This essay was written for and orginally published at Working Stiffs.

How do I keep my beta readers happy?
by shannono

In my last essay on beta reading, I tackled the sticky questions of how the process works and how best to ease into it. Now that I've helped you find a beta reader or two, I'd like to offer some suggestions on how to keep them around. I promise to be less long winded this time. ;)

Betas for life

Building a beta relationship doesn't stop when you get that story back, all marked up. Oh no, that's just the beginning. You have to follow through.

Actually, go back to the very start: before you even start sending the story out, let your betas know up front about how many other people will be reading it, and in what order. Longer stories, especially, can go through two or three rounds of beta, and authors will often send first drafts to a couple of people for deep massage beta, then follow up with different betas for final polishing. I've used this process with a few stories and it works well because you get extra sets of eyes, and because the revision process can result in problems being edited *in*.

Once you've hooked in ... er, acquired some beta readers for your story, keep them informed of your progress. This is crucial for longer pieces, especially if you run into writing delays that push your schedule back, or if the story starts expanding as you write. A beta reader who signed up for 200K to be finished in a month might run into problems if she ends up with 400K over three months later. Beta readers have other commitments, too, whether it's other beta work, their own writing, or real life. All of this goes double for WIPs; some people don't like to read WIPs, so it's unlikely they'd want to beta one.

When you have a draft ready, get it ready to send to your first-round beta team, whether that's everyone or just a couple of people. Don't worry about headers and thanks on stories that will go through more than one round, but include them if you're only doing one level of beta. Headers need editing, too. <g>

It's a good idea to break up your draft into post-sized pieces when you send it out, so the betas will get an actual feel for how it will flow. Each e-mail should be under about 25K each. Some guidelines say 32K, but many lists add footers and advertisements that pile another 5K or so on, so 25K works best. If you don't want to break things up completely, at least indicate in the text where message breaks are likely to fall.

(One side note: I won't get into all the formatting concerns here, but I strongly suggest writing *offline*, in some kind of word processing program, such as Word or WordPad, or a good text editor, rather than in e-mail or SimpleText. This will allow you to write the story in one long file, instead of in little pieces, which will make it much easier to move parts around during the beta process.)

Before you start sending the story out, write a brief introduction to the story in either a separate e-mail or at the top of the first message. Mention any concerns you have (plot, dialogue, pacing, characterization) and give your betas an idea of when you'd like comments back, whether it's "whenever," "as soon as possible," or "by Thursday night, if you can, because I'll be back from my trip then and I'd like to post before I have to go back to work on Monday."

Then sit back and wait for the comments to roll back in!

Mind your manners

When they do, the first thing you should do, as soon as you can, is write back to let your beta know you received her comments. You can either do this immediately, or wait until you've looked through the comments, but you shouldn't wait long. E-mail can be quite tricky, and your beta may think the message was simply lost in the ether, so let her know you got it as soon as you can.

Also, if you're using two or more sets of beta readers, it's a good idea to e-mail the next group to let them know you've got the first-round comments and estimate how long it'll be before they can expect the next draft. That allows them to make whatever plans they need.

Once you've looked over your beta's comments, you might want to write back and explain or discuss certain points. If your beta doesn't think something Scully does is in character, for example, you could explain why you think it works. She doesn't have to agree, and you don't have to make the changes she suggests; it's still your story. But you should at least consider her comments, because if it doesn't work for her, it's likely it won't work for at least some other readers. One technique I've used with great success is to offer a revision of the section in question as a substitute, usually not quite like either what I wrote or what the beta suggested. That usually gets a positive reaction.

If you're using several betas, it's likely that they may clash on certain points, and you might not be able to reconcile the different comments into something coherent. In this case, you have to choose which suggestions to use, or discard them all. On the other hand, if several betas zero in on the same section, then it's fairly certain it needs changing. How to change it, however, is still up to you.

When you're finished incorporating your beta readers' comments, you're either ready to post or ready for another round. If the latter is the case, follow the same rules as the first round -- break the story up into post-size pieces and write an introduction, then acknowledge the comments you receive.

"Thank you for the lovely beta"

So now your story is finished and ready to post. Give it one last read (or let someone else give it a look), for typos and other minor problems, then put in your thanks. Do NOT forget this step, and do NOT leave anyone out (with the exception of the case in the next paragraph). List all of your betas in whatever manner you wish, in the headers or at the end. Offer them chocolate or Mulderclones or your firstborn children. Get a little ridiculous if you want -- more so with lighter stories than serious ones, of course. But don't leave this step out. If you do, e-mail and grovel for forgiveness, and add the name(s) to the story for archiving purposes.

One thing every author should consider during all this: while it's your story, it also reflects on your beta readers. Their names are on the story, too, after all. Therefore, if you have discarded all or most of the comments from any one beta, you would be well-advised to write her and explain. Whether it's a matter of style or perspective differences, she deserves to know that you've chosen to go another direction with the story. She also deserves the right to have her name left off the story if she's decidedly unhappy with the final version. This can and should be done with a minimum of embarrassment or hurt feelings on either side; sometimes even the closest of friends disagree.

And finally, try not to hit up the same people for beta all the time without at least offering to reciprocate, even if you don't feel you're that good at it. It's exactly like a social invitation -- you should always offer an invitation in return, even if it's declined. Etiquette counts in fanfic, too.

Now, I don't promise that if you follow these guidelines you'll never have a problem. But it certainly can't hurt!


© Copyright 2000 by shannono

Thanks to Robbie for beta reading. Comments welcome at




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