Beta Readers – My Blueprint for getting the most from your readers

If you happened upon this post without reading its predecessor, it might be helpful if you read that first. You can find it here.

I don’t know why I didn’t do more research before jumping into the beta reader waters, but I didn’t. Not that everything I did was wrong. Some things I did right, or right enough. So I’ll be passing those things on as well as what I would do differently. Your goal with your readers is not just to discover where your weaknesses are. You also want to know its strengths. Why? Because you want to ensure you don’t leave those things on the cutting room floor. I didn’t realize that at first.

My blueprint for getting the most from your beta readers involves creating a fairly elaborate job posting. From my perspective, it really doesn’t matter if you are paying or going the free route, I believe spending the time to create the best job posting possible is worth it in the long run. Your goal is to attract the best possible readers and then get the most out of them. Even though I don’t have any experience with free services, common sense tells me you have no leverage over them to abide by your rules and requests. Paid readers must do what you ask or not get paid.

First, Write a Synopsis and a Book Blurb

Say what? If you do not intend to seek traditional publishing, to which I say don’t bother, technically you don’t need a synopsis. However, you really should make one for yourself. Writing a synopsis can be difficult, and that’s why you do it. It forces you to distill your book down to its essential elements. It will also provide clues and insight into the strength of your story.

Now, Tell Them About You and Your Book

Start With a Content Warning

Check out this article about content warnings. My book includes one because the content is not for all readers. When I solicited my first round of input, it never occurred to me that my book contained potentially offensive subject matter. If your reader is offended … not good. This first occurred in round one of beta readers. I felt really bad about my oversight. After that, I made sure potential readers were aware of the content.

However, there is a scene in my book where a seventeen-year-old boy grabs a girl of similar age between her legs. It’s quick, over and done with, and not a prelude to anything more. This bothered one of my readers so much, she had to take a break from reading. I honestly never considered it as assault. It is, but it didn’t hit my radar, possibly because it lasts a couple of seconds and it’s over.

This is my content warning: This book contains strong language, an instance of assault, nudity, alcohol use, sex, and scenes with explicit sexual references. Read with care.

It sounds like erotica, but it’s not. You never know for sure what may offend. I suggest being on the safe side. If you’ve just popped in and haven’t seen my book cover, three teens are facing away and are nude from the waist up. Initially, my cover designer refused to do it because she doesn’t do nude figures. After I clarified what I wanted, she agreed. To some degree, I’m sticking it out there by placing obviously nude figures on the cover of my book. For some it will deter, I’m sure. For some, it may entice, but my purpose was neither. My cover is a metaphor and appropriate for its content.

Write a Description of Your Book

You need to tell your beta readers something about your book, so you can mutually determine if they will be a good fit. The more you tell them the better. Ideally, you are looking for a reader who would be willing to pay you (buy) for the privilege to read it. If you have a romance novel, you probably don’t want a reader who craves a good space fantasy. This is where your synopsis and book blurb come in. If you go here, you’ll find my book description. It would have been immensely helpful if I’d written this from the start.

Unlike my book, yours likely fits nicely into a genre. Use that to your advantage. Certainly, be honest with your description. Otherwise, it would be self-defeating. But you do want an enticing description that conveys the strength of your book and characters. Feel free to compare it to Hunger Games if it does or any popular book. But if you go that route, you MUST tell how it’s unique and not some cookie-cutter clone.

In my next to last round of input, I provided them with this among other things:

This story takes place in 1995 in a real city in California. I spend little time describing their exterior world. There are a few reasons for the setting, but it could be Anywhere, USA and about your neighbors next door. World-building belongs to the characters and what’s happening in and around their lives. If this sort of thing will bore you, I suggest you pass. Reader engagement is necessary to get the feedback I’m looking for. So if you’re the kind of reader who needs a main character to identify with and root for, this isn’t that. With that said, most readers do find my characters engaging most of the time, but there have been exceptions.

As you can see, I’m trying hard to filter out certain types of readers.

Tell Something About Yourself

This is my third novel, but it’s the first I’ve felt worthy of publishing. I started learning the craft nine years ago, and I’m proud of this accomplishment. It’s been an interesting journey. This is my second round of beta testing, and I’m looking to see if I’ve strengthened its weaknesses. The first time around, I was primarily criticized for … you fill in the blank. I think it’s important for your readers to get a sense of who you are. If it’s your first attempt, I say tell them. Also, tell them you have been a fan of the genre for a number of years, but you’ve always had an issue with the way authors went about … fill in the blank. So instead of complaining, you set out to plug the hole. You don’t want to do this on your bio page or on the back of your book cover, but I think it’s appropriate for beta readers to get a sense of who you are with respect to your book.

Prepare Instructions for Your Readers

I did, but I could have done better. You’ll get the most from your readers if you provide them with clear and detailed instructions. You should give your instructions the same kind of care and attention you give to your novel. I would hope that you have an expectation of perfection when it comes to your creation. In the end, I’ll know I did everything I could to make it as good as possible.

Ask For In-line Comments

Most beta readers will do this as part of their service. At first, I didn’t care if they did or didn’t. But I discovered it adds a lot of value, and it can be entertaining. One of my readers wrote WHAT?? when she got surprised by something. Getting their impressions while they are reading will help you determine how engaged they are. You also want to know if there are areas of confusion, next topic, and this is a good way for your readers to annotate them.

Ask Them to Identify Confusion in Your MS

Instead of asking if your reader encountered any areas of confusion, tell them in your instructions to highlight them. Then, have them comment on why they were confused. Most of the confusion in my book came from readers not knowing who was speaking. I made a lot of changes to clear this up, including a preface to explain some things. What I believed to be a no-brainer, plagued me right into my last round. My preface is as follows:

Through several rounds of beta reading, this author discovered a decoder ring, of sorts, was needed for my characters. To remove all confusion, the following discussion will help you to distinguish who is speaking.

One character is a ghost. For reasons I hope will become apparent, the usual means for identifying when a character is speaking don’t apply to her, so some creativity was in order. She will introduce herself in the prologue, and she always speaks in brackets. {I’m Deb, a disembodied spirit.}

There is also horny-guy, Jason’s alter ego. He always uses ▪ to identify when he’s hanging around and making snide remarks. Horny-guy has been known to say things like … ▪ I can think of all kinds of ways to tutor Jennifer Conner. ▪

Toward the end of the story, I use italics, but it might spoil things if I tell you what they’re for. I trust you can figure it out easily enough, though.

All narration is through the eyes of the characters, changing often from scene to scene, each identifying which character is narrating. You’ll recognize their internal dialogue with a standard font in the present tense.

Assess the Complexity of Your Book

In my first round, I asked that when they started reading, it needed to become a priority for them. I didn’t want someone to start, get distracted by life, then pick it up a week later. As I mentioned in my other post, Outside These Walls is 50% dialogue. It is conversational. This is how the reader learns about the characters. Facts, backstory, motivations, etc. mostly come out in conversation, and the reader only gets one chance to record it in their minds, most of the time. One reader told me my book was full of plot holes. I’m sorry, but the only holes were in her head. I know there are none. I know my book inside and out. I’ll admit that every aspect and possible question isn’t answered, those that I didn’t, I didn’t feel were important enough to bother. I’m sidetracked. Sorry. My point is, you can ask anything from them, even to keep with it once they start.

Tell Them What You Don’t Want

I was not interested in their editorial opinions. And what I mean by that is I was not interested in nit-picking my choice of words or my sentence structure. Hardly a thing in my book is without purpose and design. I was not hiring an editor. If I wanted that, I would have looked in a different direction. The only person I would be willing to have edit my book is someone willing to publish it. Even then, I would have boundaries on that. Whether you should employ an editor will be the subject of another post.

Do NOT Ask for Proofreading … unless

Perhaps this needs its own post as well, but beta readers are not proofreaders. HOWEVER, I knew by my next to last read, my MS was VERY clean. I told them they would not find much, but if they saw something to please point it out. Out of ten readers, three errors were found. And those errors were introduced in my last edit and missed in my proofreading. It’s not fair to ask them to find your mistakes if your MS is riddled with them. In my current read, no errors out of two readers so far.

Build a list of questions you want answers to

And take your time doing it. Most beta readers have their own set of topics they’ll cover. One reason they do this is to help sell themselves. Even though you are going to make your own set of questions, looking at what they offer will give you an idea of how educated a reader they are. If they mention character arc, you can assume they know what that means. That’s a good thing, and you want someone like that. But hopefully, if you ask questions that go beyond their knowledge, they’ll pass on the job or have enough sense to look it up. That’s a good thing too.

I believe asking a set of questions helps to set the tone. And if you ask the right kinds of questions, your potential readers will have a sense that you’re not a rookie, even if you are. I was quite detailed in my first job posting, and I had a couple of responders mention how they appreciated it.

Identify Potential Weaknesses

At the end of my last post, I mentioned that you need to know potential weaknesses in your manuscript. But isn’t that why you’re having people read it in the first place? Yes, but why not ensure your potential weaknesses are addressed? I mentioned, in my last post, a character in Outside These Walls who stutters. I had him stutter for a couple of reasons. One, because it was one way to create a unique voice. Two, it was to show how nervous he got around a couple of girls. Not just any girls. These girls are the A-list of the A-list. And he … well he’s one of the unfortunate among us. But did I overdo it with him? In the beginning, he stutters a fair amount, but I taper it off as he becomes more comfortable. I k-know t-that t-too, t-too much of that will get old fast. I was happy to discover readers were fine with what I’d done. So you also want to find out what you did right with your questions.

You tried to make your characters unique, so you did this or that with them. But, did you make them impossible to believe? Wikipedia defines the suspension of disbelief as “… sometimes called willing suspension of disbelief, is the intentional avoidance of critical thinking or logic in examining something unreal or impossible in reality, such as a work of speculative fiction, in order to believe it for the sake of enjoyment.” I don’t read fantasy. In fact, there are a lot of things I don’t read. I don’t watch fantasy movies either. Some just go where my head can’t take me. These are the kinds of things you want to root out.

Here are the questions I asked on my first go-round. I could have done a better job.

  1. I used dialog tags sparingly. Assign a letter grade for clarity of who is speaking.
  2. Are the dialog designators for the ghosts, telepathy, and internal dialog between Jason and his alter ego clear to the reader?
  3. Are jumps in the timeline confusing? Is it clear when in time things are happening or referring?
  4. As the story jumps from one narrator to another, is it clear who’s narrating? Are six narrators distracting, or does it add?
  5. Do the different narrator’s style show through in the narration?
  6. Please assign a letter grade to showing vs telling. Suggestions for improvement are welcome.
  7. Please provide feedback on character development.
    • Are there any you hate?
    • Are there any you love?
    • Are there any you wish you knew more about?
    • How was the character arc?
    • Did I overdo Jen’s dialect?
    • Did I overdo Jason’s stuttering?
  8. Is offensive language used appropriately for the period and age of the characters?
  9. Please critique the story.
  10. Does the title work? Do you have any suggestions?
  11. Which genre would you assign this to?
  12. If you were to pick a protagonist, who would it be?

As you can see, most of my questions would not be relevant to you or anyone else. I’m sure some of my questions have you stumped. Why would he ask that? I asked eleven and twelve because my book doesn’t fit neatly into any genre, and it doesn’t have a central protagonist. Well, there is, but the protagonist is more of an idea than a character. I hope this gives you a good idea of what I mean by potential weaknesses. By the way, the lack of a central character was not an issue for most readers. Neither was not fitting into a specific genre.

Refine Your Questions

Questions lead to answers, but they can also lead to more questions. Never shy away from asking follow-up questions to individual readers. Dig until you’ve discovered whether or not you need to change your MS. This also goes for future rounds. You’ll be asking targeted questions at what you hoped you fixed as well as new ones that came from comments you incorporated.

Your Characters

Now, let’s dive into some that everyone might ask. Let’s start with your characters. Chances are, your book has a protagonist, so you want to know about the impressions this character makes. If you don’t have a character profile, you should make one. What you want to know is whether the profile you created in your head is the same as the one perceived by your readers. I suggest you do this for all the main characters. Save The Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody is a great resource for many aspects of writing, but I think she does especially well at describing the qualities of your story’s hero. I highly recommend it. I may even write an article about it.

And what about your villain? Too mean? Too nice? Too obnoxious? Find out.

Character arc. My question above is pretty broad. A better question might be as follows. On the subject of character arc, when Jason is introduced, he is a reclusive loner who, by his own admission, is a private person. By the end of the story, were you satisfied with his journey, discovering new heights as a young man?

If you ask if there was any they especially liked or disliked, you need to understand why. Except for the two readers who found no redeeming value in my book, my characters were well liked. And so you know, the well-liked ones were not the same for every reader. But instead of asking who they liked or disliked, try being more specific about aspects of your character you may be a bit unsure of. In my book, Kate has her redeeming qualities, but she can be a pain. She’s also nosey and a buttinsky. And you can add manipulator to that list. She is what she is, but I don’t want her hated. I want her to be accepted for her faults because of her positive attributes.

Ask About Your Story

If you ask a generalized question, that’s likely what you’ll get for an answer. In my last round, I believe I asked if they would have stopped reading if not paid to do so. Only you can determine what to do with that answer. If you ask that, you need to know why. It could be as simple as they weren’t suited despite your efforts to filter them out. This is going to happen, just as it will happen in real life.

Ask about your opening chapter. Perhaps ask them to grade it. How well have you done at getting them to read on?

Ask about engagement. Does it bog down? Maybe they weren’t ready to stop reading, but they hit a point of come on, come on. In one of my rounds, I asked if they ever reached a point they would have stopped if not being paid to do so. What was that point and why.

You want a satisfied reader, and that often comes with how you end your story. Ask if they were satisfied with your ending. Did they predict it if that is important to you.

Did they feel short-changed by something? My readers did. I didn’t ask, but they told me, fortunately. So ask.

Only you know your story, so only you can ask appropriate questions. Because I don’t know your story, I can only give you generalized questions. I think the more specific, the better information you will receive.

One final comment on questions. I do think you can go too far and turn off prospective readers. How far is too far? Use your judgment is all I can tell you. Would fifty questions be too many? I think so.

Encourage Communication

Position yourself for easy communication if at all possible. I have the luxury of being retired, and I’m on my laptop all day. Do all you can to be available to field questions or provide clarification. Let your readers know what time zone you’re in and when to expect responses or feedback.

Paid or Free?

Since I didn’t go the free route, I’m not qualified to unequivocally say. However, my gut says pay if you can. Just don’t pay more than $30 per reader. I’ve paid as little as $5 and $10.

Be Sure to Have Them Grade It.

Amazon uses a five-star system. That’s what you want. Have them tell you why they graded it as they did. I discovered that with certain changes I could have received a five instead of a three. How do I know? I asked. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should change your book because of one reader. What you should consider is whether their issue is reasonable and doable. And you certainly need to consider whether other readers had the same issue.


Be the first one to get notified for new posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *