The Catching and Feeding of Betas

No, not to the sharks. Good betas are too hard to find. Good well-trained betas are worth their weight in gold – or in the case of the plus-sized betas, worth their weight in chocolate.

Since I was asked in the comments of last week’s ramble how one goes about snaring a good beta reader, I figured I’d write a bit on that line today.

First off, to catch your beta you need to go fishing in the right places. If you’re writing high fantasy, you probably don’t want to solicit lit-fic readers. The results can get… interesting. More to the point, they don’t help you. There are online forums that are good for this. For anything not overly literary, the Baen’s Bar forums are a good place to find like-minded folks – but being the online venue of the publisher, there are some tricky etiquette matters in soliciting for readers. Nothing horrible, just don’t ask in an author’s forum unless you’ve got the author’s permission, and don’t ask in the publisher’s forum, period. Oh, and rule #1 over there is “Don’t be a butthead”. This is very important. Engrave it inside your eyelids so you see it every time you blink because it makes for a damn good rule for life in general.

There are other forums around – google and some browsing will find something that works.

Once you’ve found a community of readers hungry for content who don’t mind being asked to beta something, your next step is to solicit for readers. Here you want a nice wide trawling net. You tell people you’re looking for readers for a story. Give them its rough length (novel, short story, novella, whatever – bear in mind that beta-ing a novel is a big time commitment, and doing so chapter-by-chapter is damn near impossible) and the kind of story it is – mil SF, high fantasy with detours into urban fantasy, steampunk on battery acid… That way you’ll get people who have at least passing familiarity with the tropes of the subgenre as well as people who like it. And say up front the kind of feedback you’re hoping for, which can be as simple as “does everything hang together” or “does it hold interest”. Most of the requests I’ve seen are looking for whether the piece works and any glaring throw-the-book-against-the-wall flaws. It does help – a lot – if you have a finished draft to send them. Unfinished works mean that the readers have to try to guess where you’re taking the plot, which distorts any feedback beyond “is it working?”.

You collect names and email addresses, then send out the piece to your list of betas with more detailed (if you want) suggestions on what you want them to look at. Then you wait. You probably won’t get anything back from some, and a lot of what you do get will be – to put it nicely – not much use. Most people aren’t that good at figuring out what makes a story work and what doesn’t help. The normal default is to fall back on what they think they know, namely spelling and grammar.

Once you get the feedback, take note of what works best, and which of your readers made those suggestions. These are the readers you tap first next time around. After a few cycles you’ll find you have a core of people you can trust to tell you if it stinks and if there’s something horribly wrong. You’ll also have built the ability to translate from what your readers say to what is actually bugging them.

That’s it in a nutshell. It can take quite a long time if you’re working with novels, especially if you have a day job. But you will eventually gather your little cadre of trusted betas, some of whom will overlap with other people’s trusted betas. Sometimes they’ll suggest people they know, because they’re too busy with the other authors they’re reading for.

Some other tips: if you’re wanting specific feedback, say on the micro-gravity physics that’s central to your plot, ask for someone with expertise in that area to please review for glaring technical errors. Same for any other technical field: ask and ye shall (probably) receive. Just don’t expect the specialists to have much room for more than “yeah, this will work” or “that won’t work, you need to do X” – scientists, historians and the like who are also genre fiction geeks are very much in demand for all those interesting sticky situations we authors manage to get our characters into. Thank them nicely for anything they can give you.

And of course, thank all your readers for their help. Most of them are legitimately trying to help, and any form of critique takes practice.

9 thoughts on “The Catching and Feeding of Betas

  1. 1. Does it work?
    2. Any throw-book-at-wall flaws?
    3. More detailed suggestions… what would those be? As a beta reader, not an author, I’m perfectly amenable to being trained. Being handed a story and having to guess what feedback the author wants is a whole lot harder than it sounds. I’ve seen one author state she wants line-by-line recording of emotional reactions to first readthrough, another asked her readers to do in-depth plotting analysis, and plenty of “tell me what you think” followed by grumbling that they got a reaction of “it’s good,” and “it’s fine.”

    1. Hi, Dorothy,
      More detailed suggestions vary by author. I’ll often ask my readers to tell me anything that throws them out of the story and why it did that. Others will ask readers to look for continuity errors (“I changed Supporting Character’s name from John to Michael half-way through – can you look for anywhere I missed, please?”). Sometimes it will be something like “if there’s anywhere that seems slow, could you tell me please” or “did you guess the murderer?”.

      “It’s good” and “it’s fine” usually means that the reader couldn’t find any issues. Sometimes something will read fine, but be vaguely unsatisfying and it can take a while to pin down why – an example from my beta-ing for Sarah here. In Darkship Renegades, Sarah has a two-climax structure. The inner plot climaxes a little over half-way through the book, and the outer one near the end. When I read the original draft, I liked it but it felt a little flat and I couldn’t say why. It wasn’t until after she’d sent it to Baen and had her editor making suggestions that for Sarah just didn’t fit with the story she was telling that I realized the problem: her second climax was weaker than the first one so the last part of the book felt ‘flat’. My suggestion was to strengthen the second climax in a way that had more action and emotional punch because I suspected that was what was bothering her editor. She did – but she and I were back and forth over this for a while before I figured out what had been bothering me from the start. So, “it’s good” isn’t necessarily a bad thing to get back – but be prepared for “what about it is good?”

  2. I ask my Beta readers leading questions to elicit what I want to know. Sometimes I send them ahead of time, sometimes I just reference them during a phone conversation to make sure I don’t miss asking about anything:
    • How clear are the scenes?
    o Was there anything that just confused you, in a bad way?
    o Or that you couldn’t figure out?
    o Were there scenes that you had a hard time picturing the action or the setting?
    o Are there any scenes that stood out as particularly enjoyable?
    o Did you have any problems following shifts in perspective or time between scenes? Which specific transitions?
    • How enjoyable is the plot?
    o Do the opening scenes grab your attention?
    o Do the closing scenes resolve everything you think needed to be resolved? How much do you want to read the next book in the series?
    o Is the plot too predictable? Too unexpected?
    o Does the progression of the story make sense to you? Anything stick out as odd, or seem like it doesn’t fit?
    o Was there enough action in the book/story? How was the “pace” of the plot for you?
    • How are the characters?
    o Are there any main characters that you don’t know enough about? Any that you can’t picture, or that you don’t have a sense of how they speak or their personality?
    o Who were your favorite characters? Your least favorite? Did that change at all over the course of the book/story?
    o Was there enough emotion in the story? Too much?
    o Was there enough information about the character’s reasons and motivations for things? Too much? Where, specifically?
    o Was there anything you wished/expected to happen to a character that didn’t, or conversely, that you thought shouldn’t have happened to a character?
    o Did any of the characters do or say anything that seemed “out of character” to you, something that you wouldn’t expect that character to do?
    • Who do you see as the best target audience for what you read? What “Genre” or Amazon category/subcategory (if that’s easier) would you classify it in?
    o Would you recommend others read the book/story? A particular subset of others?
    • How much would you normally expect to pay to buy the book? The Short Story?
    o How much in trade (6” x 9”) paperback form? As an eBook to read electronically?
    • What other feedback do you have that I’ve forgotten to ask you about, but should have? 🙂

    Hope that helps,


  3. I recently did a beta run of a story. My questions: 1) The middle of the story seems flat – does it feel flat to you? 2) Anything that absolutely does not make sense? 3) Do the tactics at the end make sense given the MC’s condition (mental incapacitation)? The responses varied, but pinpointed two changes and one addition that I needed to make for the story to lock in. Note that one of my beta readers is in the military, and had to be reminded that the small-unit tactics were supposed to suck.

    1. I should add that I alpha and beta read for some of my beta readers, so things balance out.

      1. Oh, yes. I beta for Sarah and when she’s not totally up to her eyeballs in contracted work, she betas for me. It does balance out rather nicely that way.

    2. That’s a good set – although I’ve got to giggle at the military person needing to be reminded the tactics were intentionally bad 🙂

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