Tag Archives: beta reading

My Beta-Reading Experiment

I’ll be honest. I’m not very good at seeking feedback for my writing. I don’t like sharing things as I write them. I want to sit on it and polish it for a million years before it even sees the light of day. I’ve sent manuscripts to family members and close friends to ask what they think— and while this can be great for certain things (alpha reads, self-confidence, etc)— I’ve never gone beyond that comfort zone.

So, now having finished a serious revision, and in the mind to push myself, I wanted to do something broader and more critical. I also wanted to be organized and structured about it. As I’ve talked about previously, I’m a soft marshmallow when it comes to criticism, and I wanted to guide feedback in a way that would be helpful and not crushing.

This is what I did.

Photo Credit: Anastasia Zhenina on Unsplash

I started by setting up a Google Form and:

  • Created a series of questions that would cover what I needed answered about the manuscript, based off my own interest and of suggestions I found by researching.
    • Most questions I kept broad, but I did add specific details of the story to direct what I’m looking for.
    • And hey, if anyone is interested, I can totally write them out!
  • I made a list of people to send the manuscript to and asked them.
    • Trusted friends and family, along with, yes, fellow writers, inside and outside the genre I’m writing.
    • Part of the problem in my previous hesitant attempts at beta-reading was that I didn’t get enough variety and quantity of perspectives. Yes, this was due to not wanting influences that could be negative. I’d hoped to structure the questions so there was less possibility of that.
  • I sent the manuscript, with an overview of what I was looking for but not the specific questions, and how to access the form with the questions once they’d finished reading.

*Five months later*

Well, to start with, it turns out that asking people to respond in such a complex way was a bit too much to ask. Out of 15 people that I ultimately sent the manuscript to (over the course of several months), 5 have read it, and 0 have used the form.

(I’m still trying to decide if a 1/3 read rate is indicating something bad, or if people are just busy, which is totally legitimate.)

Most of them responded by sending back the manuscript with comments in-document and an overall thoughts letter, which I think is pretty typical in the world of beta-reading. The ones that said they’d go back to fill out the form… haven’t as of yet. People have lives beyond being my reading minions, that’s *dramatic sigh* fine I guess.

After a while, I simply followed up with them and asked some questions to compare and contrast with the comments I’d gotten from others. For example: “Hey do you think the beginning is slow?”

(The answer, by the way, is 4 out of 5 say yes. Ooops.)

Now it’s looking like I’m doing a second round of beta-reading. Because apparently I can’t stop torturing myself with the idea of perfection. Which I KNOW will never happen, because art is subjective and skills improve and perspectives are fluid and GAH why am I doing this to myself.

But I made some pretty big changes, including rearranging the first half quite a bit and rewriting a few chapters, and don’t I need perspective on that now to make sure I changed it in the right direction?

Anyway, moving on.

Despite getting really good feedback, and comments that helped me identify weaknesses I could then improve, I’m feeling more insecure about it than last time. Maybe before I was in a high of denial on how vulnerable this made me? I thought I’d get to hide behind data and my Google Form, and somehow disconnect feedback from the reality of receiving criticism on my manuscript child?

That’s not to say I didn’t receive positive comments. I got a lot of positive feedback, and everyone who’s responded said I met the ultimate test: they want to read more.

Am I going to try to use my Google Form again? Eh. I’m not sure. I think I’ll probably still put it out there as an option, but put the questions upfront, like in the body of the email I send with the document attached.

And yes, I know I need to put a limit on myself on how many times I do this. I can’t revise this thing forever. I want to get it actually into the world. And I need to get a move on, so that I can stop realizing six months later “Oh, I’ve improved as an writer, let’s change some things up!”

It feels close. I think the manuscript is almost there. Even if that means just forcing myself to stawwwwwp.

Until next time! I think my next post will be on how I cut over 30k words from my manuscript. I talked about it on my Instagram Stories a while ago, but I think it would be neat to revisit and write out the process. And hey, it might even help somebody.


The Point of Beta-Reading is Not to Ruin Someone’s Confidence

So as I delve into my first actually serious attempt at utilizing beta-reading, I wanted to talk about a particular problem I’ve noticed in the writing community. Maybe saying it’s a ‘problem’ is too inflammatory. But bear with me for a second.

Beta reading is someone’s amazing dedication of time to look over another’s writing and give feedback. Writers tend to be a my-art-is-my-child bunch, so this is an important step in fixing any issues that the writer may have not seen being so close to their story. From everything from sharing with close friends to swapping read-for-read with strangers on the internet, beta reading is a fairly well ingrained idea in writing culture.

But it really bugs me when someone sends out their manuscript to be beta-read, and the response just crushes their soul.

Photo Credit: Kelly Sikkema from Unsplash

Caveat: I’m well aware that some amount of negative reaction is normal when receiving criticism, especially when we’re talking my-story-is-my-baby writers. (*cough* me *cough*)

Especially when one writer is reading another writer’s work, it’s very easy to tell someone what to change and how. But I think it was Neil Gaiman who said: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Art is subjective. It’s intrinsic and instinctive, and easily warped by influence. And I’m starting to wonder if the role of the beta reader is actually that well understood.

So here’s my premise:

A beta-readers job is not to tell somehow how to write something. Their job is to highlight their reactions to the author in an as unfiltered way as possible. Armed with that data, the writer can then figure out how to solve it, if they want to solve it, in their way. “I got bored here” or “this is fascinating!” or “this is the place I took my first break from reading” is actionable information that tells the author how the story pacing is going. Maybe there’s too much info-dumping. Maybe some scenes need to be moved to later. Maybe one person thought one thing and another thought the opposite, so the issue can be relegated to “you can’t please everyone.” The point is, it’s all up to the author and no one else.

(Of course this is all different if a writer asks for advice on how to change something. But that’s straying into the role of a critique partner, which is different.)

Maybe this is just me finally getting with the program of the rest of the world, who already knows about these pitfalls and what to do about it, but it felt like a significant realization to me. And I think it also explains why I’ve always half-assed the beta-reading stage before. I’m a soft marshmallow soul and I think it would be too easy to be tied into knots and warp my own creative spirit with the wrong influence.

The second part of my premise: I think this problem is partially on the writer. Handing over a manuscript with a “tell me what you think!” is going to cause a variety of responses. Readers may not even know what to say. Particularly if the reader isn’t used to that particular genre or style. While a lot can be gotten out of that, I think it’s really easy to fall into a pit of unhelpful or even harmful feedback.

It’s up to the writer knowing and asking for what they need.

Which brings this whole conversation to now (and about me again, sorry). After finishing up the revision process I talked about last time, I decided to buckle up and do this beta-reading thing for real. In an organized and structured fashion. Which means actually knowing what I need and guiding the eyeballs on my words to give me actionable feedback. So, I built a strategy with everything I’ve just talked about in mind.

Once feedback comes back, I’ll be writing another post on, you know, if this actually works or if I’m just being self-important. But the basics of my strategy are… actually pretty simple and obvious now that I think about it.

  • I comprised a bunch of questions based off recommendations and research.
  • I made a list of about a dozen trusted people.
  • I sent the manuscript and questions with an outline of what I’m looking for to said people.

The set up was actually the fun part, which I’ll go into detail next time. Mostly I just used Google Sheets and Google Forms… with some personalization. But I’m strangely proud of myself for the whole thing. It’s probably silly. But we’ll see what happens when it all comes together!

For now I wait. Until then, what are your thoughts? How about your experiences with beta-reading — either reading or sending a manuscript to be read?