I’ve recently finished finished my revisions after beta-testing my novel, Outliers, so I thought it would be a good time to share my process and some tips for beta-testing your own novel. Beta-testing has helped me a great deal with improving my novel, and I’m excited to say that I’m starting with professional editing at the beginning of February! My beta-readers have been wonderful, and hopefully this advice will help you to make the most of your beta-testing, too.
Beta-testing is essentially having other people read your book and give you constructive feedback before the professional edit. This should be done when your book is at the best you can make it on your own, not at it’s first draft. You should be at a point where you’re confident in your story, and not embarrassed to share it with others. And by others, that does not mean your family and close friends. Beta readers should be acquaintances or strangers. Even if your best friend swears they will be unbiased, they won’t be. It’s hard enough for somebody you don’t know very well to criticize your work without feeling bad, let alone somebody that has seen how much you care about this book and sees you everyday. So, find a few people that you don’t know well or at all (there are some great online groups) and get ready to start. Once you have your betas, there are a few methods writers like to use. The first, is having them read the entire book and then answer questions about it. However, this isn’t thorough and you’ll get vague responses (how much do you remember about each scene in a book when you’ve finished it?). The most common method is probably the questionnaire. You send one or a few chapters at a time, depending on word-count, and they answer a questionnaire about each set of chapters. This is more thorough, however you won’t be able to clarify thing with them or ask them to elaborate. This is where the method I used, which I based off the method a vlogger I follow uses, comes in.
First, before even finding beta-readers, I prepared. I made sure I had done all the revisions I needed to, and did some self-edits for the spelling and grammar (it doesn’t have to be perfect, but you should warn your betas it’s unpolished). Then, I organized the chapters of my novel into sets (each set with it’s own folder). I averaged about 4000-6000 words a set, with a list of questions for each set. Finally, I contacted some people I thought would be interested, and we got started.
I would plan with them to do a text-interview twice a week, which saw us finished beta-testing in a month. At the time we agreed, after they had just finished reading the set, I would text and ask questions about the set. I asked what their overall thoughts and feelings of the set were, their favourite and disliked parts, their thoughts/feelings about each relevant character and each scene, their thoughts/feelings about anything extra (e.g.: a POV change), if they were confused or found plot holes, what their theories for the next chapters are, how much they enjoyed each chapter on a scale of 1-10, their eagerness to read more on a scale of 1-10, and if they had any last comments or questions. The most important thing when asking these questions if to make sure you ask ‘why’ for everything. You want long, in-depth answers, not “It was cool”.
Once we reached the last set, we would do an extra-long interview, which included questions about the book as a whole. These questions would ask their final thoughts/feelings, their overall favourite parts and characters, the parts they disliked most overall, their overall enjoyment on a scale of 1-10, if they would recommend it, if they wanted to stop reading at any point, if they found the book too predictable, what other books/T.V./movies they would compare it to, if they would be interested in reading for me in the future, and any last things they wanted to comment on.
Next, I looked through all of the feedback (a process which will likely get it’s own post). I decided what needed to be addressed, and over the next three weeks made the improvements that were needed.
After that, I had planned to beta-test it again. However, the feedback I recieved was mainly positive, and I was confident with my changes, so I’ve gone straight to developmental editing. However, had I done the second round of testing, I planned to do it differently. Seeing as I had already done a thorough round of beta-testing, I planned to make the second less in-depth. I would have sent my betas the entire book, and given them some guiding questions so they could make some notes on their thoughts as they read. Then, I would have done my ending interview as well as asked them about any notes they had.
What Worked/What Didn’t
The thing I liked best about the interviews were that they were thorough. I could ask my betas to elaborate on their answers if they weren’t in-depth enough, and I could ask follow-up questions if need-be. It was also great for clarification, because I could ask them what they meant by an answer if it was unclear, and they could ask me what I meant by any questions they were unclear on. I was also able to clear up confusion for them about the actual story a couple of times, which I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. Additionally, I was able to let them know if they were giving the kind of feedback I was looking for (e.g.: focusing on the story, not spelling), and encourage them about their negative feedback (a lot of people feel like they’re being mean or picky). I also didn’t feel as much like I was assigning them home-work, which was nice. I got to know them more, and we definitely had some laughs.
The thing I would have to say was the biggest problem for me was time. The interviews were very time-consuming, and it was hard to find times when the beta and I were both free. Each interview, depending on the beta, could take upwards of two hours. This likely wouldn’t have been much of an issue for a full-time writer, but being in school and having betas who were, too, made it difficult to keep up with the interviews. That being said, it was definitely worth it. I got excellent feedback, and we did make the dead-line goal we set.
The first thing you should keep in mind, is that you need to be nice to your betas. They’ve been nice enough to volunteer their time (you don’t usually pay beta-readers) and are doing you a favour. You can’t get angry with them about their takes and opinions of the novel. They don’t have to read for you, they decided to help you out. If you aren’t nice to them or appreciative, why would they keep reading for you? Now, it’s one thing if they are being rude to you or their feedback isn’t constructive, but even then, you can respectfully part ways.
You should also avoid being defensive with them. Even if you think their take on something is completely wrong, don’t argue with them. This will discourage them from providing honest opinions, and may move them to stop reading for you. Instead, ask them (in as neutral a way as possible) how they formed that opinion. If they aren’t getting the impression you wanted them to, maybe there is a reason. Asking them to elaborate can let you know if it’s something you need to fix, or if you can dismiss it.
As much as it will be hard, negative feedback needs to be especially encouraged. The last thing you want is to make your beta scared of hurting your feelings. Your feelings will hurt at times, but they don’t need to know that. Answer with responses like, “Great, thanks!”, “Great to know!”, “Awesome, thank you!”–you get the idea. Of course, make sure you know why they had that negative opinion, but never make them feel bad about it. Make sure they know that it’s better you hear it from them, before publication, than from displeased readers after publication.
Try to cater to your betas needs as much as you can. Now, this doesn’t mean chasing after betas that won’t get back to you. It means that for the betas that are giving you quality feedback and trying to make time to read for you, you should do everything you can to make the process easier for them. You should ask what format they want the book in (docs, pdf, hard-copy). Most important when doing interviews, is making yourself available at a time that works for them. Don’t ask them to rearrange personal plans; this shouldn’t be like a sacrifice for them. Say you planned to interview on a Saturday, but they tell you they can only interview in the morning because they are busy the rest of the day. It doesn’t matter if you like to sleep until noon, go to bed earlier on Friday and get up for the interview.
Lastly, don’t dismiss any feedback immediately. This may be hard when you disagree with the feedback, but that’s all the more reason to keep it. When you first get the feedback you may feel defensive or angry, and you may not see clearly what the feedback means or why it was received. There will be some odd, one-off opinions that you can dismiss, but you really need to ensure that is the case before throwing them away.
In short, beta-testing is extremely helpful if you make the most of it, but it requires a positive and open-minded approach, especially when talking to your betas. Hopefully this advice will help get you ready for the beta-testing of your book.
I post new advice on Saturdays, so please click “follow” to keep learning more! Sorry I’ve missed the last couple of posts–I always manage to get sick around the holidays! Also, please be sure to comment or connect with me on social media about any writing questions you have, or what you’d like me to blog about next!
With all of this in mind, go out and write your masterpiece!