Not every writer has the ability or desire to share their novel with beta readers. Beta readers are not a necessary part of getting a story published, but they can be incredibly helpful if you know what questions to ask and how to use the information they give you.
Beta readers are sort of like test readers in that they are typically consistent readers in the genre you write and are knowledgeable in what makes a good story. They don't have to be writers themselves, but mine often are. They read your story and give you comments about the overall plot, character development, etc. Their comments are helpful because they often catch things you miss because you're too close to the story.
But, beta readers can be unhelpful. Although, you, as the author are not in control of the entire process, I believe that the author has the most responsibility.
I've used beta readers a number of times, and over the years, I've learned some things. Sit and enjoy as I share some of my feeble knowledge I've gleaned.
Understand your goals.
- Beta readers are not going to proofread your story. Grammar is not their focus. If you want someone to go line-by-line, consider hiring an editor.
- Your goal is to be a critical learner. You're not handing over the responsibility of creating a good story to your beta readers. You still need to critically review their comments and determine the best way to implement their suggestions. You are also not obligated to apply all their critiques, but you do need to treat all their comments with respect.
Ask specific questions.
- Find a balance between subjective questions and objective questions. Ask questions like, "were their any glaring plot holes?" and also questions like "did any part of the story become a burden to continue?" You need both types of questions to get the most help.
- Understand your strengths and weaknesses and ask questions about both. If you're great at creating worlds, ask what their favorite part was. If you struggle with dialogue, ask which characters seemed most disconnected from their words. Notice that these questions are specific, but they also refer to the entire story as a whole.
- Ask progressive questions such as, "After chapter 1, did you want to continue reading?" or "Did the ending surprise you? Did it satisfy?"
- Other questions I've asked: Did you find the voices believable?, Was the plot believable, realistic?, Did the characters stick with you after you finished reading? What was the most common question you found yourself asking? Who was your favorite character? Your least? What is a piece of advice that would make this story better?
- Make sure you thank them for their work. They are helping you, even if you don't agree with their comments. Negative comments are still good comments.
There are many ways to connect with your beta readers, but the best way I've found is through a google doc. Click here for the format I use. This works well because you can create a folder with a page of questions and information and your story. As you contact your beta readers, you can share the folder with them by simply sharing with their e-mail. It's became the easiest way I've found, and this method helped me get the most out of my gracious beta readers.