The Beta Test

…and The Last Portal novelette update.

What is a beta reader? Where do you find one? When is the right time to incorporate beta readers into your draft and revision process? What is the best methodology for garnering beta feedback? Why would a writer want to do this?

By the end of this post, you should be able to answer the preceding questions with alacrity.

Let’s start with the question why.

I’ll answer this question by posing a couple more questions:

  • Do writers usually produce a final publishable version of a story on the first attempt?
  • Are writers so tuned to their craft that they need no input from others?

Hopefully, you see the absurdity of those two questions as they apply to the vast majority of writers. Some famous authors wrote and published first drafts, but even most bestselling authors have editors and copy editors. Writers may outline, world build, scene list, and draft independently and autonomously, but rare is a story or novel that comes out of the writer’s mind and through his typing fingers in complete publishing ready form.

The story will need to be proofed and revised. Just because the author typed “The End” on the last page doesn’t mean the work is finished. In many ways, that first “The End” is really “The Beginning” of a revision and review process that is meant to elevate the earlier versions of the story to the highest achievable level based on the author’s skill, experience, characters, and plot.

Why would you use beta readers?

To more quickly and more easily find and identify the story flaws so that they may be fixed to improve the story.

Many authors, me included, are so close to the story, from the many hours spent writing it, that we often can’t see fundamental flaws in the story, plot, tone, characters, point of view, description, pacing, or any other number of story elements. There are even little typos or punctuation issues we miss along with our word processor’s spelling and grammar checker.

Another few pair of eyes can help spot these weak links and the author can then decide how best to address the issues to strengthen the story.

So, who are the beta readers who can read a story draft and provide meaningful feedback? Where do you find them?

Odds are that you know at least one already. Your spouse or other close family member can be your first beta reader. They will be motivated to support your writing and most will be willing to help you. Bonus points if your first beta reader also enjoys reading in genre in which your write.

As for other beta readers, do you have friends, contacts, or co-workers who are also writers? Do you belong to a writer’s group? Do you attend any college classes? Do you belong to a book club? Do you know someone from work, church, school, or community who is in a book club? Do you write a blog and have a particular few loyal followers who comment often?

These are all potential beta readers. A beta reader prospect is anyone who loves to read, hopefully in your chosen genre, and whom you think will be both willing and able to articulate meaningful feedback

You’ve found several prospective beta readers for your masterpiece and have invited them to be beta readers. They’ve all agreed to help.

What now?

Timing is important at this point and this is where your authorial discretion comes in. At what point in the drafting and revision process should you incorporate beta readers?

In my mind, there isn’t a best answer to this. It depends on your preferences. Do you want a review of your story and feedback after the first draft or the fourth draft? Do you want your writer’s group to give it a read first and then after you’ve incorporated feedback you have your beta readers take a look?

Although it may be fairly fluid exactly when you utilize beta readers, consider these guidelines as a bit more concrete:

  • Beta reading should be completed before you submit to an agent or editor
  • Beta reading should be completed before you indie digitally publish
  • Beta reading should be completed before you enter a contest
  • Beta reading should be completed before you consider the story completed and type “The End” on the final version.

The process for my novelette, The Last Portal, has been to write the first draft and submit to my wife, aka my first reader, AND my writer’s group. I incorporate all the feedback I agree with into a 2nd complete draft. And now, I have at least four beta readers who are now reading the 2nd draft. These beta readers are different from my writer’s group and first reader to get an even broader scope of feedback.

Once you decide when to add beta readers to your revision process, how you get useful, meaningful, targeted feedback?

First, here are a few less successful ideas:

  • E-mail your reader a copy of the story and in the e-mail, ask for any thoughts they have when they finish and then wait………and wait………..and wait.
  • Give your reader a hard copy and ask them to e-mail you any comments they have or to call you, and wait………….and wait…………..and wait.

Obviously if you share your story with no expectation of that specific feedback you need, or an expected turnaround time, you will get exactly what you’ve ask for, which is nothing but a read of the story.

The read of the story isn’t helpful to the author, it’s the written feedback.

Here are a couple more successful strategies:

  • E-mail story to your beta reader with an attached questionnaire of all the types of feedback you want or need regarding your story. The questionnaire asks the reader to comment on whatever elements of the story you specify, i.e. pacing, level of description, dialog realism, character likability or consistency, balance of exposition, entertainment value, presence of an early hook, or a question about what they thought the theme was.
  • E-mail story to your beta reader with some high level ideas of what to look for and then call your beta reader when they’ve completed the read and interview them about their reading experience. You can use the same topics as in the previous bullet. You ask them directly about what worked and what didn’t and try to find out why, if they can articulate.

Either of these later two strategies helps focus the beta reader on what your want to know about the reading experience. If you are worried about the dialog sounding realistic and with distinct character voices, ask more questions about dialog in your questionnaire. If you are worried you don’t have a good opening page or chapter, ask your readers about the initial story hook, what grabbed their attention or failed to grab their attention.

Your questionnaire and/or interview should ask more than Yes/No questions. Ask Why/Why Not questions to get details about a response. Most readers can articulate what they like or don’t like about a story, even if they are not writers themselves.

If you don’t belong to a writer’s group, the beta reads may be all the feedback you can get, unless you pay for a freelance editor. So consider the benefits carefully before you decide whether finding and cultivating beta readers is right for you or not.

As for me, I’ve used the second of the more successful strategies and the process has been very enlightening. This is the first time I’ve used a written questionnaire, however, so I’m eager to see how well that works.

The last step of the process is to collect all the feedback in a timely manner you have previously specified and then analyze it for trends. What feedback is echoed by two or more readers? That is the feedback to take more seriously.

After the process is complete and you have all the feedback, graciously thank your beta readers. They’re taken time out of their own busy lives to read your draft story and fill out a questionnaire or let you interview them. Give them gratitude. Better yet, give them an acknowledgement in your published story and/or give them a free copy of the finished version.

Don’t ask your beta readers to read the same story twice, the feedback will not be based on a first read and will be biased by their previous read. Find new beta readers or utilize a writer’s group or workshop for additional feedback if you need it.

If we put this altogether into one succinct definition, we get: A beta reader is a willing reader of a writer’s early draft who can provide focused and relevant feedback in a timely manner for the improvement of a story.

The preceding is my definition and process for what a beta reader is and how one fits into my writing process. There are other perspectives you’d be wish to consider. Wikipedia defines beta reader as: “A beta reader (or betareader, or beta) is a person who reads a work of fiction with a critical eye, with the aim of improving grammar, spelling, characterization, and general style of a story prior to its release to the general public.

Both definitions work for me and having beta readers is the methodology I’m currently using for my novelette, The Last Portal.

Update: The Last Portal has been submitted to four of five beta readers with feedback anticipated by mid December.

I’ll post specifically about the questionnaire I used, the utility of the feedback I collected, and how that will affect my final draft/revision strategy prior to preparing for digital publication.

Anyone have additional useful strategies for beta readers? Has anyone out there served as a beta reader? What was your experience like?

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9 responses to “The Beta Test

  • Update: the Maze « 4250

    […] The Beta Test (mjtwrites.wordpress.com) […]

  • Stephen A. Watkins

    I have both been a beta-reader and benefited from a beta read.

    As a writer in need of feedback, I’ve attempted to use the “questionairre” format before – in my younger years – but I’ve found it a difficult proposition for some readers… they’re already taking time to reader the mansucript; filling out the questionairre was perhaps a bridge too far.

    Still… I’ve found a “here, read this, and tell me what you think” rarely elicits useful feedback unless the reader is, themself, a writer who craves similar feedback. Those sorts of Beta Readers need significantly less prompting – they already understand that you’re looking for deep, critical feedback, and are willing to give it. Another excellent aspect of using Beta Readers who are themselves writers is that the Beta Reading experience therefore needn’t be a one-way favor, but can be tit-for-tat.

    I’ve found through this experience that my skill improves not only when I receive valuable feedback on what I’ve written, but equally when I’m reading someone else’s work with a critical eye and a mind toward providing that feedback myself.

    • Mark J. Taylor

      I’ll have agree that I think I learn just as much from providing a thoughtful read and critique of another’s work in progress as I do on critiques of my work. That’s one aspect of a writer’s group that I enjoy, the expectation and obligation of the two-way review process.

      As for the questionnaire methodology. We’ll see how this round works…so far my beta readers have all said they were willing to read and answer questions, likely because this is a novelette, not a 100,000 word novel.

      • Stephen A. Watkins

        The Novelette might make a difference. 😉 I had tried to do this on a read-through of the first half of a 140K+ word novel. To be fair, the folks I’d asked also weren’t terribly familiar with what it meant to be a Beta Reader (I didn’t even have that term available to me then) and I didn’t really have an adequate stump-speech to explain my expectations/hopes for such a reader.

  • Chris G.

    While to many, a topic that would seem somewhat basic, truly, it’s a critical part of the writing process…and one many, though they might just brush it off, neglect…or do wrong. A writer can only benefit from a beta read. I was fortunate to have a number of people I could trust and rely upon to fill such a role when I was prepping for my own novel, and I had the honor of being called on to fill the role in turn for several other fellow writer-friends. Writers groups certainly help for this sort of thing.

    And congrats on the continued motion of The Last Portal!

    • Mark J. Taylor

      I think beta reading, if only by your first reader, is as you said, critical. I can’t imagine writing a story, trusting my own opinion only and then sending it off to the world to read or be considered for a contest or for publication. Writing is a solitary pursuit, but the revision process should always include trusted readers. I’ve seen acknowledgements by some published authors that name over a dozen beta readers. Maybe that’s a gauge of success, how many beta readers you have, lol.

      • Chris G.

        lol. Perhaps it is, perhaps it is. But then, some folks also feel the need to thank everyone under the sun, you know? How many beta readers did you end up with, out of curiosity though? I was fortunate to have a whole writers group in my area at the time of my draft stages, ready and willing to go through and discuss with me. Always a plus.

  • Mark J. Taylor

    I have two non-family beta readers, and five adult family member beta readers, all who read fantasy fiction. So, we’ll see what the breakdown of the feedback is. My writer’s group already read and critiqued the first draft so at this point, I think everything that can be found, will be found for this novelette.

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