March 26, 2011

Indie Adventures – Part 2 – Beta Readers or “How the Hell Do I Know If This Book is Any Good!?”

If you missed it, See Indie Adventures – Part 1 – The Starting Line.

It is a serious question. How the hell do you know if your book is any good? Or movie, or game, or song. If you are on your own going indie, how the hell do you know? Ask your Mom, or your spouse, or your best friend? Not quite, you need to be a bit more objective than that.

A common axiom in writing, is that writers are not a good judge of their own work (I think the same applies to most artists and their art). The story comes out (or through) you, making your relationship with the story distinctly different than anyone else’s relationship. You are very close to it. It is your child. And even if everyone in the world thinks your child is ugly, you don’t. You love your child. (In reality the relationship of an writer and their work is much more complicated.)

This is where Beta Readers come in. They are often called “First Readers,” but owing to my background is software development “Beta Readers” works much better for me. Just like in software, Beta indicates the phase in your work where it first leaves the cushy confines of your computer and ventures out on a limited basis into the world. Beta is where you find out if you have something or not.

I just finished up my first Beta round with the novel I have under development. It took about 5 weeks (these folks are volunteers, it sometimes takes them a while to get around to reading your book). Here are my recommendations for choosing Beta Readers:

  1. Pick people who love to read.
  2. Pick people who will be honest with you even if they think it will hurt.
  3. Make sure what you have written is something they would ready anyway. You don’t want to send your romantic comedy story to someone who hates romantic comedies. You want to give it to someone who loves, and knows them. To put it in another context: you wouldn’t ask someone who hates chocolate to taste-test your new chocolaty confection (yeah I know, everyone loves chocolate, but you get the picture).
  4. Pick enthusiastic readers. You are asking them to spend quite a few hours of their rare leisure time reading your book. You want them to be into it (you also want it happen in a timely fashion).

There are other desirable, but I don’t think necessary, traits:

  1. Experienced writers. Although, avoid grammar elitists like the plague. It’s a novel, most people don’t care that grammar is to-the-letter perfect, it just has to serve the story.
  2. Experienced editors. Just make sure they know you are not expecting a full edit.

I had 5 readers in my first round. I have four results in and am moving forward (the 5th was a maybe anyway). How many beta readers are ideal? I don’t know. I think you need 3 at a minimum, and about 6 as a max. You need a few opinions (and everyone will have different opinions), but not so many that you can’t manage it.

The Goals of a Beta Read

  • To find out if your story is any good.
  • To find out how other people see your story, including its strengths and weaknesses.
  • To find out what you have left to do to get the story ready to publish.

You are not looking for everyone to love every bit of what you have written. This is not writing by committee. You are trying to find out if you story has these basic qualities:

  1. Realistic characters that your readers care about.
  2. A plot that is engaging and understandable.
  3. An experience that causes your reader feel something.
  4. An enjoyable experience. Cause, ya know, this is entertainment.

Bonus items are:

  1. Making your readers think a little.
  2. A rewarding cathartic experience.

Finding Beta Readers

I had discussed the project with a few people as I wrote it and some expressed enthusiasm and interest in it, so I started with them. I have some Beta Readers for my short works, so I went to them next. I also tapped into a writer’s group that I had briefly been part of.

All in all, it was easy to find readers. I was delighted by the level of interest and enthusiasm I encountered. And when I step back, I get it. If I knew someone who had written a novel that sounded interesting, I would be delighted to read it too.

The Mechanics of a Beta Read

I printed my manuscript on pre-punched paper (which tons of time) and put them in a three ring binder. In it I includes:

  1. A letter with a big thank you and a few guidelines.
  2. A critique sheet for them to rate the book and some open ended questions. This is crucial, you need a uniformed way to get data back. You, of course, want them to feel free to tell you anything they want, but you need to cover the bases on some basics.
  3. The novel, double-spaced, in manuscript format.
  4. A red pen (forget about finding notes written in your manuscript in black–not fun).

I asked them to:

  1. Read the manuscript
  2. Make notes on the manuscript of spelling errors, grammar errors, passages that caused them problems, and things that they liked. (Don’t forget that last one, you want to know what works as well as what didn’t work.)
  3. Give me a few minutes of their time when they are done to discuss their thoughts on the book and their experience.

You might be asking yourself why a printed manuscript? Well my main reason is that I hate reading long things on the computer, and I think lots of people do. Also, computers are work, novels are fun. I have one reader who will be reading in my second Beta round that wants it electronically, so I will deliver it that way.

I also delivered the critique electronically (after my first reader to finish typed his answers out because it was easier for him)

The Critique

I started with a slightly modified version of Joe Konrath’s crit sheet. To that, I added some free form questions to help me get a little more in my reader’s head (and to help them think about the story and what they liked and didn’t like).

Here is what it contained: (Feel free to use or change as you see fit. If you think of some great questions that are not in here, please contact me)

Rate the story in each of the following categories using 1 through 5 (5 being the best):

The Hook – does the story pull you in right away and then hold your interest?

The Conflict – what is at stake in the story, and how is the tension used?

The Characters – are these compelling, real people that you care about?

Setting and Mood – does the story make you feel like they are really there?

Pace and Style – how well does the writer use the words to move the story along?

Resolution – does it have a satisfying ending?

Grammar and Spelling – are they perfect, or do they serve the story when they’re not?

Overall Enjoyment – was this a story you would actually buy?

Story Title: ________________________________

Reviewer: _________________________________

Category Rating: 1-5 (5 is best)
The Hook
The Conflict
The Characters
Setting and Mood
Pace and Style
Grammar and Spelling
Overall Enjoyment

Bonus, a few short answers to these questions will be very helpful.

Who was your favorite character, and why?

Who was your least favorite character, and why?

What was your favorite part of the book, and why?

What was your least favorite part of the book, and why?

Which, if any, parts of the story did you find surprising?

Would you be interested in reading a sequel to this book?

Would you recommend this book to friends? If so, why, and how would you describe it (i.e. what would you tell them to get them interested in reading it)?

What books (or even movies or TV shows) would you compare this book to if you were telling someone about it?


Taking your novel out for a spin for the first time is scary (well at least for me it was). It took an effort of will to say I am done messing with this, I have to find out if I have something. And it is not like you can skip this step (well you can, but that would be foolish). It is best to find some enthusiastic readers, set them up with clear instructions, a good critique, a red pen, and  let them go to town.

Next up: Evaluating the Beta Read
Don’t Miss: Indie Adventures – Part 1 – The Starting Line.

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Robert J. McCarter

Robert J. McCarter is the author of more than ten novels and over a hundred short stories...... learn more

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  1. This is a very helpful post. I’m about to embark on the beta-reading journey myself and you’ve given me much food for thought. I’ve had a lot of interest and I don’t like turning people away, but I was thinking of limiting my beta reading group to 10. Do you think that’s still too many?

    1. Cally, I am glad you found this post helpful (be sure to check out the rest in the series, more coming soon).

      For me 10 would be too may. There is overhead to the the organization, communication and incorporation of suggestions. Keep in mind you will likely do more than one round on beta reading (I will end up with three), so maybe you can split your volunteers up into a manageable size for each read.


      1. Thanks for the advice, Robert. I’ve decided to split my readers into two groups, like you’ve suggested. I wrote about my beta-reading plans in my latest post. I’d love your thoughts on it, if you have time!

  2. Ooh, I love this critique “worksheet” you’ve drawn up for your beta readers! I’m totally gonna do something like that (I had thought of asking standard questions, but I hadn’t thought of doing a rating system as well – great).

    Thanks for the helpful post!

    xx R

    1. Rachel,

      Glad you found it useful. I have found the quantitative portion of this is really helpful, it gives you a way to compare in an unambiguous way. I use it for short stories, which really helps me evaluate how my beta readers feel about a particular story compared to others.

      If you come up with some nice improvements, I’d love to see them.


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