Beta readers…. Michael Miller, the author of The Dragon’s Blade, a recently launched fantasy adventure, shares his experience of working with beta readers below.
Beta readers are a free way to improve your writing. We all know that editing is essential, but what about beta readers? Is it completely necessary to get test readers to go through your book before publication for a final round of checks? The answer of course is no, it is not a requirement, but you should do it if at all possible.
Why you need beta readers
The benefit of having beta readers is that there are many of them. If you can gather about ten or more beta readers then they can, as a collective whole, spot things that you and even your editor may not. This is essentially taking advantage of crowd theory and therefore the more beta readers you can get then the better your results will be. To take an example from my own experience in editing The Dragon’s Blade, what became clear from beta reader feedback was that there was a serious problem with what is now chapter 6 of the book. Every reader brought it up as an issue. However, they all had different opinions as to why the chapter wasn’t working. Some said it moved too fast, others said it was too slow. Some said it lacked characterisation, others thought it lingered to long on certain people. This was a headache in order to try and fix, but what was glaringly obvious was that it needed to be improved. The chapter was broken. Ignoring such important feedback would have been idiocy and even just getting this one chapter sorted out made the beta reading worth its weight in gold.
When should you seek beta readers?
As late in the process as possible would be my advice, although many big name authors do it differently. Jim Butcher, for example, likes to get his book in as good as shape as possible before sending to his editor. Patrick Rothfuss does beta reading on a rolling basis, responding to feedback from one batch of readers before sending the updated manuscript to another set of betas, and so on. There is an interesting video where these two authors discuss this here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fR6-hh2fBrY) The reason I think it is worth doing it later in the process is because the book is probably going to be in far better shape post professional edit than prior. If you are getting a whole bunch of people to read your book before it is officially ready, it seems sensible that it is as close to being finished as possible. Betas aren’t there to do heavy lifting for you and they won’t be able to spot the problems you can’t if they are having to wade through a quagmire of minor mistakes and errors.
What sort of problems are beta readers good at picking up on?
Generally, the big picture stuff. If they are willing to note any clunky sentences along the way that is also great. Yet, it is the large issues of plot, pacing and occasionally world building that, as a whole, they can comment upon. Another example from my own book was one of world building and character to an extent. There were enough beta readers who felt unsure about who the main antagonist of the story was and how a certain Point Of View (POV) character was connected to him. This led to some head scratching but it also led to writing a whole new beginning to the book to introduce these ideas more clearly. This is now the prologue of the book. It is now one of my favourite parts and the opening is infinitely stronger for it. If I had skipped the beta reading stage I would not have made this addition and my book would definitely have suffered for it.
Should you always listen to everything the beta readers say?
No, not necessarily. You need to be careful and look for areas of overlap. Don’t feel you absolutely have to change something just because one person mentions it. If it is just a one on one debate, and you are one of those people, then your opinion wins out. After all, it is your book. Don’t dismiss a comment out of hand, but if you truly disagree then that’s okay. Where you ought to consider making changes is where several people mention a similar thing. If five separate people all say, for example, that a certain scene is boring, then you should think about making some alterations; even if you don’t want to.
Honestly, anyone who is willing. I had some close friends and family who enjoy epic fantasy, but I also had some people who are not big readers of the genre and just wanted to be involved. I even had friends of friends, who I’ve never met in real life, and they were some of my most enthusiastic and helpful readers. Having people who read in other genres is really valuable because it offers different perspectives, as does having readers who may have some expertise or knowledge that they can bring to improve the accuracy of your writing. I set up a private Facebook group and invited around sixty people who I thought would be interested in being beta readers. The group was also useful in giving feedback on the blurb and cover, so they can become a little hype train for your book pre-launch.
Michael’s final thoughts
Remember, your book is a product that ought to be tested. You’d expect a piece of computer software, a game, a new drug, and most products to undergo some form of testing before being unleashed on the public. So while you don’t have to do it, there really is no reason not to do it. Getting your story in front of readers and hearing what they think is probably the most exhilarating thing there is as a writer. Beta readers offer this without the danger of ruining your self-esteem. Their criticism is to be expected because that is the point, but equally their encouragement acts as a major boost and can spur you to make those final tweaks that really polish your book. Beta readers helped to make The Dragon’s Blade a better story and I fully intend on getting even more for the sequel! I can only recommend that you do the same.
Like many young boys, Michael Miller quickly developed a love for daring knights who battled evil. When this was combined with endless hours playing Age of Empires and watching Lord of the Rings, a love for both history and fantasy was born.He studied History at St Andrew’s University, dabbling in everything from Ancient Rome to Modern Scotland and a good deal of things in between. Graduating in 2014 he moved to London to pursue law. He’d rather forget that. In early 2015 he began to seriously turn attention to writing the fantasy story he had always dreamt of telling.The Dragon’s Blade is his debut novel. Download a free Kindle extract of The Dragon’s Blade here
Note from I_AM
What a great post from Michael Miller. It has been a joy to work with him as he has been so focussed on creating an enjoyable reading experience – we even met him at a writing group. Hopefully, he has inspired you to send your work out to beta readers. If you want to give this a go, then you need to make sure you are asking for structured feedback. There is no point persuading people to read your work if they are just going to come back with a “Yeah, well done mate.” On the other hand, readers can feel awkward about giving negative/constructive feedback – yet ironically that is the most valuable. To get round this,we have created an author feedback questionnaire, which has been designed to elicit the most constructive feedback possible in a delicate way (so people don’t feel like they are being impolite). Fill in your details below and we’ll email you an editable questionnaire template that you can send out to your beta readers.