For all seven books I’ve published, a critical part of my process has been to enlist the help of beta readers—people who read early drafts of a manuscript and offer their feedback. Ellen Bass and I first utilized beta readers thirty-five years ago when we were writing The Courage to Heal. At several points during the 3.5 years that it us took to write that book, we asked incest survivors, therapists, colleagues, and writers/readers who had good editing skills to review the book. We sent them a big fat printed manuscript in the mail with a list of questions we wanted them to answer. We asked that they read with a pen in their hands, making notes in the text and in the margins reacting to what they were reading, to note anything that felt off or missing, times they were confused or moved or triggered or bored—basically to document their experience as a reader. We wanted the people who were our core audience for the book (in this case, incest survivors) to share their “user’s experience” reading the book. We asked therapists to review the pedagogy of the book and to let us know if we were off or missing anything. And we wanted the good editors to help us with awkward phrasing, repeated words, poor syntax and structure. We asked our readers if they genuinely had the time for the task and if they said yes, asked if they preferred bound or unbound copies. We sent them out and gave our readers a deadline—generally a month and told them we HAD to have it back a week before we actually did. If they were out of town, we included a prepaid mailer to ship it back.
Most of our beta readers met the deadline; some needed lots of nudging. There were always one or two people who had something in their life come up that kept them from completing the task—we accounted for attrition through the number of people we asked. During the month that our beta readers were reading, we also printed out the manuscript and read it ourselves, so we could step away from the minutiae of words, paragraphs, and sentences, and get a more objective sense of the whole.
At the end of the month, it was time to digest all that feedback. In the olden days, when all this was done with hard copies, Ellen and I created a big, long workspace in her office—a double table that would enable us to have all the copies laid out (maybe up to a dozen) in front of us. We’d go through the manuscript page by page and look at what everyone said. Some readers wrote lots of notes all over the manuscript. Others had their reaction in their heads and failed to write down much at all, so their feedback wasn’t very useful (this is another reason we asked so many people to read for us). Though, sometimes, one gem from a reader was worth all the things they neglected to say.
One thing people might not expect is that we usually tossed out the highest praise and the worst criticism. People who were over the moon loving the book—well, that’s good for the ego—but not very helpful when it comes to rewriting, because every book can be improved. And with every book, there was usually one person who was deeply triggered or offended by something in the book whose comments were so clearly not objective, but reactive, that they weren’t valuable either. Though having people hate your book in the early stages is actually a good inoculation against the reality that once you put your book out into the world people are going to love it, hate it, and everything in between.
Once we had all the feedback laid out on the big long table, we’d look at each comment and decide how we felt about it. If it was an easy fix or addition (like a typo or a missed word) we’d fix it right then and there. But sometimes it was something that required more thought and discussion and we’d flag it to return to later. Some comments we disregarded because we disagreed, but generally, if more than three people said the same basic thing, we listened. Sometimes people could identify that there was a problem in the manuscript, but didn’t have the skills to discern or identify what that problem was. We’d have to do that.
There were always some people whose feedback we weighted more heavily for a variety of reasons (for instance, our editor from our published house), but we took in what everyone had said and assessed it carefully. And all that feedback—from our target readers, professionals involved in the subject, and talented editors—definitely created a much better next draft.
With The Burning Light of Two Stars, I did all of this digitally. For the most part, people read and commented online. I enlisted three sets of beta readers during the last several years of the book’s development. With each round, I asked different questions and was seeking different answers: “How do you feel about my portrayal of my mother?” was the one question I asked repeatedly. And “How would you describe the relationship between this mother and daughter?” I definitely wanted my mother to come across as human and three-dimensional on the page. I didn’t want anyone to feel that I was making her out to be a villain or that I had a vendetta against her. So, when people responded, “You were as hard on yourself as you were on her.” And “I loved your mother. What a great character!” I felt reassured that I’d succeeded.
“Where did you feel confused or pulled out of the story?” was another question I like to ask. And “Would you have kept reading the book if you hadn’t promised to read it? Why or why not?” Those were valuable answers. From that round of beta readers, I learned that I had a real problem with the first third of the book—I wasn’t setting the hook effectively and my pacing was off. I was introducing too many story threads at the same time, and the net result was confusion—and confusion means a reader puts a book down and doesn’t pick it up again.
Once I worked over that part of the book, with the help of my coach Joshua Townshend-Zellner, I got a fresh set of beta readers, people who didn’t personally know me or know anything about my history, and asked them to just read the first third of the book to see if they’d get hooked. Thankfully, I got a lot of responses like, “I couldn’t put it down.” “I stayed up reading till 2 AM.” “I can’t wait to read the rest!” Not everyone responded that way, but not everyone is my ideal reader. Enough people got hooked by the story that I knew I’d licked that problem.
Hurrah for beta readers!
I’ve never had trouble finding beta readers—and I’ve never paid them. It’s a gift of love to an author and I’ve always found willing readers who are excited at the prospect of being in on the ground floor of a creative project. I usually start with people I know: my students, past and present, fellow authors, friends, family members (when appropriate), and then expand from there, for instance, seeking out people professionally affiliated with my subject matter. For The Burning Light of Two Stars, for instance, I asked the head of the local Alzheimer’s Association to be a beta reader so she could tell me if I got the details about caregiving and memory loss right.
And for my final round of readers, I asked people to ask their friends or friends of friends who like to read memoir, so that I could have readers who knew nothing about me, my history, or my prior books, in other words, people who had no reason to want to please me—real readers. Their thumbs up told me I was ready to publish. The book was done!
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