If you plan to self-publish your novel—or even if you hope to publish traditionally—beta reading is an essential step on your path to publication. But if you’ve never been through the beta reading process before, then it can seem overwhelming, so I’ve broken it down into a series of baby steps. In this post, I’ll walk you through the first several steps, and before you know it, you’ll be running beta rounds like a pro!
But what is beta reading?
Beta reading is the process of having a group of people read your novel and answer a series of questions about it. Beta readers are able to see the flaws you, the doting mama/papa of your book baby, simply can’t see, which makes them an important part of your journey to publication.
For the answers to all your FAQs about beta reading, check out last week’s post.
The Beta Reading Process
To make your beta rounds run smoothly, you first have to lay some groundwork. The nine steps below will help you do just that, and they should be completed before you send a word of your manuscript to beta readers.
1. Prepare your manuscript.
Before beginning beta rounds, revise and edit your manuscript until it’s squeaky clean. A well-polished manuscript presents a professional image to your betas and encourages them to take both you and your beta reading process seriously. But errors in your manuscript, like bad grammar and incorrect punctuation, can leave a bad taste in a reader’s mouth and make it difficult for them to see the story through the muck.
2. Choose the number of beta rounds.
Beta reading is often done in rounds. In each round, you’ll send a short segment of your manuscript to beta readers along with a list of questions about it. But first, you need to choose how many rounds you’ll run.
More rounds equal a longer beta reading process, which can get tedious for both you and your readers. But sending long sections of manuscript to expedite things can make it hard for betas to remember everything they read and give you helpful feedback. (Trust me, I’ve made this mistake.) So this step requires some finagling to find the right balance between the two.
Often, the number of chapters in your book can offer the easiest solution to this dilemma. For instance, twenty chapters can easily be divided into four rounds of five chapters each—or, if your chapters are long, then switch to five rounds of four chapters each. Thirty chapters? Try six rounds of five chapters each. And so on and so forth.
No matter how many chapters your novel has, I recommend limiting beta rounds to no more than six (and unless your readers are really invested in you or your novel, even six is kind of pushing it). Any more than that, and you run the risk of having readers drop out halfway through. Your betas are human beings with busy lives, so try to balance your needs with theirs.
3. Set your deadlines.
Most beta rounds are one to two weeks long. If you’re sending five chapters (of a reasonable length) at a time, then one week is probably long enough. If each section is closer to ten chapters, then two weeks is best.
Deadlines keep your beta process moving along smoothly, so stick to them religiously! Extending deadlines for this beta and that one—oh, and don’t forget the other one, too—just adds more balls for you to juggle, which will quickly turn your beta process into a nightmare, especially if you’re working on a deadline yourself!
4. Divide your manuscript into segments.
Naturally, the number of segments you need is based on the number of rounds you chose in Step 2. Here are a few tips to help you complete this step:
- From your original manuscript, copy (not cut!) and paste each segment into a separate Word or Google doc.
- Use a simple font (Arial, Times New Roman, Libre Baskerville) in 12 points
- Double-space your work
- Each file name should include the title of your novel, your name, and “Beta Round 1” (2, 3, etc.). This helps you keep your files organized both as you send them out and as feedback begins rolling in.
- In the header of each document, type the title of the book, your name, and “Beta Round 1” (2, 3, etc.)
- Double-check your margins and chapter breaks to make sure everything is nice and tidy (I know from experience that when you copy and paste from Scrivener to Word, things can get really messy!)
If you’re concerned about protecting your work, then you can take these steps as an extra precaution:
- In the footer of each document, write “copyrighted material”
- Add a watermark saying “copyrighted” to your document – this prevents betas from being able to just copy and paste your work into their own document (just keep the watermark faint so betas can still read your novel)
- Save your files in PDF – this prevents readers from being able to make any changes to your document
5. Prepare beta questions for each segment.
In every round, you’ll send a section of your manuscript and a list of questions relevant to those chapters. For instance, when a new character is introduced, you may want to ask if readers liked him (or hated him, if that’s what you were going for). In the last round, you’ll want to ask if readers felt like the climax was a big enough payoff for reading the whole book. And so on…
You can ask Professor Google for help writing your beta questions, or use these great resources as springboards:
One note of caution: be careful not to overload your beta readers with too many questions! Ten (or less) per round is a good rule of thumb to follow, so choose your questions wisely.
And another tip: At the top of every beta question document, include a line for your beta readers to type their name on. This will be really helpful when you’re compiling your feedback on your spreadsheet (coming next week!).
6. Write your Beta Reader Agreement.
This agreement is optional…but wise. This “contract” between you and your betas serves two purposes:
- It presents a professional image and lets your beta readers know that you take your work—and the beta reading process—seriously. Knowing this, they’ll be more likely to take it seriously, as well.
- It offers a level of legal protection for you if one of your beta readers plagiarizes some part of your novel. (This is rare but possible.)
Here’s the agreement I used for Reflection. Feel free to copy it (using your own information, of course).
7. Enlist beta readers.
In your eagerness to get started, you may have already done this. If not, then now is the time to put out a call for beta readers. Where do you find them? You’ll find several tips on this in my last post.
Your request should include a brief synopsis of the book, the timeline for the beta reading process, and what you’re looking for in a beta reader (young adults who love space operas, women who adore military dramas, etc.).
If your book contains sensitive issues (like suicide or rape) or things that may be offensive to readers (such as sex scenes, profanity, or gore), then be sure to note this in your post. Surprising betas with things like this is likely to draw negative feedback and may even cost you a beta or two. So let your beta readers know what they’re getting into before they agree to read for you.
8. Have potential beta readers fill out an “application.”
This step is completely optional, but if your potential beta readers are strangers to you, then you may wish to have them fill out a brief application, of sorts (and it is well within your right to do so!).
There are three benefits to having betas complete an application:
- It helps you determine whether they belong to your target audience or not.
- Knowing your beta readers on a more personal level can make you feel more comfortable about sharing your work with them.
- The way they answer these questions (or don’t answer them at all) can raise red flags that indicate they’re just not the right fit for you or your project.
The questions you ask will be tailored to your needs, but they could include:
- How old are you?
- Are you a parent? If so, what age group(s) are your kids in?
- What literary genres do you love?
- If you’re a writer, what genre do you write in?
- What is your religion? (This question is only necessary if your book is intended for a specific religious audience)
- Do you have a blog, website, or social media pages? If so, please share a link so I can support you there! (Most people are happy to share their online presence with you, and viewing these pages can give you some great insight into your prospective betas. Some will give you good vibes. Others? Not so much.)
- What are your views on _______?
This last question should only be included if a specific social issue or ideology is featured prominently in your book. For instance, if your story makes the case for legalizing marijuana, then you probably don’t want a whole team of betas who are openly hostile on that issue.
However, having one or two betas who disagree with your premise isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can be helpful to receive insights from people who have an opposing viewpoint. And if your story actually changes their minds on the issue, then you know you’ve got a winner on your hands. So don’t automatically reject prospective beta readers who don’t share the beliefs or ideologies portrayed in your book. They may, in fact, be your target audience. And if they’re willing to have an open mind, then their feedback may be pure gold.
9. Have readers sign the Beta Reader Agreement.
Once you’ve chosen your team of beta readers, send them each a welcome email and attach your Beta Reader Agreement to it. In the email, you should:
- Thank them for offering to read for you
- Ask them to sign and date the Beta Reader Agreement (typing their name on the line serves as a sufficient signature.)
- Ask them to email the signed agreement back to you by whatever deadline you set
Each time an agreement is returned to you, open the file to make sure it’s actually signed. (Not that betas would be dishonest about this, but human beings and technology don’t always get along.) Then either print a hard copy for your files or simply save the email in a special folder.
Give yourself a big pat on the back, my friend, because you’ve done a lot of work to get to this point! But thanks to your hard work, you’ve laid a strong foundation for your beta reading process and you have a roster filled with beta readers eagerly waiting to read your novel.
Now what do you do with them???
Well, I’ll tell you, but not until…
Next time on Work in Progress:
In “A Step-by-Step Guide to Beta Reading: Part 2,” we’ll go through the remaining steps in the beta reading process, including what to do with all those lovely readers, how to compile beta feedback, and more. I’ll also share a few super-helpful organizational tools that will keep your beta reading process running like clockwork.
Until then, buckle up, buttercup, and let’s write!
In case you missed it: Last time on Work in Progress, I answered all your Beta Reader FAQs—what a beta reader is, why you need them, where to find them, and much more!