What I've learned about beta reads...
I've submitted my first short story--first to an SFWA qualifying market that is--and now I am waiting. This is the first short story I've completed and felt good about. Like, really good. While writing it I called on a few beta readers to give me some feedback, did a few revising passes, and now it's out there! YAY!
This was the first beta read I've done with a piece this short. This experience and the last beta read I had (for a novel length piece) have both taught me a few things about hosting a successful beta read. Doing beta reads well can have splendid effects on your writing, so I thought I'd share what little I've come to learn through experience and advice from pros.
Find your target audience.
This is at the top because it is, in my humble opinion which you should consume only with fists full of salt and listening to opera music, the most important part of getting a beta read going.
When you announce you are looking for some people to read your work and provide feedback so you can make it better, EVERYONE AND THEIR MOTHER AND THEIR MOTHER'S MOTHER AND THEIR MOTHER'S MOTHER MOTHER WILL RISE FROM THE GRAVE TO OFFER THEIR HELP AND SAGE ADVICE.
Thank you for tolerating that last sentence. I'm sorry. But, yes. Lots of people may offer. Why wouldn't you tell everyone and their mom they can read? I'll tell you why you beautiful human, because: NOT EVERYONE IS YOUR AUDIENCE.
Writing romance? FIND ROMANCE READERS. Writing fantasy? FIND AVID FANTASY FANS. Writing about how that one time your stupid neighbor gave you crap about the height of your grass and you called up your ex-con buddy to put a hit out on her? CALL OFF THE HIT IT WASN'T THAT DEEP. Writing scifi? FIND A KLINGON and chaH qaDta'bogh botlhDaq, Qap 'ej chaH batlh regain paq laD!
These are the people who will be able to give you the feedback you need to hear. You don't want someone who HATES horror reading horror. "But why would someone who hates the genre offer to read it anyways?" you may ask. They will. They will because they want to be helpful, or maybe they love you and want to support you--probably just ignore family for beta reads unless they're great at giving honest constructive feedback--, or maybe they think it would be cool to read something from someone they know...
There's a million reasons people not of your target audience will offer to beta. Be polite, in saying no. Or, let them read but take that feedback with a healthy dose of NaCl freshly mixed straight off the periodic table.
The worst feedback--in quality--usually comes from other aspiring writers.
Just my personal experience. I've met many many other aspiring or hobbying writers. Of all of them, I've only clicked particularly well with ONE when it comes to feedback. She's my go to for that stuff. And we do more critiquing together than beta reading for each other.
There's a BIG difference between critiquing and beta reading and I've found most aspiring writers can't tell the difference.
Below are some links to some really great resources on how to beta read. Critiques--for most people--usually come during the earlier stages of a project. Normally, during the writing itself. Critiques are there to make the writing better. Beta reads are for identifying reader reactions to the story or piece as a whole, find what works, what doesn't, and then diagnose the issues and fix them. Beta readers are there to provide you with the SYMPTOMS, not the DIAGNOSIS. I've found other aspiring writers tend to have a very 'diagnosis' mindset. That's something hard to turn off.
Treat your beta reads like a CLINICAL TRIAL. Not an open invitation to anyone who wants to play doctor and cut your work open for a peek at the goopy stuff.
Links to some stuff I found useful:
- Blog post I found from Hugo Award winning author Mary Robinette Kowal on using beta readers.
- An Article from TheWriteLife
- This list of Writing Excuses Podcasts where Beta Reading comes up as a topic.
The best feedback--in quality--usually comes from honest members of your audience.
Nothing else to explain here.
Gather SYMPTOMS, not DIAGNOSIS
Like I mentioned in number two: treat this like a clinical trial. Ask how readers felt about a piece. Look for places that bored them, confused them, or broke their sense of belief about the world or characters. Look for what they thought was cool too so you don't accidentally 'fix it'.
I'm always changing my method of gathering feedback, but I really like the one I'm using now. In fact, I'll proabably stick to it long term.
I tell the betas the kind of feedback I need, and then as three questions at the end. For a novel, I ask these three questions at the end of each chapter. For a shorter piece, at the very end. For mid-length, you could ask after every few scenes.
I ask for:
What did you like?
What did you not like?
Gather data in a MANAGABLE way.
"Well then get your shit together, get it all together and put it in a back pack, all your shit, so it's together. And if you gotta take it some where, take it somewhere, you know, take it to the shit store and sell it, or put it in the shit museum. I don't care what you do, you just gotta get it together. Get your shit together." - Morty Smith
^Basically that. I use Google Forms because it's free and easily exportable to an excel spreadsheet.
And that's pretty much it... for now... all the advice I have... run along now... keep writing.