• Amanda Clemmer

9 Common Mistakes Authors Make with Beta Readers

You have professional editors, and you have self-revisions, and then you have the third step: beta readers. Beta readers are non-professional readers who linger on the outside of your social circle and give your unpolished, unpublished manuscript a check before you finalize it for publication.

Many authors argue that the beta reading process is a critical element to publishing (both indie and traditional), others try to loop it into their publishing cycle with minimal success. If you feel that you’re not getting a good return on your beta readers, here are a few common mistakes to look for.

You don’t need many beta readers to get quality feedback. While one or two people might not offer a complete enough picture of your book to work with, dozens of readers will only lead to repetitive white noise with a fewer percentage of comments worth pursuing.

The good news is that you only need a handful of readers to make it work--you don’t have to pitch beta reading at everyone you know.

Just as some authors struggle by getting too many beta readers, one person alone isn’t going to help. Your neighbor who devours romances can share her personal thoughts all she wants, but those thoughts are not a reliable sample of what your readers might actually experience. Two readers is better--and three is even better.

Remember that you don’t need or even want a lot of people on board, but a good sampling of readers will give you a balanced composite of what your book’s reading experience is.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that a small number of friends and family are fine as beta readers. Often, these readers should be people you know and can rely on, or better yet, pester--and friends and family fit that bill better than others.

But you don’t want the adoration and subjectivity of anyone who only wants to praise you. Only ask people you trust to be critical and objective, and preferably those who read that genre anyway. Your grandmother might shower your space epic with praise and have nothing to compare it to--but your uncle who wins at sci-fi trivia could be an asset and give useful feedback.

Beta readers are not editors, and you shouldn’t trust them the way you’d trust a professional editor with your work. Beta readers provide insight into the reading experience, and nothing more.

One area where beta readers excel is pointing out the flaws in your story--boring bits, unrealistic dialogue, or characters who don’t quite click. Where these readers fail is in their suggested fixes. If a reader says that you need to spend more time with a minor character who does very little for the book of a whole, don’t assume it’s a good idea.

Some authors I know can easily find a group of beta readers and have no trouble getting critiques and comments back on their manuscripts, but still feel frustrated with the result. Usually, this happens when they have specific areas they want help with, like POV consistency in a scene or pacing near the middle, and the beta readers fail to touch on that.

There’s an easy fix for that problem: beta reader questions. While you might not want to confine all feedback to a series of questions, using questions related to what you actually want to know about as well as general questions about the story.

Beta reader questions might be as simple as naming a favorite character or as detailed as an in-depth discussion on how satisfying or unsatisfying the climax actually was.

If you’re not clear with your beta readers about what you want, you probably won’t get it. This isn’t just a case of the questions discussed in the last point. You should clarify what level of detail you want in your feedback and how much time beta readers have to work.

This leads to our next point….

The optimal window for beta readers can run as short as two weeks or as long as four, with the understanding that some readers will turn it in late. Not giving readers enough time will lead to rushed and often incomplete critiques, but too much time will allow them to lose focus or procrastinate until the last minute.

Once again, beta readers are not editors, and treating them as such will lead to your ruin. If a single beta reader has a problem with the boss not wearing a necktie when presenting before a group of associates in chapter ten, you can most likely ignore it. If they all say that your opening scene was too slow, you should pay attention and find a better opening scene.

The key to understanding beta reader critiques is to look for consistency and commonly shared concerns or frustrations.

In conjunction, it’s easy to make snap judgments about comments as you read through each critique, either acting on them or dismissing them as you read them. A better strategy is to make note of them as you read and see how many issues overlap with different readers. I often insert the comments into my own master copy of the story so that I can see everything at once. Others might mark comments on a printed page with different colors, or read everything through at once before deciding what to stick with.

What’s your strategy with beta readers? Please share your experiences and tricks in the comment section below or join our group for self-publishing fiction writers on Facebook for further discussion.