who then became my fabulous editor.
7. Make the process as user-friendly as possible. I emailed all my beta readers a dropbox link where they could access the files to the memoir as opposed to inundating them with files.
8. Seek validation but not perfectionism. Please don’t start tearing your manuscript apart because a beta reader didn’t agree with your character’s decision. After all, it is YOUR story. In my case, many of my beta readers validated the power of my heroine’s journey and couldn’t stop turning the pages. This was extremely validating and encouraging. I didn’t need anything more. I didn’t need to keep looking for more beta readers to get more feedback. I sent my manuscript to a core group of readers and that was it.
9. Treat your beta readers with kindness and respect. Offer some kind of reward like acknowledging their efforts on the acknowledgement page, or give a small gift showing your token of appreciation. Copies of the printed book can work well.
10. Reciprocate the favor. It takes a great effort to take time out of one’s busy day to provide good feedback on a manuscript. Always be available to reciprocate the favor. Generosity is the highest level of reciprocity. Whenever you can, always try and pay it forward.
So there you go, ten things you must know about beta readers. Never an easy task to enlist a good core group of readers but doable!
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