Beta Tank #5: Listening to Your Betas

So I made one post and then I realized that it was actually closer to being about how I approach edits and not necessarily how I deal with my beta readers. That version’s gone to the big draftbin until I decide to do an editing post. But for now, here’s the–I think–final beta post, take two!


Sorry for the late Twin Thursday! My ankle had a minor disagreement with the curb a few days ago. The curb won. But I’m on the mend and getting back on track! For today’s post with Rachel of Chicken-Scratch Plot, we’re looking at what to do once your feedback has come in.

  1. Listen. We’ve said a lot about setting up the relationship with your beta, establishing expectations, keeping them to a schedule. But the flipside of that is that your beta reader deserves your respect right back. They’re giving you their honest feedback. They’re donating their time and attention to your project. Now that their share of the work is done, return the courtesy by listening to what they have to say. Even if you don’t necessarily agree with all of their suggestions, the last thing you want is for your reader to feel like they’ve wasted their time. Take their advice to heart and give it serious consideration.
  2. Ask questions. If you aren’t sure what a beta is trying to say, ask them to expand on it. Odds are, it’s perfectly clear to them but just somehow got lost in translation. Take the time to ask questions and clear up anything that you’re hazy about. Also ask about the story as a whole, their experience reading it, if anything was particularly memorable. Opening a channel of dialogue leaves a pathway for your beta to expand on things they may not have thought of upon first reading. This isn’t just for your benefit; it also keeps the beta engaged and shows that their work is appreciated.
  3. Assume they’re acting in good faith. Especially when you’re dealing with a written medium, it’s easy for things to come across the wrong way. We’re a largely non-verbal society. Body language and tone of voice often says more than the words themselves. If a comment comes across abrasive, assume at first that it’s just poorly phrased and ask the beta to clarify what they meant.
  4. Keep an open mind. Your beta doesn’t know the story like you do. For even the most diligent beta reader or your closest critique partner, your manuscript isn’t their baby the way that it’s yours. Yes, that means that they aren’t as familiar with the minutiae as you are, but it also means that your beta is uniquely situated to look for solutions that wouldn’t be readily available to you. But you can’t hear those solutions if you dismiss comments out of hand.
  5. Thank, thank, thank! Remember, they did a big favor for you! If they’re writers, too, you may offer to return the gesture one day. If they’re not, find another way to show your appreciation, no matter how small it may be. Ending the relationship well leaves the door open to maybe work together on another project or to create a lasting friendship. A good number of my closest friends and I got started in exactly this way.

Beta Tank #4: Getting Your Fishies’ Worth

It’s time for another Twin Thursday with Rachel of Chicken-Scratch Plot (formerly Undivinelight, but I’m a dunce!), so be sure to click over there to read her take once you’re done here!

For today, we’re looking at how to get the absolute most out of your beta readers. A lot of this will be subjective; what works with one reader may not with another. So, with that in mind! Here are a few things to work out with your beta to be sure it’s a good fit for you both.

  1. Set the expectations. Are you looking for liner notes? Big-picture concerns? Pages of write-ups? Quick comments jotted in the margins? This is important for both of you; first to set up for your beta what’s expected and secondly so that you can make sure that what they’re offering and capable of meets your needs.
  2. Set up a schedule. I know, I know, you don’t want to be a bother. Your fishies are doing you a big favor by even giving your story a look. The last thing you want to do is nag them, right? That’s where the schedule comes in handy. If they agree to have chapters 1-5 done by next weekend and the whole story finished by the end of next month, then you don’t have to worry about pestering them for it. It also gives the beta a graceful way to bow out if they can’t accommodate it.
  3. Open the channels of communication. Establish whether you want regular communication with your betas or if either of you wants to be left alone until the work is done. Your beta may have questions or concerns along the way, and you’ll want to decide up front how to handle some of them.

Beta Tank 03: Flush That Fish!

Hey, all! It’s another Twin Thursday, so be sure to check out my buddy Rachel’s post at Undivinelight!

This week, we’re looking at the rotten side of the beta world. I wish I could say all beta relationships are uniformly positive, but sometimes it’s just not a good matchup. It happens from time to time that either a reader isn’t a good fit for the story or that something in the relationship between you goes sour. Neither’s a good thing. So here’s a few things to watch for to see if a beta may not be working out and how you can let that fishie off the hook.

  1. Disinterest/vagueness. I put these two together because I find they usually tend to happen at the same time. If a reader’s not interested in your story, they’re not going to be particularly invested in providing you feedback. They might do it out of a sense of obligation or a desire to be helpful, but to be completely honest the notes you’ll get from them will probably not be all that useful. This is when you get comments like, “It was good, I guess,” or “I don’t really remember it well.”

    This kind of response is okay; remember, not everyone is going to like your book even after it’s professionally edited and published. Thank the reader for their time and let them know that they don’t have to finish. Before you let them go, see if you can dig a little deeper into the bit of reading they did accomplish. Where did they lose interest? Is it just not their kind of story? Was there not enough action or not enough at stake?

  2. Aggressiveness. A beta who fights with you or is pushy with their opinions is not one that you want to continue working with. This isn’t the same as a beta saying something you don’t want to hear–sometimes the best notes for the story are the hardest to accept and implement. But if their critiques come across more as insults or if they fight you on the direction you’re taking for the story, it may be time to say goodbye. You’re not writing by committee.
    Now, I’m probably the worst person in the world to deal with a pushy beta. I tend to be pretty non-confrontational by nature. I don’t like making people upset. In this case, I usually try to talk it out with the beta first, to say that the behavior’s not appreciated and not helpful. I let them know that, if it continues, I’m booting them from the process. So far, I haven’t had anyone push me hard enough to actually do it? But it does make me feel more comfortable to know I have a backup plan.
  3. German shepherds. Now, before you go “Whaaaat?”, let me explain. A mentor of mine in grad school had this concept for workshop called a German shepherd. It’s basically when the beta or workshopper reads your story and goes, “Yeah, this would be better with a dog in it.” Even if the story has absolutely nothing to do with dogs. Essentially, it’s when the beta tries to turn your story into something you don’t want it to be. Say, if you were writing a historical romance set during World War II, and they wanted it to be more of an action/adventure a la Valkyrie.

    Much like the aggressive beta, see first if you can correct the behavior. Ask why it is they think your story would benefit from more X or less Y, and then explain that you don’t want to take it that direction. Usually I find that’s enough to keep a beta on task. Heck, sometimes the dog’s a good one and you might end up working it into a story. But if it becomes a recurring problem, you might ask them to step aside on the project, but hopefully it doesn’t come to that.

  4. Inability to give positive feedback. This isn’t the same as wanting them to only give you compliments or to never tell you what needs fixed. I mean people who consistently and steadfastly refuse to look for good things. What the readers like or find well-done is just as important because it helps you hone and perfect those things. Writing is hard enough without getting nothing back but the negative.
    If you have a reader who does this, encourage them to use the critique sandwich. This method essentially forces them to give one or two things that they enjoyed, then a few suggestions for improvement, and finish up with a few more things that they enjoyed. It’s not an ideal solution, but it may help a reticent beta actually look for places that your work is successful. If that doesn’t work, it may be time to say goodbye to this fishie. You don’t need that kind of endless negativity.
  5. Failure to follow directions. This is a biggie. At different stages of the beta process, you’re going to need different kinds of critique. Early on when the story is raw and needs a little TLC, you’re going to need people to give you high-level feedback. General notes and feelings on the story as a whole or individual chapters or scenes. You need people who can look at character arcs and subplots over the course of the story. You’re not going to want sentence-level or nitpicky notes right now. Now, it’ll be a different story once the work is more polished and you want those very exacting critiques, and your betas have to be able to tailor their feedback to fit your needs, or at least to be willing to try.

    To be fair, this might just be an issue of miscommunication. But if, after multiple corrections and redirections, it doesn’t seem to be improving, this is another reader you may want to let go. Betas are there to make your job easier; you shouldn’t have to babysit them for that to happen.

Beta Tank 02: Fishies Worth Their Salt

Hope everyone’s week has been good! I’m back with more insight on beta readers with my lovely twin poster, Rachel of Undivinelight. Be sure to check out hers, too!

So last week we looked at what a beta reader does and what their primary responsibilities are. They’re deceptively simple, actually: read the story and give feedback on it. But not all betas are created equal. How do you know if you’ve got a good one? Here are five things to look for in an ideal beta reader.

  1. Reliability: Let’s face it; it doesn’t do much good to send your story out to a hundred beta readers if 95% of them forget to read your work. Or got busy playing Pokemon Go. Or just made a tiny human and didn’t realize it would cut their sleep and free time down to non-existent. None of these things necessarily make a bad beta, just less than ideal. You want to know that the people you’re sending your story to are going to actually get back to you. Even if an emergency arises or plans change, you need to be able to trust that your beta will keep you in the loop.
  2. Honesty: You also need to be able to trust that your readers are giving you their honest opinion of your work. Asking your spouse or your mom to read can be a very good thing, especially if you’re like me and routinely need reassurance that it’s not a puddle of dog drool. But it’s just as important to know that they’re not simply saying it’s good because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. You need the full range of their response, the good, bad, and ugly.
  3. Courtesy: This might seem like a contradiction, coming on the heels of #2, but the two actually go hand in hand. While you do need someone who will tell you where your story is less than stellar, you need them to be able to do it without being insulting. There’s a big difference between, “This was slow as hell!” and “I found my attention wandering here.”
  4. Precision: In an ideal world, you’ve got someone who has a certain amount of experience at close-reading and can tell you exactly where something is off. But if nothing else, a beta should be able to point at a chapter or a character arc and say that something’s not working for them. Vaguely if not precisely, though the more detail they can give you about their reading experience, obviously the better. “It was good” or “I didn’t like it” does you not a whit of good when you’re trying to find ways to fix your story.
  5. Investment: The most important thing I’ve found in a beta reader is that they’re invested in the story and genuinely want to see it improve. These are the ones that I’ve found are more likely to give in-depth feedback and to stick with a project through the end. Now, it does depend a little on if you just want a one-time beta to get some instant feedback and don’t want them to see the project again. For my own experience, though, I’ve had the most success working with a group of two to three other people who all love the story and are committed to helping me make it shine.

Next week, five things you don’t want your beta to do, or when it’s time to flush that fish!

Beta Tank #1: A Bit About Betas

For today’s–slightly late, sorry!–Twin Thursday, Rachel and I will be talking about beta readers. Who they are, what they do, and how to find a good one. This will be the first of an ongoing series, if all goes well. Be sure to head over to her blog at Undivinelight to see her take! (Also, don’t worry–I haven’t forgotten about Agent Hunt! I do plan on getting back to it once life settles!)

First, what is a beta? A beta, or beta reader, is a person who reads an early draft of your story or novel and gives you feedback to improve it. Ideally, they’re going into it blind with no expectations of what the story is about or any spoilers. I know it’s tempting to talk about the BRILLIANT thing you came up with for chapter four, but try not to tell them. You want an honest first reaction to it.

Much as we as writers like to think otherwise, we don’t catch everything. We can’t; we’re just too close to the work to see its flaws. Therefore, a beta’s primary responsibility is to respond to the story on the level of a layperson. If they happen to be well-versed in craft, so much the better; it can only help you if they’re able to say, for example, that your pacing here is slow or the tension in this arc is lacking. But, on the whole, they’re reading for comprehension, flow, and appeal. Is the story too long or too short? Predictable? Nonsensical? Are there plot-holes or unresolved threads? Sections where your characterization slips? These are among the things a beta should be told to look for.

The other thing you’ll want to ask your betas for is to pay attention to the parts of the story they enjoyed. If the dialogue sparkled or if the villain scared them witless. It’s easy as a writer to dwell too long on the things we need to fix. It’s good sometimes to get some distance from that and follow up with some positive news.

Next week, I’ll hopefully talk about what makes a good beta reader and a few things to avoid. Happy wording!