Writing with Joey: Part 10

In an attempt to further understand myself, share my brain with the wide abyss of the internet, and also make my blog look more dynamic and updated, I’m doing a series of blog posts that describe the various parts of my writing process.

Catch all of the entries under the tag “Writing with Joey,” which one day might make it as the best-ever after-school special for really, really intelligent dogs and cats.

Part 10: The Beta Read

This part is a pretty big part, hence a pretty big post.

For me, beta-reading is a really structured process because I want specific things out of beta-reading. However, in general, beta-reading is when you have someone read your stuff before it’s all polished and ready for more detailed editing work. Here’s a great breakdown of some times of editing/review work, including beta-reading. I’m not going to go into it right now, since that’s not what this post/series is about.

Finding Beta Readers

I have a really beloved following of readers, so I am never really lacking in that department. If you don’t have anyone to beta-read for you, I recommend checking out some writerly forums. AbsoluteWrite is a great place to start. Here’s another good blog post about finding beta-readers. You might also look into checking local libraries and/or coffee shops for writer groups. Having a core group of people to go to when you’re looking for beta readers is an invaluable resource.

Qualifications

OK, that’s a scary word, I guess, but really, I do have some qualifications when I choose beta-readers. And they are thus:

  1. Must be someone who likes to read. Duh.
  2. Must be someone who is at least marginally interested in the genre that I am writing. There’s no point in having someone who never reads fantasy beta-read a fantasy book.
  3. Must be someone who knows that they are beta-reading and is interested in the specific task of beta-reading. You can’t just shove your book at someone and say “Hey read this!” and expect that they’re going to be mentally prepared to depose for you afterwards. Even if you give them $5.

Group demographics

I also am and can afford to be a little picky when it comes to selecting beta-readers, but I suggest it anyway even if you are not sure where to start. I always call for a mix of male and female readers, and I pretty much require them to be in my target age-range. I don’t mind giving manuscripts to older or younger people to read, but it’s important to me that I know where my reader is coming from so that I can appropriately interpret their feedback.

I also have this thing where I try to mix old readers with fresh-faced, brand-new ones. Usually I’ll ask my usual beta readers if they have any interested friends. I always get some of the best feedback from people who don’t know me and haven’t read anything I’ve written before.

My group of beta-readers is usually about 3-7 people.

Process

So what I do is I let them know it’s coming and confirm they’re still interested in beta-reading for me. I also usually offer them compensation in the form of illustrations. Or candy. Beta-readers love candy.

Then, when the time comes, I send out a PDF of the manuscript with some legal preamble saying don’t steal my stuff or send it to anyone. I only send this to trusted people and I suggest you do the same.

I also send out an overview of what I’m looking for and the state of the text they’re about to read: i.e. that it’s a DRAFT and I don’t want spelling errors checked or my grammar being fixed. For me, beta-reading is about the overall feel and impressions from the story and the characters. Since most of the text will be reviewed from a copy-editing standpoint later, I don’t want to make any changes now or ask people to waste their time with a red pen when the text will most likely be changed. However, some people want line-editing during the beta-read. Clarifying what I want out of this makes everyone less stressed out.

I also include an optional questionnaire. This is really helpful, I find, in guiding my beta-readers to the specific feedback I want. Usually this includes a quick recap of their demographic information, what kind of books they usually read/like, etc. It also has a few generic questions about what they liked and didn’t like, and finally, has some manuscript-specific questions about things I might be particularly concerned about. Like, “Did the twist-ending take you by surprise or were you kind of expecting it?

Feedback

The feedback usually comes in an array of forms. A lot of times, if the reader is local, I’ll take them out to lunch and basically interview them. It’s super intense, not gonna lie. But they get free food out of it. Sometimes I’ll get the questionnaires back answered essay style and sometimes I get emails with feedback in narrative form.

The most important thing here, I think, is that you (or me, or whoever) as the author needs to be ready for this feedback. You’re asking these people to take time out to read your book in more than just an entertainment-seeking capacity. The worst thing you can do is freak out about something critical they have to say.

Okay, I mean really, receiving critical feedback with grace is a whole blog post of its own, but I really think it needs to be said. Not everyone is skilled in giving feedback – especially critical feedback – so if you get something that hurts your feelings, you’re just gonna have to digest it. I think it’s usually really safe to say, though, that anything critical that comes back is about the manuscript, not about you.

ALWAYS thank your beta-readers for their time and feedback, even if you don’t like it or agree with it. NEVER act like their opinions don’t matter, because why did you ask them to beta-read for you if you didn’t want their opinion? And finally, even if some piece of critical feedback makes your stomach hurt when you think about it, just set it aside and maybe once you’ve cooled off, take a look at it. You might be surprised.