Hello and welcome to the newly updated Write Despite. Cathy and I have finally given our blog a facelift. Yeah, it was long overdue. Please poke around the redesigned pages, take note of our tweaked mission statement, and share your feedback.
To kick off the redesign, novelist Randy Overbeck shares his take on the care, feeding, and invaluable contributions of early-stage readers.
Take it away Randy:
I’ve spoken with a number of authors who have raised questions about beta readers. To clarify, when we say beta readers, we’re referring to readers who read an early manuscript, either in part or whole, and provide feedback. Some writers find these early readers unreliable, unhelpful, or sometimes even distracting.
For me, beta readers have been an integral part of bringing my manuscripts to fruition. Over the past several years, I’ve developed a process involving beta readers that has provided insights about my work I could never have gotten on my own. Along the way, I’ve learned a few lessons about what works—and what doesn’t—when it comes to beta readers:
You’re going to need more than one. I’ve found it helpful to have several individuals respond to my early work. Over the years I’ve cultivated a cadre of 10-12 readers. Since I want to learn how different readers might respond, it’s helpful to solicit multiple readers. I often get different perspectives and varying insights. I’ve also learned that some beta volunteers don’t end up actually reading my manuscript; life gets in the way, and I understand that. Recruiting several betas insures I can get the feedback I’m looking for.
Beta readers don’t substitute for a writer’s critique group. My beta readers are not writers; they’re readers. I don’t ask my beta readers to check my grammar—though there is usually one grammar Nazi in the group who likes to do this—improve my style or check on my voice or tense. I ask them to respond as readers, to aspects like plot and character or setting. Did anything catch their eye or stop them in their tracks or interfere with their reading?
Beta readers need to know what you expect of them. When I share a section of my manuscript, I try to be very specific with what I want betas to respond to. Along with the pages, they receive a set five to six questions. (As a long-time educator, my habit of giving homework lives on.) Of course, one of these questions is always very open-ended, so betas can share whatever they want to say. My betas seem to appreciate the direction, and I usually get the feedback I’m looking for.
Like everything else in life, beta readers do best with a set timeline. I’ve learned that my beta readers respond better when I give them an expected date to complete their review, usually about two weeks. Some will read the manuscript in a day or two and respond immediately, while others will wait until the “deadline” to finish their reading and respond.
It’s important your readers aren’t simply “yes men.” (Please forgive the gender blunder.) When I recruit beta readers, I try to make sure I have readers who will not be afraid to give me bad news. “That scene did not work.” “That description was too much. I found myself skimming to get to the action.” I’m careful to receive their responses, especially critical ones, in a positive manner. I encourage my betas to be candid and let them know that’s why I’m giving them an advance peak at my writing.
When possible, I try to give beta readers a chance to come together and discuss their reading and responses. (This was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, of course.) Over the years, I’ve tried to arrange a get-together—usually after work at a quiet restaurant—for local betas. They seem to enjoy comparing responses and, once they start discussing aspects about the narrative, they often provide me more than what they’ve written down. Also, some betas simply like to tell me some things face-to-face.
I’m confident that insights from my beta readers have helped make my writing clearer, more engaging and more accurate. I acknowledged their contributions at the start of both my published novels. I wouldn’t dream of writing my next mystery without their feedback. And… I’m always looking for new beta readers, so feel free to reach out.
FB: Author Randy Overbeck