We are officially a week away from the end of “31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep”! Holy cow! Do you feel like you’ve learned a lot so far this month? Honestly, while writing these posts, I feel like I’ve thought more about the art of writing than I have in a long time, and I’ve definitely learned some new things along the way! So let’s continue the learning with Day 24, which is all about beta readers! If you’re only just joining us, hey there! If you’re interested in reading the other posts in this series (which, you totally should), then you can click here, or you can watch the corresponding YouTube videos here.
I actually made a video about this topic on my YouTube channel a while ago, but since then I feel like I’ve learned a lot more about the beta process and have much better advice to give. So, with that being said, let’s get started. Beta readers, for those of you who don’t know, are people who volunteer to read your novel and give you constructive feedback. You don’t have to pay betas for their services, because they’re usually people who just want to help you make your novel the best it can be (which means you have to be extra nice to your betas, or else they’ll have no incentive to stick it out until the end).
“Okay, but do I really need beta readers?” you ask. Trust me, I understand feeling like you don’t really want to give your manuscript to beta readers, for one reason or another. Maybe the thought of sharing your writing with somebody is terrifying to you. Maybe you really feel like your story is solid enough to stand on its own without any feedback. No matter what your reasoning is, though, understand that having beta readers is imperative. Recently, I sent the first three chapters of my novel The Caspian Chronicles: The Forbidden Prophecy out to my brand-new, freshly volunteered beta readers, and already their feedback has been outstandingly helpful. They’ve pointed out certain things that I’d never even thought of, like inconsistencies in my main character’s personality, or moments that could be heightened by adding a bit more drama. And I won’t lie; when I sent my novel out to my betas, I felt pretty damn confident. I really didn’t think there’d be much of anything for them to tear apart. I should have known better. But now my novel will be so much better, all thanks to their amazing feedback.
Just to be clear, though, beta readers aren’t editors, or even critique partners. They aren’t meant to go through and line edit your book, and while they may help you with some conceptual things like plot holes, they aren’t trained to pick out that kind of stuff. Their purpose is strictly to act as a reader, telling you what things they noticed. What they liked or didn’t like. Their opinions are only meant to express what the casual reader would think of your novel.
So where do you find beta readers? Depending on how comfortable you are with who reads your manuscript, there’s a few places. Most authors find their betas in writing groups and the NaNoWriMo forums, and social media is a great place to put out a search, too, especially if you’d like your betas to be people you know relatively well. This is what I did, since this was my first real experience with recruiting beta readers. I was worried that, if I recruited strangers, they might steal my ideas. Since this is my first novel, that was a risk I wasn’t willing to take. Of course, the downside of recruiting friends and family is that they may not be as honest with their criticism for fear of hurting your feelings. You’ll need to make sure that you make it clear that you need honest feedback. Tell them that holding back their true opinions will hurt you more than it’ll help.
As far as how the beta process actually works, it’s really not that hard once you get the hang of it. The first step I took was announcing that I was on the lookout for beta readers and linking to a Google form that I made for people to apply. On the form, the information I asked for was:
- Email Address (so that I could contact them and send them chapters)
- Why they wanted to be a beta reader
- How often they read
- What their favorite age category to read was
- What their favorite genres were
- If my novel sounded like the type of book they normally read
- If they felt they could handle the time commitment of being a beta reader
- If they understood that the novel was copyrighted and that they weren’t allowed to share my chapters with anyone else
- If they understood that I could relieve them of their beta duties at any time
- If they understood that I was grateful that they were willing to beta for me (Seriously, guys, you need to make your betas feel loved. They’re volunteering their own free time to read your book.)
The purpose of these questions was to make sure that I was getting a diverse group of readers. I needed some that were in my target audience, and some who weren’t, so that I could get a feel for what kind of people were enjoying my novel and what kind of people weren’t. I was actually pretty lucky and got a diverse group of betas, considering I was just fishing from the shallow pool that is my friends and family.
Next, after I had chosen my betas, I sent out an email detailing exactly what I expected of them as betas (reading at least a chapter a week, giving detailed answers on the questionnaire, etc). Then I sent them the first three chapters of my manuscript, along with a corresponding questionnaire for each chapter. My process is to send three chapters at a time along with the questionnaires, and then I ask for them to send back the questionnaire immediately after they finish filling it out. I don’t want to give them the chance to change any of their answers. Once they’ve sent back all three questionnaires, I send them the next three chapters and questionnaires. Lather, rinse, repreat.
I know that some people like sending more or less chapters to their betas at a time, and that some choose to actually interview their betas as opposed to sending them a questionnaire, but that’s really all about personal preference. Figure out what works for you, and run with it. I don’t really think there’s a right or wrong way to go about it.
From there, I made a folder for each chapter and put all of the questionnaires that I’d gotten back for that chapter in it. That way I’m able to go through and look for trends in answers to the questions, and determine if there are things I should consider changing in my novel. And that’s basically it. Once all of my betas make it through my novel and send me all of the questionnaires, I’ll implement any beta critiques that I feel are helpful. Keep in mind, though, that not everything your betas say will be right. They won’t know about certain things you’re planning for future novels (if you’re writing a series), or one may have just missed something that the rest of your betas caught. Use your own discretion when deciding which critiques to implement into your novel. However, don’t allow your ego to get the best of you, either. I know it hurts to have someone tell you that something you’re proud of doesn’t work, but if multiple betas point it out, you can’t just assume they’re all stupid. They get nothing out of calling out a problem in your manuscript. Their only job is to help you make your novel the best it can possibly be.
Hopefully you have a fuller understanding of the beta process now! Make sure you check back in tomorrow for Day 25 of “31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep”, where we’ll be going over the pros and cons of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing.