6 Lessons I Learned From The Beta Reading Process


Sending my novel out for beta reading was potentially the most terrifying part of my writing career to date. As a Creative Writing graduate, I'm no stranger to critique; workshopping my writing with peers was basically all I did for four years.

But when it came to my novel, I always kept it close to my heart. I've shared little details about this 17-year journey of mine. A vague 'saving the world and stuff' has always been my go-to answer when asked about the plot.

Sure, over the years I've sporadically shared excerpts with other writers for feedback and workshopped some potential ideas, but I have never given the manuscript to anyone in its entirety. That was just too scary.

Of course, some day I want this novel published. And I do want people to read it. So why the fear?

For me, there’s a vulnerability in sharing my writing, particularly with people who have seen my face, or who know who I am outside of the confines and safety of a writers’ community.

When I finished my latest draft (there have been five in total – send help), I knew it was time to take revisions to the next level. I needed some outside perspective to stop the cycle of write-delete-rewrite I was stuck in.

And, despite my apprehension, the beta read has been overwhelmingly beneficial. My once vigorously protected novel is all the better for it. I am all the better for it.

So, if you're struggling to get started with the whole process, take a look at what I learned from the beta read of my first novel – and how it can help you.

Lesson #1: Not Everyone Will Finish Your Book

When I announced I had finished my novel (again), I was inundated with requests from friends and family wishing to read it. Before getting started, I'd decided I only wanted a handful of readers – five at most.

I ended up with 11, some of whom I asked directly, the rest chosen from the multiple offers. I was conscious of who I selected, making sure I had a range of reading/writing backgrounds, genders, cultures and sexualities.

Everything was looking great. I was pumped. They were pumped. And then... nothing.

Despite the initial enthusiasm, there was little follow-through: over three months later, only four readers made it through to the end.

I was devastated. Aside from those who finished, another two made it halfway through the book, and the rest stagnated somewhere around Chapter Five.

My anxiety was through the roof. Was the story too slow? Boring? Overly convoluted and just a downright chore to read?

After literal years of hard work, practically no one made it past the first four chapters! I was staring down the prospect of scrapping the ENTIRE novel and taking it back to the drawing board – again.

But then I took a deep breath.

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Life happens. Considering my own pathological inability to complete library books before the return date, I can’t really berate my nearest and dearest for failing to finish reading an unpolished draft.

Beta reading is like reading high school English texts: you need to finish by a certain date, read mindfully and answer questions as you go.

Even as someone who loved English and went on to study a literature major at university, I understood the tedium. What they were doing for me was a favour, and even though most of my readers offered, I was essentially giving them homework.

So, instead of lamenting the readers who didn’t finish, I decided to focus on the comments from those who did while taking note of the spot where everyone stopped reading. There was an obvious connection: Chapter Four.

There was plenty to take away from this observation. Chapter Four was an introduction of a third character POV and new storyline – one that, as confirmed by the readers who finished, was far more passive and flat than the initial action and intrigue of the opening hook.

Little wonder readers started to fade.

Those who did push through assured me this was just a temporary lull and that the whole story wasn't actually a downhill slide from there on. Of course, I'm grateful for the readers who finished, but equally appreciative of those who didn't because of their honest reflection of real-life readers.

Their waning momentum was a great lesson in how slow plot progression really can make or break a reading experience. Had all my betas persevered, I never would have realised how bad that low point was, and necessary changes may have been left unmade.

Lesson #2: Collaborative Workspaces Are Game-Changers

My writing software of choice has always been good ol' Microsoft Word. While I have taken to using Scrivener for a draft of Book 2, Word is still my primary processor, partially due to the convenience that is Track Changes.

Going into the beta read, I converted my manuscript to a PDF to send to readers for easy, on-the-go access, assuming many would be reading from their smart devices. However, after beta reading for a friend, I realised the PDF format was frustrating given I could not as easily insert comments into the document as they occurred to me.

However, having ten digital beta readers (one lucky person had the hard copy!) sending out individual Word documents with Track Changes seemed like a logistical nightmare. Imagine trying to reconcile ten different sets of comments in ten different Word files?

As such, I cannot stress enough the importance of having a single, online collaborative workspace where your betas can read, comment and otherwise communicate with you.

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For my maiden beta read, I opted for BetaBooks, a nifty little website aimed at helping authors receive feedback on their work. Chapters are separated into individual documents and are easily reordered; reader progress is tracked; and reminder emails can be sent to prompt readers to keep going.

While general use of the website is free, I opted for the first tier of the paid subscription. This enabled me to allow in-line commenting (which I didn’t think I wanted, but more on that later), and up to ten readers (the free service is limited to three).

A huge draw for BetaBooks was the ability to see all my readers' comments on the one document while keeping their suggestions hidden from one another. This enabled people to share their ideas freely without fear of being judged for 'stupid comments', or having their reactions skewed or influenced by others.

BetaBooks also comes equipped with a network of readers at your disposal. The Reader Directory lists the site's registered beta readers with profiles outlining their experience, reading habits, preferred genres and favourite authors.

This means you can curate a niche list of beta readers representative of your prospective future market. Regrettably, I did not utilise this function, as I was hesitant of opening my precious draft up to strangers who might tactlessly eviscerate my darling.

However, I do feel like I have missed out on a valuable experience here. If anyone has used BetaBooks's Reader Directory and not run away screaming from the vicious feedback of strangers, I'd love to hear about your experience.

Given I only had three active digital readers and I didn't want to keep paying a subscription purely for the in-line comments, I have since switched to using Google Docs and am just as satisfied.

It's free, has a real-time chat function, works the same as Word's Track Changes when working in 'suggestion mode', and can have up to 10 document contributors. Just remember to turn off notifications so Google doesn't send you an email every time someone adds a comment.

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Lesson #3: Readers Will Deviate From Your Guidelines

As recommended, before getting started, I explained my expectations to my beta readers regarding what I would like to achieve at the end of the process. I had a timeline of just over two months, with hopes to get people halfway through by the end of July (I started mid-June).

I'd crafted a list of questions and potential issues I wanted flagged, stressing that I was not after an edit; this was a draft, and the last thing I wanted was ten people pointing out the same damn typo.

So I kept my focus on the big picture. Themes, plot, character, world-building, sensitive content – these were the only issues I need to be concerned with at present. Everything else I would pick up on the next time I self-edited my novel.

However, if you are lucky enough to have beta readers who are willing and eager to provide stylistic feedback alongside big-picture insights, don't turn them down. These kind of notes can help point you in the right direction when it comes time to polish and sharpen your manuscript at a later date.

Had I only listened to feedback pertaining to the questions I asked, I never would have noticed my tendency to show and THEN tell in the one paragraph, or my penchant for tautologies.

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Eventually, I started to see patterns in the kind of sentences my beta readers had issues with: passages of distracting description, textbook-esque info-dumps, and wanky paragraphs that added nothing to the story.

The repetitive comments of 'cut, cut, cut' were something I'd intended to overlook during the beta read, but taking them on board and examining the key offenders now means I'm conscious of these common writing mistakes before I make them.

Now, when working on Book One rewrites and, more sporadically, writing the first draft of Book Two, I'm able to preempt whether or not a paragraph is likely to be cut at the behest of my readers.

Even though the main purpose of a beta read is to sort out the big overarching issues relating to plot, theme and character, if you have someone willing to go the extra mile, take them up on their offer. It could save you work in the long run.

Lesson #4: Emotions Are Hard

One of the first pieces of advice I remember hearing at university was not to take workshopping personally.

Easier said than done.

I generally consider myself quite capable of dealing with criticism of my writing. Only once did I break down from in-class workshopping (the feedback got quite personal, and the culprit later apologised to me, citing lack of sleep and too much Red Bull as the reason for his snarkiness). I'm also generally quick to act on the suggested changes.

When it came to my novel, however, I found even some of the most justified and expected comments heartbreaking.

After years of work, it was devastating to learn that my protagonist lost all agency in the latter half of the book, that one main character's storyline was boring and dull, and that my villain was not authentic but cartoony. These weren't easy fixes, either – they were glaringly huge issues.

At first, my response was, 'My God, you're absolutely right.' That quickly became, 'Bloody hell, how could I not see that obvious error?', before finally ending with, 'I am trash.'

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Now, it's alright to feel upset, and it's alright to take feedback to heart. After all, what is more personal than writing a novel? These are words you have created from nothing, characters and worlds you've brought into existence.

Even if you know your book is not perfect in its current form, and you're dedicated to making it as good as can be, it's okay to take a moment to grieve that it's not there yet.

But that's it. A moment. A day or two. At most, a week.

And then you pull yourself together and keep moving.

Every time I've been told to rewrite a chapter – or even re-rewrite it – I go away, I grumble, but then I write. And my novel is better for it. So, take the time to feel your emotions. They're important. They're valid. They're motivating.

But don't you dare use them as an excuse to give up.

Lesson #5: Rewrites Aren't As Bad As You Think

At this stage in the game, the last thing I wanted was to hear that my manuscript required extensive rewrites. After all, rewriting was all I've been doing for the last 12 years since finishing the first complete draft in 2007.

However, when compiling the feedback from my beta readers, I began to notice recurring comments: 'XX's story line is kind of dull'; 'XX doesn't really do anything'; 'XX has turned into a damsel in distress'; 'Why do they take so many baths?'

Evidently, there was more work ahead of me than I'd hoped. And this was part of the reason why I was the wreck of emotions outlined above.

Of course, the feedback beta readers provide are just suggestions – I didn't have to follow through with anything. Besides, I couldn't take very piece of advice on board anyway. What's that saying I always hear? Try to please everyone and end up pleasing no one?

With it forever feeling like someone was moving the goalposts, it's little wonder I was starting to feel so emotionally overwhelmed by the whole process. Writing is hard. It's tiresome and it's frustrating. I just wanted to be done.

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But, I haven't worked on this novel for 17 years for it be just good enough. So, after feeling all the feels, I took a deep breath and psyched myself for rewrites.

And... it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. In fact, it was kind of exciting. I started to see everything coming together into a better, stronger narrative. It was finally starting to resemble the story I'd always envisioned, and it wouldn't have gotten there unless my beta readers pushed me to rework problem sections.

Certain wishy-washy character development arcs became complex and compelling; the page-turning tension that had waned in the second-half of the novel was turned up to a whole new level. Even I was getting excited by the developments as though I were an unconnected bystander.

It's easy to push aside difficult feedback, but it's also lazy and dishonest. You owe it to yourself and your project to rewrite it and rewrite it again if needs be.

It won't be as bad as you think.

Lesson #6: You'll Get Your First Fans

We all have our reasons for writing. For some of us it's a hobby; for others it's the overwhelming need to tell a story to anyone who'll listen. Whether you're writing for yourself or a future audience, it's validating to have your work read and enjoyed by somebody else.

As scared as I was to share my creation with this small group of readers, I'm immensely glad I did. In addition to all the feedback, and other truths about the whole writing process, I also gained something much more valuable: my first fans.

For all their (constructive) criticism, I had two readers who really engaged with the project, and their interest and investment in it has motivated me more than any glowing praise could have. Sure, they tore plenty of chapters apart, but at the same time they built me up with their dedication and excitement.

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Having someone passionate about the world and characters I've created took the sting out of all the work still ahead of me. I finally had something tangible to work towards – someone to write for. It wasn't just a target audience category or faceless hypothetical reader anymore; it was an actual person who was beginning to know and love my characters as much as I do.

The motivation that brought was astounding. These first fans are my soundboards and my cheer squad. They're there for me to workshop story ideas with before I even put them into words. Difficult scenes are easier to push through because I can turn to someone who knows my vision for support and perspective.

I've been editing and rewriting Book One for so long now, I'd almost forgotten the big picture. Talking with my beta readers about the direction the project is heading enabled me to take a step away from the failings of the current draft. And I got excited about writing again.

Because I've been a writer for as long as I can remember, I have no shortage of friends and family who have encouraged my dreams to be published. However, having people cheering you on who have actually read and are excited for your novel?

You just can't fabricate that high.

***

Writing is a very private, personal endeavour, and sharing something that you know is less than perfect can leave your feeling vulnerable and exposed.

Whether you decide to entrust your novel with your nearest and dearest or a group of nameless strangers, the beta process is as important as it is terrifying.

Either way, swallow your fears, overcome your impostor syndrome and leap. Your novel will be all the better for it.

Jessica A. McMinn

Jessica A. McMinn is an aspiring author based in NSW, Australia. Since graduating from the University of Wollongong with Distinction in BCA (Creative Writing) and BA (Japanese), Jessica has spent five years in Japan teaching English, all while working on her first dark fantasy novel: The Ruptured Sky (Gardens of War & Wasteland #1). On her website, Jessica shares short stories of various genres, book reviews, writing prompts and updates on her work-in-progress novel. In her free time she enjoys watching trashy TV, crafting, gaming, annoying her cat and raising her beautiful baby boy.

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