I’ve been seeing a lot of resistance (negativity, misinformation, outright opposition) to the betareading process over the last few months, and . . . it upsets me.
I believe in the beta process the way toddlers believe in Bandaids. OK, so that’s a mediocre example. I believe in it like a good dog trusts its human.
Betas make books better, and better books make happier readers who will read more books. But what you get out of your beta, and where your story goes in revision, is up to you, not your readers.
If you’re worried a betaread will change your story, try following these five tips to run a successful beta to protect it (from others and yourself) while improving both the work and your craft.
1. State your vision for the work clearly, even if you don’t share the specifics with an audience.
This is the most important step, in my opinion. It can be as simple as “to entertain my readers with a fun adventure story” or as complex as “to inform readers about X and Y so that they walk away with a changed perspective on Z.”
Doing this will help you, as the writer, decide what feedback is most important to you and protect what matters most to you as feedback pours in. Not doing this step can be dangerous to your voice and confidence with your work.
2. Write down reader reactions you hope to receive.
I learned to do this after my first few betas, simply because it challenges me to think ahead to what I want to hear. For each major character or event, I jot down my hoped-for-responses. It looks a little like this for my most recent beta:
Main Character: “Poor __ tries so hard!” and “Yay! ___ figured it out!”
Primary Antagonist: “I hate ___ so much,” and, “Ohhhh… I see why ___ is like that now.”
Major Plot Event: “I did NOT see that coming,” and “Holy $&#@, what have you done to me?”
If I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll even plan ahead what I don’t want to hear.
Doing this step gives a metric to compare with actual feedback to, to better gauge how the story is meeting its goals.
3. Know your target audience.
This is the step I hear recommended most, and it bears repeating. Aside from age and genre category, though, I suggest going a few details further to identify your target.
Who is the reader who needs this story?
Where are they in life; where are they emotionally?
What is the obstacle they dream of overcoming?
Depending on which revision your story’s in, these answers could change. While it’s great to get positive responses from readers outside the target, it’s important to weigh that against negative or neutral responses within.
4. Decide on the one thing you would never change.
Ask yourself why you had to write this story.
Did an idyllic childhood memory spark the story in your heart, and you’ve poured yourself into reproducing that setting for others?
Are you an #ownvoices writer intent on sharing your personal struggle with young people so they can see themselves pulling through it, maybe even better than you managed?
Whatever your motivation for writing, pick the one thing that can’t change lest it become a different story — somebody else’s.
Then make a wish list of secondary items that are mildly more negotiable. This exercise helps to back up what you decided in #1 and keeps you flexible when receiving feedback.
If someone tears apart the thing you’ll never change, do you care? If three or more target readers take issue with a story issue of secondary importance to you, are you ready to address that item or remove it? What if it were a major publishing house suggesting the change? Would your reaction be different for different readers? (These are uncomfortable questions by nature.)
One of the most detrimental things a writer can do in revision is to lose sight of their “why,” their reason for this story, in an attempt to please every reader. Pick your battles and stand firm for them, so that you recognize the story you end up with as the one you aimed for in the first place.
5. Process your craft knowledge.
This is so tricky, because at any point in time, we know less than we knew before. So many of us, in love with our ideas or this or that string of beautiful words, lose sight of where we truly are.
When I finished my first novel, I had this euphoric rush of “Look what I did!” only for it to devolve into “Look at all I have to learn!”
I’m not suggesting anyone demote themselves in their mind or social media pages from “writer” to “aspiring writer,” but at least acknowledge how little or how much has been mastered. Learning never stops in this field.
Processing where your craft is right now will help when navigating feedback that hurts or cuts deepest at the author ego. Ask:
Are readers commenting about things being under or overwritten?
Are they recommending grammar or craft websites because of persistent weaknesses they’ve spotted that I haven’t seen?
Are they mentioning craft “rules” I’ve never heard of?
Before reacting with a slash and burn edit (or worse, lashing out at the reader), do some research and get up to speed on those craft concepts.
Not only will it improve your revision, but it will have you better prepared to tackle your next story.
I would love to hear what helps you prepare your mindset before you beta. What works best for you?