Beta Readers 2 – Testing Them Out and Breaking Them In

Last time here at Here I Go, I wrote a bit about what beta readers are and aren’t.  This was all information I had gathered second-hand and from afar.  Stuff I knew from incessantly reading about and craving the writer’s life.

Last month, I went out and got some beta readers of my own.

I’ve have mentioned elsewhere on the blog that before quitting to do this full time, I’ve been writing as much as I can in my spare time for years.  Since 2nd grade, actually, but that’s a story for another post.  I have a good friend from college that writes also.  And he’s been very generous and supportive of all of my efforts to write.  Pretty much all of my friends have been, honestly, and I appreciate that more than I have been able to express to them.  But this one friend has more or less similar tastes and sensibilities to my own, and has always been around for me to critique and read whatever I send him.  I’ve been treating him as my catch-all beta reader for over a decade.

Somewhat more recently, another college friend also offered to read for me, and she has been very marvelous.

But I need more than just the same two voices for all of my critiques.  I need to get a wider array of opinions to feel more comfortable with how I’m coming across to a more diverse audience.  So I needed to recruit more beta readers.  To do this, I simply posted to FaceBook something along the lines of, “Would you like to volunteer to help me out by reading and critiquing my writing before it gets published?”  That was a pool of somewhere around 500 relatives, colleagues, former coworkers, and friends from every stage of my life.

But before I could ask people to read what I had written, I had to write it first.  So, I made sure that I had two stories lined up that I was ready to have torn apart.  And my choice of stories was serendipitous.   I grabbed the first story I had written start-to-finish since I began full-time writing, and the one I had most recently completed.  The most recent one, I absolutely adored.  It’s probably the best piece I’ve written to date.  The other was……  in need of some serious help.  After reading it the first time, my wife basically said that it was a spring cleaning of my soul, venting away all the pain and stresses of my life in a lab. I hadn’t considered that while writing it, but looking back on it, it certainly shows.

In short, though, I had two stories to send out, one in which I was confident, and one that I knew had problems, and I knew what many of those problems were. (But not all – that’s why beta readers were important!)

After my FaceBook call for help, I received close to 30 offers, far more than I expected.  I wrote out some detailed explanations and instructions that I emailed to the volunteers with the stories, as well as this list of questions:

  1. How did the story make you feel? What emotions (if any) did it elicit?
  2. Did any part of the story feel unnecessary, like it didn’t need to be there?
  3. Was there anything that was confusing – that you didn’t think flowed well or where you didn’t understand what was going on?
  4. Did the people act believably? Did it seem like they were acting the way real humans act?
  5. Don’t worry much about typos or grammar. If you catch something, great, let me know, but the point of this is more the feel and flow of the story.
  6. Were there any parts you really liked? Any you really didn’t?
  7. Did you get bored and want to put it down before you finished at any point? If so, where?

I gave them two weeks, with warning in advance that I would send out periodic reminders of when I wanted critiques back.  I felt the two weeks would be long enough, as each story was just shy of 5,000 words.  If I had been sending novel chapters, I would have given longer.

By the end of the two weeks, about a third of the volunteers had responded, which was, again, far more than I expected.

Of those nearly ten responses, some were insanely insightful and helpful.  Others were happy and friendly and polite.  A few were downright scathing, all of which I appreciated. They ranged from “I liked it”, to “here’s a list of the things I liked and the things I didn’t”, and they spanned from “This bit was a nice nod to the actual science that came out a year ago” to “that (science fiction element) doesn’t exist! take it out!”

In the end, three reviews in particular I am most excited by.  They are all from people that I know have similar reading tastes to myself, and come from somewhat different backgrounds, and live in very different parts of the country.  One had a very critical eye on both stories, pointing out problems in voice, tone, structure, etc. that I had not seen myself, while still being supportive and constructive.  One saw each story almost exactly as I saw them.  He saw every problem in my problem story that I saw, and he felt nearly the same as me for the one I was happier with.  The third reviewer was more kind, yet still insightful.  He saw good things in the ‘problem’ story that I didn’t, his comments were helpful, and the problems he saw were more with understandability and narrative flow than the first reviewer.

So, as an initial foray into finding beta readers, I feel very lucky.  I have a pool of very loving and supportive people to draw from.  I have several different points of view and walks of life looking at my writing critically.  While some of the reviews this time around may not have been as helpful as others, I don’t fully expect to have the same people respond every time, or the same way.  One beta reader may be insightful this time and miss the mark completely the next, or vice versa.

As I start churning out more and more inventory, we’ll see how many of the current volunteers will have the time or willingness to continue on, and who else joins in the fray!

Until next time, Here I Go,



About Matthew Shean

Matthew Shean is the author of several forthcoming novels and myriad short stories. He received his Ph.D. from the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences in New York, NY, and spent 20 years as a research scientist throughout the northeastern United States. He now lives in Long Island (against his will), with his loving family and disdainful cats.
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1 Response to Beta Readers 2 – Testing Them Out and Breaking Them In

  1. Awesome! Excited to follow your progress!


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