Beta-testing: 5 things I learnt about using beta readers

First things first; thank you to everyone who agreed to beta read for me. While I’d asked people to give the occasional short story a quick once-over, The Secret Notebook of Sherlock Holmes was the first time I’d asked people to read a whole (admittedly short) collection. I learnt a lot along the way, and I think the final product is improved as a result – although  the readers will be the judges of that!

Anyway, here are some things I did which seemed to work, and some things I learnt along the way:

1. Ask more people than you think you’ll need, and ask a range of people. I secured 10 beta readers, and in the end I got 6 full responses. No matter how enthusiastic people are at first, sometimes life gets in the way. I wanted feedback from non-writers as well as writers, so my group was about half-and-half. I also wanted to try to make sure that my book could work in the US/Canada as well as the UK, so I made a point of asking for US betas in an online writers’ group. The thing I would make clearer next time is exactly what people would be reading. I thought I had this time, but I suspect that at least one person agreed to beta read and then realised it wasn’t their genre.

2. Make a list of questions or topics you’d like your betas to address. Some of the questions I asked were:

  • Is the book funny?
  • Is there enough period detail (it’s set in the late-Victorian/Edwardian era)?
  • Are there any stories that really don’t work?
  • Who do you think would enjoy this book?
  • What do you think would be a realistic price? (I prefer print books myself, so the last question was very important to help me set a competitive price)

The responses I got were unified enough to help me take decisions on all these points. What I was trying to guard against was the ‘yeah, it was nice, I enjoyed it’ responses which don’t tell you anything useful. If you’re stuck for where to start with questions, Google ‘beta reader questions’ and take inspiration from the blog posts you’ll find.

3. Make a spreadsheet, table – whatever – to allow you to compare responses. It’s great to be able to see the feedback all in a line, and (hopefully) consistent, and it’s much easier to spot the outliers.

4. Don’t jump the gun – wait until you have a full range of feedback before starting to edit. As responses came in, saying ‘yes great overall except I didn’t get that story’, I was tempted to start chopping, changing, and deleting … and then another email would arrive saying ‘LOVED that one.’ In the end I amended the ending to one story, because more than one beta reader had said they weren’t keen on it, and rewrote another ending because a couple of people were confused by it. The end result is a possible spinoff (which I’m now outlining), so I’m more than happy.

5. Some betas – and others – will go above and beyond. I refer to the beta reader who not only answered the questions fully but also (get this) included a full diary of her reactions to each story while reading and whether she solved the mystery or not, which gave me a brilliant snapshot of the reading experience. I also refer to my proofreader who (for free) not only proofread but also fact-checked, including info about which trains went from which London railway terminals during specific historical periods, and the surprisingly late invention of the gramophone. I was, frankly, gobsmacked. And no, get off, you can only find out my proofreader’s identity if you buy the book! Let’s just say that I owe a lot of people an awful lot of favours, and leave it at that.

So there you have it; what I learnt from my first ever round of beta-readers. Thank you again – you were a big help, and the Secret Notebook wouldn’t be the book it is without you.


The featured image is Reading by John Loo, and is reproduced by permission of Creative Commons license 2.0.

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5 thoughts on “Beta-testing: 5 things I learnt about using beta readers

    1. Thank you! Making a question list helped me to clarify the areas to prioritise for feedback. Some questions tested my assumptions of what readers might think, and some were about mechanics like price, format, etc. Having done it once I’d definitely follow a similar approach next time.

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