Beta Reading—Part 4

This is the final post in a four-part series on beta reading. If you missed the earlier entries, you can catch up with these links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

So the beta reader has sent you his comments. Your ego has recovered from the blow, and you’ve realized the reader made some excellent points. Your story will be better if you incorporate his suggestions. Ideas are coming to you about how to revise the characters and plot. (If you’re lucky, your characters will help you with the revisions.)

Is it time to start the rewrites and move on with your life? Sort of. In a good beta reading partnership, the relationship doesn’t end when the comments are sent in.

Now is a good time to talk with (or email) your beta reader. Let him know how helpful his suggestions and comments are. Tell him your ideas for the revisions. Ideally, the relationship continues and you can exchange further drafts, future works, and bounce ideas off each other. In the best-case scenario, you both enjoy each other’s writing and look forward to seeing the final version take shape and the birth of your next works.

Don’t abuse the relationship, though. Don’t email your beta reader every day asking him to read your latest revised or new scene. Wait until you have a few chapters or sections done. And then politely ask if you can send them at some point. By now, of course, you know to reciprocate when your beta reader asks for your help.

To wrap up the series, I’ve created a short “do’s and don’ts” list as a quick guide for writers and readers. I’ll create a separate page with links to these posts for easy reference. It should be up soon, and I’ll let you know when it’s ready.

The Writer’s Guidelines

  • Determine if you need a beta reader. Unless you plan to publish, this may be more critique than you need.
  • Be sure you’re ready. Beta reader comments can be extensive and cause distress.
  • Don’t send a first draft for a beta read. Wait until at least the second draft.
  • Put the manuscript aside for two or three weeks before you send it to the reader. This will help distance you emotionally and help you be objective when comments come back.
  • What do you want from the review? Make these concerns clear to the reader.
  • Set a realistic timeframe for the beta reader.
  • Determine how you will reciprocate with the reader.
  • Be prepared for the feedback. There will be suggestions for improvement. This is what you requested.
  • Remember that respectfully worded suggestions are not personal attacks on you or your work.
  • You might not incorporate all of a beta reader’s suggestions. But make sure you don’t ignore good ones that would improve your work.

The Beta Reader’s Guidelines

  • Make sure you’re ready to beta read. You must be objective and leave your personal opinions out of the review.
  • Understand what the writer seeks from the review. Do you know the genre and completeness of the manuscript? (second draft? fifth?)
  • Read the manuscript at least twice.
  • Be tactful and diplomatic with your comments. It is not acceptable to be rude, aggressive, or insensitive. Phrase them as suggestions as much as possible.
  • Be sure to address all the areas the writer noted for you.
  • Begin and end with positive comments about the work.
  • Let your comments sit for a day or two before you send them. Reread them and make sure they are tactful and diplomatic.

And there you have the basics of beta reading. I hope the series has helped you understand the process and see how such a critique should work. It can help you make your work the best it can be. Go into it prepared, and you will come out a better writer with an improved story.

If you have any questions or additional tips, please feel free to ask them or add them in the comments!

I didn’t have time to pull together some additional resources for this post. I’ll try to add them to the “Beta Reading Guidelines” page when I can. Next week, I’ll get away from the educational series and do something different.

34 thoughts on “Beta Reading—Part 4

  1. Excellent series, and a wonderful wrap up. I love how you characterize it as a relationship, one with give and take. It’s how this should be, though I’ve seen a few people in my life who couldn’t grasp that.

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    • Thanks, Julie! It was an interesting series to do. And it’s reinforced some do’s and don’ts in my own mind. 🙂

      I’d certainly recommend that a writer who has a bad experience with one reader shouldn’t go back to that reader for later comments. It’s not worth it. Even if the reader made some valid points, the unnecessary pain and stress isn’t worth it. There are other readers who will make those points respectfully and tactfully. Those are the readers we want to be involved with!

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  2. A great conclusion to the series. Love the dos and don’ts list. I think the waiting a bit before sending things out–on both ends–is a worthy precaution.

    Have a great weekend!

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    • Thanks, Carrie! Now I have to come up with something new for next Saturday…. Some of my revisions based on Kate’s beta read are beckoning—cutting characters, reducing POV characters, tightening the plot…. How well I’m working on those or the difficulties of figuring out how to do that….

      Hopping down to DC for the afternoon, so the weekend should start well. 🙂 You have a great one, too!

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    • Go to your dashboard, and under settings choose “discussion.” On the menu page that comes up, you’ll see 3 boxes above the Avatar settings:

      Comment Reply Via Email — Enable sending comment replies via email
      Follow Comments — Show a ‘follow comments” option in the comment form
      Follow Blog — Show a ‘follow blog’ option in the comment form

      Make sure the “Follow Comments” option is unticked, then save. NOTE! In order for me to get that unchecked status to “stick” when I saved, I had to uncheck all 3 of these boxes. But some people get by with just unchecking “Follow Comments.” Maybe it’s theme-dependent….?

      Remember, this just keeps your blog from spamming readers. If you forget to uncheck that darn box when you comment on someone else’s blog, you’ll get the damn flood. Luckily, it seems when you uncheck it once on someone else’s blog, then unchecked stays the default when you visit that blog again.

      But it should GO BACK to unchecked default for all of us!

      PS — Hope the move went well! (Aside from the internet…. 🙂 )

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  3. It’s so difficult to accept criticism when your heart is in your writing, but sometimes we become invested in a paragraph, line, even a word that doesn’t do the story as a whole justice. I’ve learned to suck it up and listen but rejection still feels bad, bad, bad. :0 Nice post.

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    • Oh, definitely. I’m working on my rewrites after my recent beta read, and it’s hard. Even though I know the changes will make it a better story, I think the revision process is even harder than first writing the story. And for me, whose characters run the show on the first draft, I find they disappear when the rewrites begin. I’m still trying to corral all of them to get back to work with me!

      Thanks for commenting! Looks like a quiet weekend in the blogosphere— hopefully people are spending quality times with moms. 🙂

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  4. JM, Again, this is a very helpful post about beta reading. I’ll probably go back and read over all of your posts on this subject–thank you!

    And thank you also for posting about how to quit spamming people. More than anything, it’s just depressing to see that when I comment on a blog, and the person gets 240 comments, and then mine gets 3. ; )

    Good luck on all of your revising. I just met with my critique group today, and I’m 5 chapters into my new novel. It’s like deja vu all over again!

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    • I hope to have a page set up for the blog posts tomorrow for easy reference. And I’m glad I can help with the email notification debacle. If WordPress keeps the new default of “checked,” I hope they don’t take away our option to keep it off our blogs entirely!

      I’ve noticed how many comments other bloggers get compared to me, too. 😉 I know there would be a point where I couldn’t respond to all of them. And I enjoy responding to the ones I get. But, just like in school, sometimes I think it’d be nice to be one of the “popular” bloggers once in a while.

      I think I’m on the right track with the revisions. But we’ll see what the next round of beta reading brings!

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  5. Excellent series.This conclusion is a great pull-together of advice and insights – I’ll never feel nervous about getting my work read again….. well, almost! 🙂

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    • I don’t think the nervousness will ever fade for me, whether I write two books or twenty! Sending out the drafts will always bring out my inner self-doubt. But that’s characteristic of writers, right?

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

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  6. I loved this series. Actually, I was beta reading for someone when Part 3 got posted and it helped me give a better critique. I love that you closed with a summary of do’s and don’ts for both sides reminding everyone it is a partnership. 🙂 Fantastic job JM!

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    • Thanks, Kourtney! I think it was just as helpful for me to write it when I did. My own most recent experience was still so fresh in my mind. And it was such a positive one that I wanted to capture everything that made it work so well. Now I shouldn’t forget some of those key points!

      Now what do I cover next Saturday….? 🙂

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  7. Firstly, awesome series. I really love how clear and well-presented everything is. Even though I like to think I give a pretty good critique, there is always room for improvement. I feel that by reading your series helped sharpen some of my skills and alerted me to being extra watchful over how I word my comments.

    I think that’s the hardest part of an on-line beta read–the lack of a dialogue. There is a lot at risk for misinterpretation, especially with writers who are extra sensitive or who are new to the process. Sometimes, precise, gentle wording is key to avoid confusion or misunderstanding.

    Secondly, reading this post and all the above comments reminded me that I forgot to disable the comment feature on my blog! Ugh. Now, I really have to hop to it!

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    • Thanks, Kate! The dialogue (or lack thereof) can be the trickiest part. Some people prefer not to know their beta readers in “real life” because of the potential strain on the normal relationship (like friends or colleagues). So there may never be verbal communication between them. But it’s also easy to misinterpret the written word as you say. And yet the beta reader can’t “sugar coat” comments to the point that they get watered down into nothing. That can make a writer think the manuscript doesn’t need much work, when in fact, it does.

      It’s not an easy process. And that’s why writers should know what they’re getting into before they start!

      I wonder what WordPress would do if EVERY blogger disabled the “receive notification of comments by email” feature!! 🙂

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    • Thanks, Carol! I like “quick and dirty” checklists. They’re a good reminder for things I’ve learned. And going back to the fuller posts always helps me, too.

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  8. Just read the whole series JM, what an engaging and useful read. I’ve learnt heaps and will definitely be taking this advice on board. Thank you!

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    • Thanks, Tracey! I’ve gotten some great feedback on this series, and I’m glad I’ve been able to help people understand the process. It’s “tough love,” but it’s critical for writer’s who want to publish GOOD works!

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      • Exactly! I’m interested to know how many beta readers you started out with. I’m guessing there’s a possibility of recruiting too many to the task and becoming boggled down in their feedback – especially if it is conflicting. Also, do you try to find readers who enjoy reading your genre?

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        • My readers aren’t all betas. On the first drafts I have three or four readers to get initial reactions on the story; they aren’t all writers. But I can get a feel for what is or isn’t working—especially when I’m smart enough to take their advice. 😉 At the more intense beta level, I’ve had 2 people read the second draft. A third was too busy. All three of them are writers, one of whom reads sci fi. But a good beta can critique a genre s/he doesn’t normally read and will let you know that some comments may not apply if what you’ve written is typical of your genre and the beta just isn’t aware of the norms.

          I think you can have too many—and the comments are more likely to be contradictory. But I think anywhere from one to a good handful would be helpul. Oh, I know two of my betas “in person,” and Kate and I know each other through blogging. So you can find some great beta partners in this online community of ours. 🙂

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  9. Pingback: Beta Reading Reblog from JM McDowell « Kourtney Heintz's Journal

  10. I’ve only just seen this series – but I would say it is essential to get feedback about your writing, particularly if you are hoping to publish your work. But the feedback must be constructive! I’ve had a team helping me on my comedy – and the editors/advisers were all wonderful, even when I was told the jokes were terrible…

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    • Thanks for commenting! You’re right—constructive feedback from objective reviewers is critical. It’s the only way we can make our work as good as it can be. It’s far better to have a few people point out our weak points and inconsistencies before we take anything public. When my finished work gets out there, I want to know it is really finished. I don’t want a public audience pointing out all the flaws I missed! That would be far more crushing than anything my beta readers said!

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  11. This post is chock full of terrific insight. Thanks much!

    I find defining our goals at the onset to be incredibly useful. When I’m reading another’s manuscript, I ask exactly what they’re seeking—general overview, all the nitty gritty, technical notes, etc. Love your note about reciprocation… It’s not occurred to me to consider that from the get-go.

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    • Thanks, August! I wonder how many bad experiences with critiques begin with a lack of defined goals and then incomplete communication about them. The reader then doesn’t understand what s/he should focus on, and the writer may get fewer of the comments s/he needed and wanted.

      I’m big on reciprocity. Beta reading is a time-consuming and difficult task to do well. I want to offer what I can in return to say thank you—be it my reading of the other’s manuscript or offering something in exchange. (A friend makes great prints of my digital photos, and I do some genealogical research on her family, for example.)

      Thanks for commenting!

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  12. This is a great series and takes me to the heart of “need-to-know.” Now maybe you could start an on-line beta reader dating service. No, really. I’m serious! Otherwise how can I find my perfect beta match? I met my husband online and that’s working great… Anyway, thanks for important info, well written. I’ve been asking the very questions you answered. …and let me know when you get that other thing up and running… 😉

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    • LOL! Thanks for stopping by to comment. 🙂

      And I’m glad the series is helpful. As for the beta dating service? Well, when I get some time, I plan to add links to the “Beta Reading Guidelines” page on the blog. There are some websites where you can submit work for critiques and comment on others, and I’ve seen some blogger comments that they’ve found great beta partners that way. Like online dating sites, there have also been bad experiences in addition to the good.

      If you’ve got a good rapport with some of the bloggers you “hang out” with, you can also check with them to see if they’d be interested. That’s how I found a great beta.

      I hope to get those links up sooner rather than later. 😉

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    • Thank, Katy! I’m happy to say it still gets a few new viewer every week. And I can see that search engines are leading people to it. Yay! 🙂

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