How to Work With Beta Readers and Stay Sane

“Your use of the word ‘bloke’ is a mess,” Lincoln wrote to me over Facebook chat. I met Lincoln when I was on campus at Macquarie University, just outside of Sydney.  I did my junior year abroad there seemingly a million years ago. Lincoln gave me some very detailed notes, with page numbers and suggestions. And this is why he’s an awesome beta reader.

I am currently writing the prequel to my novel Beside the Music.  In Beside the Music, an 80s metal band from Australia moves in with an American couple in Rhode Island while they record their comeback album.  The band was once uber-famous, and that’s what the prequel, Before the Music, is about—the band’s rise to fame and the secrets that bassist Keith Kutter had to keep on his way to the top.  It’s told from Keith’s perspective and takes place in and around Sydney; as you can imagine Australian slang is completely different than American. Now, I could google Australian slang, watch Outback Steakhouse commercials, and wing it—or I could have an actual Australian who speaks Australian help me get it right.

Writing is such a solitary activity, but to take a story from good to great it’s actually a community effort.  As I am writing a book, I can see what the characters look like, what their homes look like, what their voices sound like.  But if I don’t put that on the page, the reader has no idea what is in my head. Beta readers help me to get all those details out of my head and onto the page.  And this is where my other beta reader, Gail Ward Olmsted came in. Gail made an excellent point in her notes when she asked, “What does Keith look like?” I skimmed through the book and realized I hadn’t described him at all.  I picture him as sort of a Michael Hutchence from INXS with the wavy hair and the leather pants dancing on MTV to “Need You Tonight” with his shirt off. But the reader could be envisioning him as something different—maybe he looks like Elvis Costello, or Jon Bon Jovi circa 1987, in their mind’s eye.

And this is why as authors we need beta readers.  We need honest readers who can take a critical eye to our work and help accurately convey what we have designed for the scene and story.  Here are some tips for selecting and working with beta readers. The quality of your work depends on these relationships, but you also need to stay sane along the way.  It is possible to have it both ways, here’s how.

Tip 1: First determine what you are looking for in your beta readers.  Are you looking for someone to say they love it, or are you looking for someone to pick apart your work to help you improve?  If you are thinking of asking your friends and family to beta read, make sure that they are comfortable giving you constructive criticism and that you are comfortable receiving it from them.  Let’s not make the next holiday dinner awkward by picking your Aunt Helen to beta if she’s not the right reader for you, or you may get a side of sass with the mashed potatoes at the table.

Tip 2: Your beta readers come from different walks of life, use that to your advantage.  In my case, I asked my Australian friend to beta, and I was very specific with him. I wanted him to read for authentic use of Australianese.  Nobody in Australia “throws shrimp on the barbie.” They cook on a barbie, that’s legit, but shrimp are called prawns there. I have little idea about what Lincoln thinks about the overall arc of the story, but his insight for when it’s appropriate to use the word “bloke” is priceless.

Tip 3: Give your different readers different jobs.  If you ask five people to read your story, guess what’s going to happen.  You’re going to get five different opinions on how you can improve. And those five different opinions will likely clash with each other.  Then you’re stuck with trying to figure out whose opinion is the most valid. I asked my other friend Gail, who has authored four books of her own, to give me her overall thoughts on the story arc and characters.  She gave me feedback on the main characters and offered ideas for improvement. Like Keith’s wife, Tamsen, starts out as this cool cat who is very supportive of Keith’s endless months on the road. Then she seems to pull a 180 and become jealous and controlling later on in the story.  Gail told me she got whiplash from that sudden change. Now I know I need to plant more seeds earlier in the story to make that behavior change in Tamsen make more sense. See? Her job was different than Lincoln’s job, which ultimately makes implementing their ideas so much easier.

Tip 4: If you’re finding you’re getting similar advice from different readers, get it organized first.  Getting feedback from your betas can be overwhelming. If you’re getting different ideas to improve your characters from multiple people, then add those tips to your character sketch and see what ideas you want to keep and what you want to toss.  You don’t have to take all of their suggestions, but it’s up to you to sift through your notes and keep what makes sense. By organizing it, you can see what you have to work with before slashing and burning your manuscript.

Tip 5: It’s not personal, it’s about the work.  Your beta readers should only be commenting on your work, and you should only be interpreting their feedback as it relates to the work.  When Lincoln told me that my use of the word “bloke” was a mess, he wasn’t calling me a mess. Grow a layer of armor over your skin and dig in—your characters and readers will thank you!


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