How to Get the Most from Your Beta Readers

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

I highly recommend participating in a critique group. You can improve your own craft as you critique your partners’ work often as much as you can by receiving their feedback on your work. But this can’t replace the value of having several beta readers review your complete manuscript.

First, decide in advance that you’re going to be the kind of writer who appreciates even the toughest feedback because it will make you a better writer.

Then set your goal to have a variety of beta readers. Choose one who is in your target audience, perhaps a follower on your author Facebook page, a frequent commenter on your blog, or a subscriber to your newsletter. Develop friendships with other readers in your genre who might be good prospects. Look for those who contribute savvy comments on other author blogs.

Also, connect with published authors at writers conferences and on their blogs. Often they are gracious to give forward to newer writers the help they received early in their careers. They can offer valuable guidance for making your book marketable.

You might have only one chance to get their feedback, especially from published authors because they’re busy writing and promoting their own books too. Respect their time while also getting the most out of your beta reader experience by giving them a list of questions you want them to focus on.

Here is a suggested list.

Ask them broad developmental questions like these:

  • Were the main character, her main struggle, and her goal introduced effectively in the first chapter of your novel?
  • Is the issue to be addressed and the proposed solution for your nonfiction book clearly stated in the first chapter?
  • Did you get hooked on the first page?
  • Does your novel drag in the middle?
  • Was there a point where you lost interest?
  • Were you satisfied at the end of the book?

Go on to ask questions about the content:

  • Did you overlook an important piece of information?
  • Does your nonfiction book deliver what it promises? Did you resolve the main character’s inner conflict satisfactorily by the end of the book?
  • Are any of your words, descriptions, or cultural mores inappropriate for the setting of your historical novel?

Finally, ask more specific questions such as:

  • Was the main character inconsistent at any point in the story?
  • Did the dialogue sound appropriate for the setting and characters?
  • Does the book need tightening anywhere?
  • Is your voice consistent?

When you get their feedback, you might discover varied and possibly even conflicting feedback, but that’s good and needn’t be confusing. Consistent comments from them confirm areas needing improvement. Then you decide to apply the remaining tracking corrections or comments, based on whether you think they strengthen the book. You’re the author and it’s your product.

Afterward, note the types of problems each of them finds and record that information on a tracker for future reference. For example, when you work on  POV issues in your next book, you’ll know which beta reader’s review of your current book to consult to get tips.

Don’t forget to be generous in showing your appreciation for the time they spent reading your whole manuscript and giving you feedback. Send a generous gift card, a promise of an acknowledgement in the book, and a copy of the book when it is published.

How will you select beta readers in the future as a result of these tips? If you have used beta readers in the past, were they all the same type—target audience, readers in your genre, or published authors—or did you have a variety? Have you given your beta readers specific aspects to focus on in the past?


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21 Responses

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  1. Great thoughts, Mary. Rather doubt I will have need of betas in the future, but I would like to take this opportunity to thank those I have had – some of whom may be reading this.
    * Your encouragement meant the world to me. I will tell God about you.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Andrew, it sounds like you are having a hard day. It’s time for all of us to circle round you, praying and seeking God’s special grace and intervention for you. I know I will be. You are a blessing to all of us.

  2. Amber Skyze says:

    I’ve been following this blog for two years and lately I’ve been getting a ton of useful information. Strange it’s my thirty-fifth book, but it doesn’t make me any less scared. This will be the first time using a beta reader. Thanks so much.

  3. Mary, I have a question about one thing you said: “You’re the author and it’s your product.” The more I interact with agents, editors, publishers, etc., the less I am holding to this opinion. I am developing a view that says it is “our product” and it is very much a team production. I write content, while Sylvia edits that content, Preston designs artwork, Mary negotiates contracts and watches my back, Eaton assists with a marketing plan… Everyone contributes in some way to our product, and success for me means success for them.

    Your thoughts on this? Am I way off base?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Damon, you aren’t way off base. Authors do indeed have a team as you describe, but at the stage when beta readers review it, the author doesn’t have this team involved, except perhaps the agent. An author can choose to take a beta reader’s advice or not. Once a publisher contracts your book, they obtain the rights to your work, and at this stage their editorial advice carries more weight.

  4. Beta readers are really hard to find. So when I discover someone who is willing to read a whole book, I snatch them up regardless of their age or demographic. They are very helpful indeed! Yes, sometimes they send conflicting opinions, but even that is an exercise that is valuable because I have to then figure out what is best for the story.

    • I have had this experience as well – conflicting feedback – and often it is just a matter of personal taste. “I love that illustration!” coupled with “I cannot grasp why you chose that illustration.” Difficult to know what to do with that. However, sometimes the conflicting feedback is a clear sign that I need to do a better job of X, Y, or Z. Perhaps I need more backstory, or I need to tie the illustration to the point being made. No matter how I slice it, I did not get the response from the reader that I was aiming for, and I am inclined to lay the blame for that at my feet. It was my task to get them from point A to point B, and I failed to do so.

  5. Carol Ashby says:

    Off topic, but Andrew’s having another horrible day after a terrible night. Prayers appreciated.

  6. Carol Ashby says:

    I’ve had 18 betas who’ve each read some of the five finished manuscripts. Ages range from 30s to late 70s. All have made very useful comments. Some much preferred the original omniscient versions of the first three with more formal sentences and more narration, but we have to craft to current market style.
    *I have 3 who are my go-to betas now. All are women who read a lot. Two love both classic and modern POV styles. All are wise women who understand the painful struggles of real men and women. I do throw my characters into terribly difficult situations, and my betas help me keep their responses realistic. One is a superb proof-reader; she could be a line editor. One works with international students and asks questions about cultural nuances in my historicals. One beta-reads for highly regarded trad-published authors.
    *My marvelous critique partner writes so well herself that she’s semifinaled, finaled, and won contests with her novels, including some ACFW. I met her through comments on an agency blog.
    *I ask my betas is to point out EVERYTHING that could be improved, and they do. It’s only the negative comments that help me make it better, and I crave them. My novels are SO much better because of my betas, and I thank God for them!

  7. Carol Ashby says:

    I try to make the beta job easier by sending the novel in 4-to-6-chapter chunks after I do the first tightening edit on the finished manuscript. It’s easier for them to give me fast turn-around with the shorter units, and it’s easier for me to compare everyone’s suggestions as I fold in their comments and tighten the manuscript again.

  8. My crit partner and I do very well together, and blend humour in with our more serious notes to each other. She writes historical as well, so we speak each other’s language.
    But my “first pass the post” beta reader is a chain smoking, Roman Catholic Acadienne, ear burning cusser, and hockey mom, who is also Debbie Macomber’s biggest fan. THAT fact I would not have put in the same hemisphere as Monique Levert (Leh-VARE).
    Monique has a eye for storyline, an ear for dialogue, and an incredible way of digging out and analyzing stuff I never intended to include, but she found it. Her intelligence is astounding. When I get her notes back, I often wonder if she missed her calling.
    That she does not hear or speak “Christianese”, and does not read any other CBA fiction is most valuable. Why? Because I want to tell the story in such a manner that a non-Evangelical won’t be tripped up by any commonly used phrases, and she’ll be quick to ask what something as benign as “lean on God’s will” means. Not that she doesn’t understand, but she challenges me to write that intent in words that speak more broadly.
    I want and expect her to shred each and every weak and feeble sentence. I’d rather toughness come from her, and my other betas, than some poor reader who gets stumped by an otherwise innocent phrase.
    As for an acknowledgment? I named two characters in Books 1 and 3 after Francois and Monique Levert. Yup, Frank and Monica Green.

  9. Loyd Uglow says:

    Mary, this post has been particularly helpful to me since I’ve not known much about the practice of using beta readers. Thanks to you and to the folks who’ve left comments about their own experiences with beta readers. Now I know at least where to begin.

  10. Rita Monette says:

    Thank you Mary for your great suggestions for questions to ask my beta readers. Although I was already using a few of them, I see how I can expand them in order to challenge my readers to delve deeper into the content!

  11. Mary, this was a great post. I used beta readers for my last book. I had three, two of whom were straight readers, and one who was a writer. They all gave me fabulous feedback that helped me strengthen my book. I asked them to answer nine different questions about character, plot and flow of the story. Each had insights and suggestions that strengthened the story.
    *My beta readers were in my target audience, which I think is partially why their feedback was so helpful.
    *I liked your questions. I think I’ll put them on my list for future books. 🙂

  12. Carol Ashby says:

    Without me asking, my regular beta readers make very specific comments throughout the manuscript in addition to overall comments and impressions, When someone beta-reads for me for the first time, I ask them to flag the following in the manuscript, and I get super-useful detailed feedback.
    1) Anything confusing in the flow of the plot.
    2) Any place it moves too slowly so it’s getting boring.
    3) Too much info not related to the story line.
    4) Anything that feels incomplete in some way (too little info, too little time spent on a key event or emotional development).
    5) Anything repetitive.
    6) Any place where the writing feels awkward or could be expressed better.
    7) Anything that narrows the story’s appeal to a broad audience that could be changed without diluting the message.
    8) Anything else that I need to work on or fix.
    9) Anything that touched or moved you. (I do like to hear what’s good as well as bad.)
    I write romantic historicals that are also novels of spiritual transformation. Hence the following question:
    10) Anything about the spiritual discussions or the growth to decision of the character that feels unreal/forced.
    I always want to know what someone is looking for, so I like to provide the list that would help me beta-read.

  13. Cynthia Kumanchik says:

    I belong to a writers’ group and have gained valuable insight into my manuscript’s characters and plot which helped me rewrite my beginning from a new perspective.

    In addition to fellow writers, friends and family, I’ve discovered KIDLIT411 Manuscript Swap where writers can exchange their manuscripts with other authors, mostly PB or MG.