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Everything You Need to Know About Beta Reading – How to Make Sense of All that Feedback

Over the last few weeks we’ve looked at how to ask for beta readers, how to work with your eager beta squad, and how to be a beta reader if you’d rather be on that side of things. But how do you make sense of all their feedback? How do you know what to use, and what to discard? You’ll likely receive a lot of notes and once you do, things can get confusing quickly – especially if you leave organising them until the end.

As some of you know by now, I made the mistake of asking twelve betas to help me with Rise of the Sparrows, so naturally I had a huge amount of feedback! Some betas send me large chunks of notes on every chapter, whereas others only send me a few comments for the entire book. I still ended up with 21 A4 pages (typed, not hand-written – now that would have been chaos!), and if I hadn’t organised them from the beginning I imagine I’d have lost my mind doing it all at once at the end.

Please bare in mind that, while this process has worked pretty well for me, it may not do the same for you. If there’s another method you prefer, you’re welcome to share in the comments. I’m sure writers new to this process would appreciate it! 🙂

To start with, I asked my betas to send me lists of notes in emails as they read, rather than one big email with everything once they were done. This allowed me to add to my file here and there, and meant that I didn’t need to apply 21 fudging pages worth at once at the end. (don’t you just shiver at the horror?) Having lists, separated by chapter, also made the organisation itself much simpler.

I created a new document, and added all the chapter numbers with another section for miscellaneous notes at the end. As the feedback came in, I copied it from the email and pasted it into the relevant chapter section in my document. So far, so simple!

Next I colour-coded everything. Here’s a quick summary to give you an idea:

Positive feedback and swoonings

Change, don’t argue

Does this need changing? Come back to this

Questions

Notes

Changes were suggested, but we’ll ignore them

Once changes were applied or I’d made up my mind about everything purple, I changed the colour to a light grey. Here’s what my document looked like by the end:

 

Colour-coding your feedback makes it so much easier to see at one glance how you’re getting on and which chapters need more work. And anyway, it feels good to see all that red and purple turn white!

But how do you know which changes to apply, and what to discard?

It’s simple, really. You want to apply everything related to spelling, grammar, and punctuation – just be smart about it. If you’re British, for example, and your beta reader is American, they might think you’ve spelled ‘neighbours’ wrong because it’s ‘neighbors’ in American English. Unless your beta reader is also an editor, they might get some things wrong.

Opinions are more difficult to sift through, but even those don’t need to be complicated. If a beta says that the last line of Chapter 10 needs something more and you agree that it could do with a little more oomph, you get back to work. If four out of five betas tell you that a specific character didn’t add anything or that the prologue felt like filler, you cut. You may be especially fond of the prologue, or that character might be one of your favourites, but if they’re unnecessary or worse – slow down your plot – you cut them. You may have heard the phrase ‘killing your darlings’? This is what it means.

If, on the other hand, only one beta out of five didn’t like something, you can ignore it unless you agree. Other suggestions you can ignore are those which were meant well, but don’t actually work for your book. You’ll know them when you see them. One beta wanted to see more animals in Rise of the Sparrows, and wanted the ones that are in it to play a bigger part. That’s nice, but it’s not about the animals, so I dyed his suggestion blue and moved on.

Here’s one thing you need to be aware of: if, at any point, you think ‘Yeah, all right, I should probably change that but I can’t be bothered.’ or ‘He’s right, but I’m sick of looking at that chapter now and it’s so much work!’ you fudging apply the changes. I understand being sick of your own words after a while, but never let that stand in the way of a better draft. Not wanting to is never a good enough reason! Take a break, eat a cupcake, drink a bottle of wine by the fire with your favourite movie, and come back to it tomorrow. Or next week; however long you need.

Stephen King talks about this golden rule in his book On Writing: if half of your betas don’t like something and the other half do, you win – meaning you leave it as is. And don’t forget you can always ask your squad if you’re not sure about anything!

Having an ideal reader in mind also helps, so you can ask yourself “What would [insert name here] think?” when you’re stuck. Of course, the clever thing to do would be to ask your ideal reader to be a beta reader or critique partner… That way you don’t have to wonder what they’d think.

In two weeks we’ll look at the difference between beta readers and critique partners – and why you probably want both! 😉

How do you organise your feedback? If you’ve got any useful tips, share away! Or perhaps this is something you struggle with? Ask, and we can figure it out 🙂 Get yourself a tea and a biscuit first – it helps 😉


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Published inA Writer's Musings

4 Comments

  1. My only suggestion to authors receiving beta feedback for the first time, on top of all the awesome stuff you mentioned, is in sliiiight disagreement with one of your points. I wouldn’t take grammar, spelling, etc. corrections at face value. Don’t just automatically apply them because they are technical points rather than more subjective content changes. Most betas are just readers. If they aren’t an actual editor or proofreader, you’re allowed to question their suggestions — as sometimes they can be wrong! But otherwise, yaaas. And I love the color-coded feedback scheme you have here. Awesome!

    • sarinalangerwriter sarinalangerwriter

      That’s an excellent point, Liz, thanks for bringing that up. I’ve made a slight change to the post to reflect it 🙂

      And thank you! Colour-coding is the best 😀

    • sarinalangerwriter sarinalangerwriter

      Thanks, Faith! 🙂

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