Outsell James Patterson

5 steps to getting the most from your beta readers

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series How to Win at Authoring

The writing process, which we began together five months ago, is coming to an end, and I want you to think back.

Think about that initial idea. The buzz it brought. The way it made you tingle and smile.

See those characters. How they barged into your mind, demanding you tell their stories.

Remember that first draft. The way the words flew onto the page as though cast by magic. The way it seemed so easy. So right.

This, you told yourself, will be the best work of fiction ever, and I love it.

Haha, how about now? Haha. Hate it don’t you?

Rereading on repeat until it feels more washing machine manual than exciting novel.

Editing until you begin wishing your characters to life so you can murder them.

Spell checking until you fucking hate speeling and wot is teh pont in it anywai?

And don’t even get you started on grammar

Isn’t writing wonderful?

But it’s fine.

Your book is finally crashing towards its end point. Soon you will be taking your final file and holding it aloft like Simba. Presenting it to Amazon as something they will be proud to stock. Rather than throw up at the sight of.

Sorry I did that, by the way.

But first, the final changes.

So far the only people to see your work of art – your masterpiece – are you and me (don’t ask when).

Now, it’s time to open the doors to your first readers. The ones who will provide you with the kind of insight you need to transform your book once more. To lift it from masterpiece to whatever it is that comes after that.

Harry Potter.

And these people are, beta readers.

You’ve heard of them. Wondered what kind of mythical beastie they are. I was in the same boat, but they’re real, and they’re closer than you think.

Your beta readers are your nearest and dearest. The ones who will read your work and tell you where to improve it. They’re vital, but you must use them right.

And how do you do that? Fear not, I’m here to help you find your way with my latest guide…

5 steps to getting the most from your beta readers

1. Write your questions

Wait, what? Questions? Don’t you need only to hand your book to people and ask for their honest opinions?

Honest?! We’ll come to that.

First off, questions.

They’re vital.

Here is the interesting thing about people. They are thoughtless, useless creatures. Designed only to consume literature, TV and film without giving thought to what’s so good or bad about it.

Ask the person next to you why Die Hard is such a brilliant film and they’ll shrug their shoulders and say “it’s good, isn’t it?”

Idiots. They’re so dumb they phrase it as a question. Us writers know better. We understand that Die Hard is so brilliant because…

Anyway, to get decent feedback, you need to do more than hand your book to people and hope they’ll be useful. You need to write questions that allow them to put their useless mind into action for the first time since 1996.

Now, writing questions for your readers is not unusual. Lots of writers do it. But most of them don’t do it right.

They ask things like:

  1. What did you think of the climax?
  2. Was there anything you didn’t understand?
  3. Did you enjoy the character arc of Tony?
  4. Did you think the love story between Davis and a bottle of Rum was as evocative as Jack and Rose in Titanic?

These are great… if you want to open yourself up to the possibility of negative feedback.

Is that what you want? Answers like:

  1. I thought the climax was a little rushed
  2. I wasn’t sure why Brian the dog started talking on page 182 despite there being no sign he could do so before then
  3. Did Tony even have an arc? He started the story by murdering children, and that’s how he ended it. Also, nothing he did seemed to bear any relation to the plot. Did he have to be the main protagonist?
  4. I don’t think you should be romanticising alcoholism.

Remember how sick you were of editing? Remember how you told me that?

Congratulations, you’ve now opened yourself up to a whole load more of that crap.

Not with my method. Not with the use of a special kind of question. A kind of question that will allow you to get exactly the answer you need. This being…

Leading questions.

For example:

  1. The climax was brilliant, wasn’t it?
  2. If there was anything you didn’t understand, do you think you could be the problem?
  3. Everyone else has told me Tony is like you, so he’s perfect, right?
  4. Love is love no matter who it’s between, what are you against gay marriage as well? You make me sick.

See, this way you’re leading people down avenues where they can only tell you your book is perfect. Meaning you get the warm fuzzy’s, and you don’t have to do any re-writing.


2. Choose your betas

Your questionnaires are ready. You’ve printed them out if you have a printer (someone’s doing well) and written them in crayon or blood if not.

Either is fine.

Now you have to select the perfect readers. The ones who won’t let you down. But how do you select a perfect beta?

Well, it’s important to remember that the perfect beta is:

a. someone who loves you

Now, as you’re a writer when you sit down to write a list of everyone who loves you… well, let’s say you won’t need much paper.

Don’t let this dishearten you – people suck anyway.

Plus, no matter how awful you are (pretty awful, I know) there will always be people out there stupid enough to love you.

Start with the obvious. Your girlfriend/boyfriend. Mum. Dad. Siblings (kidding). Pets. And the friends you haven’t alienated by ignoring them or hitting on their partner.

All these folks will likely have some sort of strong feels for you. Your friends and other half are idiots, not to have ditched you yet, and that’s perfect. Idiots are easy to lead.

As for your family, they want to hate you, but genetics won’t let them. Big win there.

So, list complete, it’s time to see how many fall into category two, people who are:

b. incapable of hurting someone’s feelings

Now, you and I know hurting people’s feelings are great.

As writers, we often get wound up. Upset. Plots don’t work, characters are dumb, dialogue is shit.

All manner of things can lead us to misery and the best way to climb out of it is to upset someone else.

(Bonus points if you can make them cry).

But, mad as it may seem, there are people out there that can’t bear to hurt others’ feelings.

There will be plenty of people who will look at your crap manuscript and begin to sweat. They’ll hate it, but they won’t be able to say anything negative about it, for fear of hurting you.


Too many of your friends and family happy to hurt your feelings? Spread your net a little wider.

There are plenty of people out there who don’t even like hurting strangers. It’s good to start getting the numbers of these people, not only for this project but for future projects too. These people are like gold dust.

But not wanting to hurt your feelings isn’t enough. To make the most of these beta readers they need to be:

c. a liar

As writer’s, we are used to dishonesty.

every time we write a line, we are telling a lie.

It’s addictive. It tends to spill over into our personal lives. When we tell our mothers we’re changing our underwear every day. Our girlfriends that we’ll put the toilet seat down. Our friends that we care when they tell stories about their pets. Or children. Or anything that doesn’t involve us.

Yet, for those who don’t lie for a living, sometimes it doesn’t come so easy.

Many people won’t want to hurt your feelings, but also, they won’t be able to lie.

They’ll make silly sad faces and say they don’t want to say this but, actually, your story was pretty rubbish. The characters were weak, and it was all quite racist.

This you don’t need to hear.

What you want is the trifecta. Someone who loves you, who hates to hurt people’s feelings, and who is happy to lie.

When it comes to beta readers the best response you can get is this.  An awkward pat on the shoulder with a “yeah man, it was, uh, great, right, no changes needed… I don’t have to read it again do I?”

No, beta reader, no you do not.

Not until next time.

3. Prep the readers

Your readers are ready. Here’s mum, with her big ‘I’m proud of you no matter what’ smile. Here’s partner with his/her ‘I love you so much I could never hurt you’ eyes. And your dog, with his ‘I’ll tell you whatever you want to know as long as you feed me some God damn treats’, nose.

Plus whoever else.

So now what? You hand them the questionnaire and let them get on with it, right?


First, it’s time to prep your readers.

It won’t take long. It’s a few words as you hand over the manuscript. Something like:

“Thanks for doing this, Pete. My sense of self-worth and happiness are dependant on this project. I would appreciate any honest feedback you’d care to share.”

“You’re a star, mum. It’s taken me a long time to write this and any rewrites would mean I couldn’t come to Christmas. Let me know what you think doesn’t work.”

“Amazing, thanks babe, if you give me any negative feedback, I’ll break up with you. Please tell me what you think. Be honest.”

Such subtle prompts are great. You’re asking them to be honest, but letting them know in a not obvious way you need them to tell you what you want to hear. Not what they think.

4. Assess the feedback

It’s done.

Your beta readers have finished your book.

Well, they say they’ve finished reading your book. I’m sure they did. Well, they will have got halfway through. Almost halfway.

They read the first page.

They enjoyed the cover.

Well, it was alright.

Okay, they hated it.

But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’ve picked people that will lie to you. Who will tell you they loved your book, even when they didn’t. Plus, your questions and prep mean if they did have something real to say, you will never hear it.


5. Make your changes

Haha, this is a joke step.

The results are in. Your book is perfect as is.

No changes needed.

Well done man.

Next time.

So your novel is perfect, ready to go. But it’s not over yet.

Next month, we’re going to be getting your book ready for publishing.

Isn’t that exciting?

Series Navigation<< 5 tips for turning your crap first draft into a decent book5 steps to securing a literary agent >>
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International worst-selling author Mark Ayre has been writing since before he could pick up a pen (somehow). An author of mystery and suspense novels including the James Perry Series of mysteries.

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