Last month being our unofficial Beta Appreciation Month (and extra love to everyone who helped with the posts!), it seemed appropriate to now discuss what to do with all that yummy feedback your betas have given you. Particularly when it’s not what you expected, or particularly yummy.
Betas all approach manuscripts differently. Some blow through it within a week, others (ahem) could leave you waiting in the silence for months. Some give a general overview of the entire book, a simple assessment of whether or not they enjoyed it. Some go into exhaustive detail about absolutely everything, flagging every dangling participle and missing Oxford comma, and whining that so-and-so’s beard is two shades lighter in chapter twelve than it was in chapter one. Most beta readers fall somewhere between these extremes. They often cite specific examples in the text for their comments, talking about what was good, what was bad, and what could be improved. A good beta reader will both praise and criticize, but will always be constructive. And most beta readers understand that you are waiting in agony for their response. (While you, of course, understand that this is a free kindness from a person with a job, a family, etc, a life, much like your own.)
It’s easy enough to know what to do with your notes when they are brilliant and sparkling with praise and insight. But sometimes the notes are not what you thought they would be. Sometimes, they are disappointing, even vaguely insulting. Whatever the case, do not take them personally. Whether your readers are singing praises or throwing tomatoes, remember that they are not there to assess you. Betas are assessing your manuscript and, unless they’re completely self-absorbed, they want you to succeed as an author. Before anything else, be grateful- even if you didn’t like what they had to say, express your thanks for their willingness to read your work. They took the time to do you a favor and you should acknowledge that.
And then don’t despair. Roll your sleeves back and toughen up, kitty. This game ain’t for sissies.
Read any notes you received carefully. Check them against the manuscript itself so you know exactly what the reader is talking about. (Even though you probably have your entire manuscript memorized by now.) And unless it’s obviously, patently wrong, don’t change anything just yet. Think on it. Mull it over. You are the author and nobody knows your book or your characters like you do. Just because one of your betas didn’t like whatever passage doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be mutilated or cut.
If you find you disagree with a reader, compare the complaints with notes from other readers, too. (Or ask them! Betas love to chatter about the books they’ve read. Picking author brains is a rare treat!) If something is a problem for a sizable chunk of your current readers, it’s probably going to be a problem for a sizable chunk of your future readers, too (including agents, editors, book reviewers, and, eventually, paying customers). But if your other readers didn’t have any problems (or loved it), you may be able to chock it up to a difference in taste. After all, you can’t please everyone.
Sometimes the problems aren’t just a specific scene, though. Sometimes your world building is too vague, your character two-dimensional, your pacing off, or some other major issue that will require a massive overhaul of the entire manuscript. This can be exceedingly daunting. Don’t. Be. Sad. Be happy that this came up before you threw a lame manuscript at your dream agent like a noob. Just understand that your rewrite is going to take more work than you initially thought, and rejoice that your manuscript will be that much better when you’re done.
And smile! Your notes won’t be filled completely with darkness and woe! Even if there is a giant barren patch in the notes, don’t despair. In this situation, no news is usually good news and this can be taken as indirect praise. If your beta isn’t leaving notes, odds are there’s nothing to worry over. It’s when the writing is poor or the story is dragging, even if nothing is overtly wrong, that beta readers tend to be at their most nitpicky. Lack of nitpicks is a good thing.
Also remember to take heed of the positive notes. This is the tastiest part of your feedback! This means that things were just too awesome to pass without comment. These are shining examples of things that you are doing right. When getting a manuscript ready for publication, it’s just as important to know what is working as it is to know what isn’t working. After all, if you don’t know what the readers like and want, you won’t be able to give it to them.
Finally, keep dialogue open with your beta readers. As mentioned earlier, they are usually willing (and eager) to answer questions, as well as ask you a few of their own. Ask them what they thought of a particular passage. Ask them to read a scene you rewrote that they might like better (or worse- you need to know either way). And be sure to jot down any questions they had that they forgot to put in their notes. Talk back and forth about it. Beta readers tend to want to stay involved in the writing process and you would be wise to include them.
Once you have all these little duckies in a row, that’s when you start beautifying your manuscript. Don’t change things until you’re sure they need to be changed. But once you’re sure, don’t hesitate. Editing is a painful process, but a necessary one. With someone else to help you know what needs a little love, it makes your job that much easier.