Hello, writers! Hannah here. This week, author and editor Lewis Jorstad of The Novel Smithy is sharing his beta reader experience with us. These lessons are fantastic, and I hope they help you as you begin to self-edit! You can learn more about Lewis at the end of this post.
Just a few months ago I was deep into self-editing my latest book, The Ten Day Edit, and things were going well. I had wrapped up my third draft and put a quick coat of polish on my prose, meaning it was officially time to seek outside feedback.
I’m sure you know what I mean. From beta readers to critique partners and professional editors, there are tons of ways to get an outside eye on your manuscript, regardless of whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. The benefits are obvious—after so long working on your book, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. Outside opinions change that, helping you get a clearer perspective of your own writing and complete a more thorough round of editing.
Personally, I worked with a team of awesome beta readers, and I couldn’t be happier with my decision. Of course, this article is more about what I learned through my beta readers, rather than how I found and worked with those readers.
If you’d like more advice on finding and working with beta readers, check out this article: Why Indie Authors Need Beta Readers.
Instead, today I’d like to share some of the lessons my beta readers taught me. Hopefully, by the end you’ll have not only learned some valuable writing lessons, but gotten even more excited to find beta readers of your own!
Lesson #1: There’s Always Room for Improvement
After a solid few months of self-editing, it’s easy to feel like your manuscript is “done.” Even if you know there are a few lingering flaws, you’ve put in the work, and those problems aren’t too detrimental—right?
Well, not necessarily.
I was surprised to find that many of my favorite chapters in The Ten Day Edit were the ones my readers had the most trouble with. Fortunately, some of the sections I thought were the weakest were my beta readers’ favorites!
Really, this just comes down to needing an outside opinion. You’ll always approach your manuscript from your own limited perspective, and that means you’ll miss some problems and obsess over others. By getting a few fresh eyes on your book, you’ll likely be just as surprised as I was by what your readers actually think.
Lesson #2: Not Everyone Will Like Your Book
Piggybacking off of Lesson 1, my beta readers reminded me that every book has an audience—and people outside that audience. While there’s always something small you can improve, sometimes a reader won’t connect with your work by no fault of your own. Let me elaborate a bit.
When I reached out to my readers, I was careful to pick people I thought would enjoy my book, while also being critical enough to give me solid feedback. All of my beta readers had read the other books in the series, and all of them were enthusiastic about this one.
So, when one of them told me this new book had nothing valuable to offer, I was pretty shocked.
My other beta readers all gave me very positive feedback, so this reader was definitely an outlier. Yet, I couldn’t stop stewing over their words. What had gone wrong? How had I failed so miserably that they would hate this third book?
It was only after a lot of self-reflection that I realized The Ten Day Edit just didn’t connect with where they were in their writing journey, and that that was ok.
Not every reader will like every book you write, even if they liked your previous ones. While you should always listen and thank them for their feedback—even if you don’t like it—remember to take things with a grain of salt. Sometimes, they’re simply not in your target audience.
Lesson #3: Gather a Variety of Opinions
Working with beta readers is all about gathering outside feedback, but how much outside feedback do you need?
Originally I had planned to work with around four beta readers. However, at the last minute I opened it up to a larger group of people, and ended up getting closer to ten—and wow, am I glad I did!
You see, beta readers are at their best in large groups.
Just like you should always take criticism with a grain of salt, you should also be cautious of praise. Of course, that’s easier said than done, which is where a larger group of readers becomes so helpful.
Rather than only having a handful of opinions to work from, now you have a better sample size. Instead of a single voice standing out, you can see the bigger picture—which was the point of all this in the first place!
Lesson #4: Read Between the Lines
Similar to gathering a wide range of feedback, this process also reminded me not to take feedback at face value.
Beta readers aren’t professional editors, but normal readers, and this means their feedback won’t be as specific as you might expect. Instead of, “your protagonist’s Midpoint was weak,” they’ll say, “it doesn’t feel like your hero earned their victory.”
This is where knowing your craft and reading between the lines becomes so important.
Rather than trying to address every comment your readers sent, look at the bigger picture. What patterns do you see? Did multiple readers find the same issues? This is where you should focus your attention, rather than running yourself in circles trying to fix holes that might not be as significant as you think.
Lesson #5: Trust Your Gut
Finally, at the end of the day you just have to trust yourself.
Just like I struggled to process that negative email I got, you’ll also receive feedback you simply don’t know what to do with. Learning how to sift through that feedback and address or ignore different parts of it is a big part of the self-editing process.
As a general rule, when a problem comes up from multiple readers, it’s something worth paying attention to—but even that isn’t set in stone. Sometimes you’ll have a bigger vision behind the scenes, while other times your book might genuinely need an overhaul.
At the end of the day, you’re the author, and you have to decide what’s right for your book.
Just Another Part of the Process!
Of course, beta readers are just one part of a much larger editing process.
While you might end up working with beta readers like I did, there are also critique partners and professional editors out there just waiting to help. You can work with just one, or you can mix and match any number of them—whatever works for you and your book!
Ultimately, try to get at least some outside opinions of your book if you can, and remember…
Writing is a constant journey—don’t be afraid to learn from it!
About the Author
Lewis Jorstad is an author, editor, and certifiable history nerd who helps others tell compelling, memorable stories over at The Novel Smithy. When he isn’t working on the next book in his Ten Day Novelist series, you can find him playing old Gameboy games and trying to explain the nuances of Feudal Japan. You can also check out his free ebook, The Character Creation Workbook, and grab a copy for yourself.