You’ve finished your first, second, and maybe even the third draft of your book, and you’re ready for feedback from beta readers. Here are the steps you should follow to get and act on the feedback you receive.
Step #1: Find beta readers
Rather than ask your husband, daughter, or mom to read your manuscript, seek out beta readers — impartial third parties who will give you an honest and focused critique. The Helping Writers Become Authors website can help you find free beta readers who will best suit your needs.
How many readers should you try to get? I would say at least five. After all, critiques are just opinions, even if they’re from professional beta readers or editors. You want to get many opinions so you can look for trends. (If you’re having trouble finding enough readers who will give you free critiques, you can always check out fiverr.com, where you will find beta readers for reasonable rates.)
Don’t just find people who like your genre and send them the manuscript. Read “Getting Good Feedback From Beta Readers,” so you’ll know what specific things to ask your readers to pay attention to and to give you feedback on. You want details, both good and bad, not “I liked it.” That tells you nothing. Also, be sure to let them know you’re not looking for a copyedit, though, of course, you’ll appreciate them pointing out mistakes. You are looking for big-picture stuff.
Step #2: Send your manuscripts, and set a deadline
Be sure to give your readers a reasonable amount of time, but do set a deadline. Four to six weeks seems reasonable.
Step #3: Clear your mind
Take this four-to-six-week period to completely forget about your book. In order to properly assess your critiques, you need to be able to look at your book with fresh eyes. Start on a new project or read a book in a totally different genre. Often beta readers will ask you to read their book in return. Perfect.
Step #4: Remember you have veto power
This is your book and you have the final say in what changes you will and won’t make. This is important to keep in mind before you start getting feedback, trust me. Some writers feel like they need to make all of the changes that are suggested to them, especially if it’s from someone they admire. Not so.
Also, this is a good time to remind yourself that the feedback you’ll be getting is about your book and not about you.
Step #5: Do nothing
Time is up and people are sending you feedback. Great. Now sit back and wait until you get all your feedback before acting on the advice from any one reader. Even if it’s something you completely agree with. Remember, you are looking for trends, and one reader isn’t going to give you that. You can certainly read your critiques as they come in, but don’t act on them.
Step #6: Do more nothing
Once you’ve received and read all the feedback, take notes, but otherwise, do nothing for two weeks. It can take a while for you to process all the input you’re getting, especially if your readers are suggesting major changes. Your brain needs time to decide what changes to implement and to think through all the ramifications of how making these changes will affect your story — especially if you receive suggestions that are contradictory or things you don’t agree with.
Step #7: Look for patterns
As I mentioned, you want to take note of trends. If three of your readers make the same comment: “I feel like I lost track of the secondary character’s story,” or “I wanted the main character to get the guy,” or “Why did they decide to go into the mansion when they knew it was haunted?” then you know that may be an area that needs your attention. Sometimes comments like these are just what you’re looking for. They can make you think, “Yes! Why didn’t I think of that?” In cases like that, you’re good to go. But sometimes people point out things you don’t agree with. In which case…
Step #8: Run them up the flag pole
This took me a while to figure out, but this piece of advice is extremely important. And this goes not just for feedback from beta readers, but also casual suggestions or ideas people may randomly give you. Take every suggestion and try it out. Mentally, at least. No matter how crazy it sounds, or how anathema it is to your theme. Run it up the ol’ flag pole. You never know where it will lead you.
Case in point: When my illustrator friend R. H. Lazzell and I were shopping the Mr. Pants series around, one of the first things we did was to print out a couple of copies (it was originally a picture book) and take them to conferences and trade shows. I went to the SCBWI conference in New York and had fun showing various people my book. Up to this point, we had been getting glowing reviews from everyone. Literally no one had ever said a single negative thing to us.
At one point at the show, however, a woman who was sitting next to me saw my book and asked to see it. She read it. Read it again. Started flipping back and forth through the book, with a concerned look on her face. Something was bugging her. Finally, she said, “I don’t like the mom.” The mom? I thought. Who cares about the mom? The entire book was a conflict between Mr. Pants and his sister Foot Foot. The mom didn’t show up until the last page, and she didn’t even say anything. In fact, we only see her from the waist down. She was about as important to the story as the wallpaper. Her only role was to be someone the cats could complain to. But my reader felt the mom character needed to dress in a more modern fashion and that she should be a more central character to the story. I thanked her for her feedback, but I was absolutely dumbfounded and, as much as I hated to admit it, irrationally angry by this critique. The mom?
But I couldn’t shake it. Even as we started to get more positive feedback from industry folks, this one comment kept nagging at me until finally I was like, “All right, already! I’ll write a story about the damn mom!” And I did. It was a short story about the kids playing laser tag, but their mom kept ruining everything by mowing them down. It cracked me up. And it wound up forming the core of what would be our first published book, Mr. Pants: It’s Go Time. The mom not only became a central character, she became my favorite character. All thanks to this one piece of feedback that I initially hated.
From that moment on, I vowed to try whatever advice people threw at me. Kids often give me ideas. They’re always cute and they’re usually ridiculous. “Mr. Pants should go to space!” “Mr. Pants should join the Avengers!” But I try every single one of them out. They almost always lead me somewhere interesting.
Now of course, you can’t actually work every suggestion into your story. You need to choose. But some of these suggestions may lead you to ideas for other books and/or sequels. That leads me to…
Step #9: Implement your changes
You’ve gotten all this feedback. You’ve given it serious consideration for at least two weeks. Now it’s time to decide which ideas you’re going to implement, and which ones you’re going to ignore. Be decisive. Don’t fret over cutting things. Don’t stress over minor details. Make a plan and execute it. Swiftly.
Step #10: Copyedit and set it free
This is the most important step, and the hardest one for many writers. Don’t worry about making this book perfect. At that SCBWI conference I attended, I ran into a dozen people who told me they had been working on their book for three to five years. That’s too long.
Once you have made the changes from your beta reading stage, do not do another round of beta readers. Be confident in what you have. Send your manuscript to a copyeditor — this is a must — and release it into the world, either by self-publishing it or by querying agents and publishers.
Step #11: Start writing your next book
You aren’t done writing, are you?
Getting good feedback from beta readers
How to be a good beta reader
Publishers Are Hiring Sensitivity Readers … Should You?
Interview With Picture Book Author Josh Funk
Know Your Audience Before You Write Your Book