Beta Readers, A Method

Beta readers provide feedback prior to querying or before self-publishing. They often provide invaluable pointers regarding a manuscript, though some might also be slackers. It happens.

Currently, I’m wrapping up additional revisions to my sci-fi novel, Heritage Lost. This has been a long ongoing project that undoubtedly, if you routinely follow my blog, you’ve read about and might be wondering “How long is she going to ticker with it?” Well, after continuing to hit a brick wall in querying process, I dialed back and decided to complete a portion of the writing process that most writers complete: aka the beta reader process.

I skipped over this not because I hadn’t seen any value to the process, but due to some personal hang-ups (I’d been burned once) and my alpha readers had all been extremely positive. However, when I received a string of basic form letter rejections, I decided I needed more eyes on it — specifically reader eyes. My alternative motive was I’m deeply considering self-publishing. It is still my goal to query more agents and a couple of publishers that accept unsolicited manuscripts, but I’m also viewing self-publishing as more viable, and I wanted an idea of how my book might be received by a variety of readers.

So I embarked on the beta reading process and gleaned quite a bit from the experience, with some readers confirming some of the concerns I harbored on a few points after my last read-through. I also learned a lot about the beta reading process, and what I’d do differently next time.

WHAT ARE BETA READERS?

First off, for the uninitiated, beta readers are individuals who read through your work and provide feedback. This feedback can take many forms from critiquing plot points and characters to things you as a writer may not have even considered. Some beta readers might also proofread as they go.

If writers want to include beta readers in their process — and I recommend that they do — they should edit their work throughly beforehand to ensure that all plot points and other components are as complete as possible and that they aren’t handing over a work riddled with too many errors that might bog down and distract a reader. I read through my work numerous taimes as I did adjusts and also had three alpha readers prior to the beta reading process.

WHERE DO YOU FIND THEM?

Beta readers can come from all walks of life and some can be fellow writers, others might just be readers. I ended up with seven beta readers, and of those readers, six managed to finish the novel, which is fantastic! Often times, the number of beta readers that succeed and provide good feedback can be slim, so do not get discouraged: It is just the name of the game sadly.

Five of the seven, I knew previously to an extent via Facebook, through other people, church, or they graduated high school with me. Two others I had lined up through two different writing Facebook groups that I’m a member of: 10 Minute Novelists and Writers Helping Writers. Both have “buddy days” where you can request things like beta readers. Both of the beta readers that came from these groups finished, so it was a fantastic experience. One of the beta readers I did a trade with; however, you do not have to do a trade if you don’t want to.

MY PROCESS

I started with seven readers, two males and five females. Of the seven, six finished. The male reader who did complete the process said he had read the book three times and liked it; however, he had experienced technical issues (his computer ceased to function) when trying to place the file back into Dropbox. I decided to let it go. Six out of seven is still a good figure.

Once my beta readers were selected, I create folder on Dropbox with their names and included a PDF of my manuscript and instructions of what I wanted. I opted to do this because I wasn’t looking for proofreaders as I had a copy editor lined up for after the beta reading process; after all, I suspected I would be making additional changes after the beta reading process, which was quite accurate. The instructions also include two links to a Survey Monkey questionnaire, where I asked specific questions about their reading experiences. It was two surveys because Survey Monkey free only allows eight or ten questions per survey, and I am a cheapskate.

I selected Dropbox as the distribution point, hoping it would provide added security from theft and more control over my manuscript. Additionally, I hoped my readers would utilize the comment feature that Dropbox has, which I have used through work to mark my magazine when I’m not in-office, and leave comments as they read. Oh, the best laid plans of mice in men …  (More on that below)

When readers finished, they would then leave Dropbox and go to Survey Monkey and answer the questions, thirteen total. I set it up so beta readers could be anonymous (I thought perhaps they would more freely say whatever they wanted to), though most chose to give away their identities when answering. All readers that completed the process, minus one who chose to answer everything via Facebook Messenger, completed the Survey Monkey questionnaires. Their answers varied from extensive and extremely helpful to monotone answers — once again the nature of the game — that I then had to politely request a little additional information via Facebook Messenger.

Over all, I felt that the process went smoothly; however, there were hiccups.

WHAT I WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY

Dropbox proved to be a stumbling block in the beta reading process with my beta readers having trouble leaving comments on the PDF. Often times, they would leave a comment in the general section, pictured above, rather than anchor it to a specific section that they were talking about.

For one thing, next time I embark on the beta reading process, I’m not going to use Dropbox as the dispersal method. I discovered — during the process — much to be chagrin that its mobile app does not have a comment button! This led to much confusion and was only heightened by the fact that the online version of Dropbox, accessible by computer, also proved too challenging for beta readers who would leave comments about a specific sections, only they had failed to anchor it with the cursor to that specific section. So I ended up with specific comments that I had no idea where they belonged in terms of the story. I was able to work with the one beta reader to get them to anchor the comments; however, the others were unable to utilize the comment features at all.

Next time, I will use Google Drive as it offers an easier comment set up that is also available via its mobile app. One thing I discovered was that beta readers wanted to use mobile apps to read and leave comments with, so Google Drive is the option for me from now on.

I did have some frustration that my instruction to not proof was ignore, but that is a very minor grievance and did not effect the process as much as the Dropbox fiasco did. I was very please with Survey Monkey, though a few times it forgot to tell me a new response had come in, but once again that was very, very minor in the grand scheme of things. I would recommend its use.

Beta Reading Series

This is the first part of a four-part series about lessons I learned via the beta reading process. Part II will explore readers vs. writers as beta readers. Part III will delve into using the beta reading process to gather data and then how to process that data while the final part will share where I stand now and where I’m going post-beta reading. I hope you stick around and feel free to ask me any questions about my experience.

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