How to Use Beta Reader Feedback: The Ultimate Guide
Who’s ready to ask a bunch of people to tell them what’s wrong with the novel they just spent months or years planning and plotting and writing and revising?
No judgment if the answer is “not me.” I’m not ready, either.
I’ve always wanted to be that writer who’s constantly salivating for honest feedback, but this part of the writing process really awakens the turtle in me. I pass my manuscript off to beta readers and immediately snap back inside my shell, hoping to shield myself from an onslaught of criticism.
So much unnecessary inner turmoil. I have yet to receive any comments informing me that I am an embarrassment to the craft, but I have gotten a lot of beta reader feedback that made my work exponentially better.
Not to mention, once I get over the initial trauma of discovering I’m not perfect, it’s actually pretty fun to apply the helpful insights I receive.
If you’re about to embark on the journey of collecting and applying beta reader feedback, rest assured that this process isn’t as frightening as it may seem. There is an art to it, though, which is why we’re about to discuss:
- How to tackle the process appropriately
- How to make sense of the feedback you receive
- How to apply beta reader comments to your manuscript
- How to finalize your work and extend gratitude
Let’s start by looking at the big picture.
The Beta Reader Feedback Process
The ultimate goal of working with beta readers is to get helpful feedback—clear, relevant insights that will help you fulfill your unique vision for your book.
In order to pull that off, you need to find the right readers, communicate your expectations, and remain gracious and professional from beginning to end.
You’re going to learn how to do all those things. But first, we should make sure you’re clear on the role beta readers play in your revision process.
Beta readers come in after you’ve done all the revising you can do by yourself and with the help of critique partners and alpha readers. Your beta readers may not get a perfectly polished draft, but they should get the best version of your story you’ve got so far.
You also want to do your best to clean up spelling, punctuation, and grammar so you don’t drive them crazy. A few typos are forgivable.
Don’t expect your beta readers to serve as proofreaders or line editors. They might point out typos or clunky sentences, but their primary job is to communicate how well your story works. A beta reader will often mention things like:
- Plot holes
- Pacing issues
- Where they lost interest
- Where they got sucked in
- How they felt about your characters
- Whether or not they experienced the emotions you were trying to create
So, how do you find the right people for the job?
Selecting the Right Beta Readers
We actually have a whole article on how to find beta readers, but the short version is that you can ask other writers for a beta read and/or turn to your community of readers (newsletters and social media are great places to make the ask). It’s good to do a little of both so you can get the perspectives of both writers and readers.
Look for people who:
- Understand and love your genre
- Know how to articulate their opinions
- Aren’t afraid to be honest with you
It’s also good to get a variety of viewpoints. Let’s talk about that.
Types of Beta Readers
When most people use the term “beta reader,” they’re referring to someone who gives you story feedback for free. These folks are primarily writers and readers in your genre.
Sometimes, you’ll see sensitivity readers grouped into the beta reading community. To be clear: sensitivity readers get paid. These are professionals who help you respectfully navigate the representation of ethnicities, disabilities, gender identities, and trauma experiences that are not your own.
Honestly, I don’t recommend bringing sensitivity readers in during the beta reading phase, anyway. Your readers’ feedback might inspire you to make some major changes, and sensitivity readers should see a version that’s as close as possible to the final story.
You might also recruit a beta reader who is an expert in a field that’s important to your story. For example, you could ask a real-life detective to provide feedback on the authenticity of the investigative techniques in your mystery novel.
Whether or not you pay an expert likely depends on whether they’re a friend who’d be happy to do a favor or a professional who’s giving up precious time.
How Many Beta Readers Do You Need?
It depends! For general story feedback, I’d keep the group small—maybe around five readers. That way you won’t be overwhelmed with too many contradictory opinions.
The number grows if you need beta readers to cover several different areas of expertise. For example, you might ask your chef cousin to make sure you’ve accurately captured the setting of a frantic restaurant kitchen and ask your romance writer friend to weigh in on the love story aspect of your mystery.
Sharing Your Manuscript
For the best results, make sure you do the following when sharing your manuscript with beta readers:
Ask specific questions - I encourage you to invite your beta readers to share their natural reactions, but also let them know if there’s any particular aspect of your story you’re concerned about. Are you especially interested in feedback about the chemistry between your main characters? Do you wonder if your villain’s motivation is convincing?
Consider sending a beta reader questionnaire with your manuscript to help guide their feedback. Just don’t make it insanely long. Also consider that some questions might hinder your beta readers’ ability to experience your novel as it is. For example, it’s best to ask “Did you see the big twist coming?” after they’ve read your story.
Offer different formats - Is it easier for your readers to receive your manuscript as a Microsoft Word doc? A PDF? Do they just want a link to your Dabble manuscript? (You can do that, you know.)
Set a deadline - Let them know when you’d like to receive their feedback. Be sure to set a reasonable deadline—one that recognizes that they also have families, jobs, and lives.
Follow up - Wait until the deadline has passed before you start nudging your readers. All you need is a polite, “Have you had a chance to take a look at my manuscript? I’d love to include your insights on my next revision.”
When that beta reader feedback starts rolling in, receive it with gratitude and hold off on responding to specific comments. There’s a crazy kind of adrenaline that kicks in when you invite criticism, and it’s easy to misunderstand a note or get prematurely defensive on the first read.
If necessary, give your ego a few days to recover as your beta readers’ feedback rolls around in the back of your brain. Then revisit their comments, ready to entertain even the ones that seemed so off-base upon first read.
In the event that there’s a comment that still doesn’t jive with your vision for your book (and there probably will be), resist the impulse to tell your beta reader why they’re wrong. Remember that this person just spent hours reading and critically examining 70,000+ words for you for free. Express only gratitude out loud. You can dismiss their advice in private.
Analyzing Beta Reader Feedback
Not every writer realizes this, but it’s very important:
You don’t have to take all the notes your beta readers give you. You get to decide which comments make sense for your novel and which don’t.
That said, you should consider all of them. Let’s take a look at how that process works.
Gather all your beta reader feedback in one place. At this stage, I recommend pasting all your notes into a single document (or in a Story Note if you use Dabble).
I like to create two sections. One is for specific scene/story beat notes which I organize chronologically. The other is for overall impressions—comments on pacing, characterization, and the like.
That makes this next step easier.
Looking for Trends and Patterns
Notice if you see similar feedback from different beta readers. Do multiple people have issues with the same character? Did they lose interest during the same scene or completely miss what you were trying to do with that Dark Night of the Soul moment?
That’s a sign something isn’t working. Even if their comment suggests a change you don’t want to make, try to understand what inspired that suggestion. What are they trying to fix? How can you address the problem your way?
How Decide Which Advice to Take
As I mentioned before, beta reading is very much about sharing one’s experience of a story. Naturally, a lot of the feedback you get from beta readers will be subjective.
You don’t have to remove a trope just because one person isn’t a fan. And if a beta reader finds the precocious child in your novel irksome but everybody else loves her, oh well.
Also remember that beta readers aren’t professional editors. Some of them aren’t even writers. As readers of your genre, they’re still experts in their own right. But writing is your craft and only you can decide what does and does not work in your story (until you sign with a publisher, anyway).
Having said that, I recommend giving every comment due consideration. Imagine what your story would be like if you applied that feedback. Would it be an improvement?
Some beta readers have a tendency to provide feedback that suggest specific changes. If the suggestion doesn’t work for you, try to understand what problem they’re trying to fix with that idea. You’ll likely come up with a solution that works better.
Once you’ve decided which feedback to apply and which to skip, it’s time to revise. Heads-up: this will always take longer than you think.
So pack a snack.
Crafting a Revision Plan
First, you need to decide on the order in which you want to tackle these notes.
Some writers like to work with the smaller notes (“Her eyes are aqua on page 39 and red on page 141”) before tackling the big ones (“I got bored halfway through act two”).
This strategy gives you a quick sense of accomplishment, but I’m firmly in the big-to-small camp. Why waste time fixing that eye color discrepancy if you have to completely rewrite page 141 anyway to address the boring-second-act issue?
At this point, I usually re-order my beta reader feedback document again, this time to reflect my revision plan.
Following Up With Questions
If you need clarification from your beta readers, don’t hesitate to ask for it. It’s also perfectly reasonable to get their input on a potential solution to a problem they flagged. Just give them a quick summary of what you plan to do, though. Don’t ask them to read your novel all over again.
One thing you want to avoid is asking your beta readers to brainstorm fixes with you, unless there’s a particular reader who loves riffing on story ideas. Another exception would be a fellow writer who’s a regular sounding board for you and knows you’ll return the favor.
For all your other beta readers, assume they’ve already donated enough time to this project.
All that’s left to do is apply your beta readers’ feedback to your manuscript!
Isn’t it fun how I say that like it’s something you can just do in an afternoon? I promise you, though, the improvement you see in your manuscript will be well worth the effort you put into this process.
And remember to mark off all the comments as on your beta reader feedback document as you make them. Doing so ensures you don’t leave any notes unaddressed, but more importantly, it makes you feel like you’re getting somewhere, which you are.
The Final Stretch
You may be done securing, reviewing, and applying your beta readers’ feedback, but there are a couple more steps you have to take before you officially close out this process.
Proofreading and Polishing
As we discussed, beta readers are not professional editors. Their feedback will have helped you write a better story, but don’t assume you’ve got yourself a polished manuscript after implementing their notes.
If you plan to publish traditionally, give your manuscript another read to make sure you’re happy with the pacing, characters, plot… all of it. You may find that you need to do a little more revising as any major changes might have interrupted the flow or created unexpected plot holes.
When you’re happy with the story, do another pass (or two or three) to improve your prose and check for spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
If you plan to self-publish, do everything I just said and then bring a sensitivity reader into the mix (if applicable), followed by a professional editor. These folks will ensure you release a high-quality book, since you won’t have editors at a major publishing house to do it for you.
Expressing Your Gratitude
Finally, make sure your beta readers feel seen and appreciated.
As we discussed, beta reading is not typically a paid gig. There are beta readers out there who will review your manuscript for a fee, but it’s not a common practice.
The most common way to thank your readers is with a signed copy of your published book. You might also consider giving them a shout-out in the acknowledgements. Some writers even send a gift card with a handwritten card, but again, monetary compensation is generally not expected.
In addition to a clear gesture of gratitude, remember to show appreciation for your beta readers all throughout the process. Demonstrate respect for their time with clear communication, express how helpful their input has been, and resist any impulse to tell them why their feedback is wrong.
Beta readers invest hours in helping you write a better book. They rock. Let them know it.
Connect With Beta Readers so You Can Get This Show on the Road
You know what to look for in a beta reader. You know how to ask for the kind of feedback you need and use your beta readers’ notes to improve your writing. Now all you need to do is get out there and find your perfect team.
For some writers, finding these selfless, insightful readers is the toughest part. That’s why Dabble created a beta reading group inside the Story Craft Café.
The Story Craft Café is a thriving online author community where you can connect with other writers, share resources, and find beta readers. Membership is absolutely free. You don’t even have to be a Dabble user to access it.
All you have to do is click here, make some friends, and ask them to gently, kindly pick apart the masterpiece you painstakingly harvested from the fertile fields of your soul.
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