An Ode to Beta Readers

An Ode to Beta Readers

How shall I thank thee, let me count the ways. OK, horrible pun/misquote, but this was the first major work of mine in which I used beta readers, and I’m so grateful. I know there are a ton of different opinions on how to best leverage them and when in your writing process they are most effective, but I had a very specific plan, and set of questions for mine.

I have the most spectacular alpha reader on the planet: my wife. With a PhD in American Literature, a background teaching grammar, and an editor’s eye, I know that my shitty first drafts will be transformed into readable prose. In addition, as I’ve noted in a past post, my protagonist is a woman, and having a reader who helps me identify nuance in diction, emotional engagement, cultural predispositions–all of the things that jar a reader if they are incorrect–is invaluable.

The What

But for beta readers, I had another set of tasks. I was bringing them in to read what I believed to be my best effort at a completed manuscript. Did they find a typo or grammatical faux pas or two? Of course. Here’s what I asked them for:

  • What I’d like the most…
    • Comments in the manuscript where you really like or dislike something. A why would be helpful if it’s something that’s clear to you.
    • Comments in the manuscript where you get lost or confused.
    • Your thoughts overall. Did you enjoy it? Is it like other books you’ve enjoyed? Or not?
    • And to get any comments back before [a specific date].
  • What would be nice to have…
    • Any scenes/characters/plotlines that you feel weren’t developed enough.
    • Any scenes/characters/plotlines that seems superfluous.
    • Comments on flow and pacing. Did it ever drag? Were there sections that were “page-turners.”
    • Anything that disrupts your engagement with the narrative.

As it turns out, this was helpful guidance for them. I knew the story was good, that there were engaging actions scenes, compelling characters, but it’s attention blindness for us as writers. We’re so focused on the object, we miss obvious things.

I got feedback on how much readers liked characters, and characters they wanted to see more of. I got a “Yay!” in a margin when a bad guy got his just deserts. And I got comments about pacing that dragged and pacing that was page-turning. Exactly what I hoped for, and exactly what I needed for that final draft of the novel.

The Who

Not the rock group, of course. The question here is “who did I have read it?” I wanted a diverse group. I asked readers who don’t read in the thriller genre. Did they have fun with it anyway and keep reading because they cared about the characters and the story sucked them in? I asked readers of thrillers who were avid consumers of the masters of the genre. How did I stack up? Did it meet your expectations? I asked a fellow crime writer. Do you think this stands up with the best of what you have seen, and is the craft up to the standard it needs to be? I wanted all of those answers.

The Next

When I got back their written comments, some with line item notations, some just a summary email, I asked them for 30 minutes on the phone. And here, I was looking to ask bigger, more gestalt questions to help my refine the work.

  • Is the start of the novel too gradual, as other readers had noted? Did it need to begin with a bang? Yes, yes, yes. Unanimous.
  • Was the title uninspiring as other readers had said? Yes, yes, yes. Change it (The Halting Problem is my fourth working title for this book).
  • Describe the pacing to me. Does it match my feeling of what I was trying to do? Generally yes (including consensus on a section I knew was dragging and just couldn’t admit out loud).
  • It’s a thriller with lots of 1990 computer technology/jargon. Was that too much? Generally feedback was positive on this.
  • What does it remind you of? A book, a movie. This one was solid gold. I got one of the most creative comp suggestions from this question, naming a science fiction series that has the same kind of long tail character development.
  • What sticks with you, how would you recommend it? This was mostly just fun. I got answers from “it was just fun to read,” to very specific appropriate comps.

The Takeaway

Nobody likes taking both barrels of critique to the face. That said, I thought the book was ready for readers to see. I was right. I thought it was finished. I was wrong (as I said above, I knew it). Did I get practical, specific advice on how to make the book better? Hell yes.

I’m grateful to my readers, and will reward them both with credits in the book and tokens of my esteem, but they all received my heartfelt thanks that they helped me make it the book I think it deserves to be.


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