What I Do With Beta Reader Feedback

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After I have taken a pass through my first draft, I enlist 2-4 beta readers, people I know who are willing to read my work and give me feedback. Gwen Stephens inspired this post by asking me how I process  my betas’ feedback after she graciously agreed to be my beta and provided phenomenally useful comments.

1) I read through all the comments from every beta. This allows me to see patterns and make a list of common issues to address.

If everyone is having trouble with my fantasy world terminology–then I know I need to slow down and explain it better and include a glossary of terms.

2) I tackle the easiest first.

My betas either give me big picture comments or track changes comments in the manuscript. I will go through what I think are the easiest fixes first.

3) If I am confused by a comment or unsure what to do, I flag it for follow up later.

I’ll email a beta if I don’t understand what they are looking for. If I don’t agree, I flag it and revisit it later. You’ll be amazed how much more sense a comment will make a week or two later.

4) I secretly write back to beta comments I don’t agree with.

It’s ridiculous and silly, but I need to know why I am so set against it. And 95% of the time, the beta is right. So I have to argue with their comment on the page so I can reach that place where I see their point. I never ever argue with a beta in reality. They took the time to give me their feedback, it’s up to me to process it on my own.

5) Sometimes, the comments I am most opposed to are the ones that require the most work and re-envisioning of my story. Sometimes, they just don’t fit what I’m going for. 

It takes a while to separate those two types of comments. The former need to be addressed, the later need to be considered and have a well-reasoned argument to dismiss them.

6) I’m always surprised by how much of the story remained in my head and never made it onto the page.

I’ll read comments and say, but that is there and then realize nope, it’s there in mind but I never made it clear on the page.  For me, that is the greatest strength of a beta. They don’t have access to what is in my head so they can only tell me their reactions to what I’ve actually written. Since what I’ve written was created in my mind, the words trigger so much more for me than they do for others.

7) Sometimes weeks later, a beta comment will click and I’ll make another change.

It’s weird how long it can take for something to sink through my thick skull. If I can’t see it, I don’t make the change. But sometimes weeks pass and suddenly the light bulb goes off and of course I need to do that and now I know exactly how.

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51 Responses to What I Do With Beta Reader Feedback

  1. “I’m always surprised by how much of the story remained in my head and never made it onto the page.” Yes! Isn’t that funny? I’ve just started to realize this, and it does show you just how important those readers are!

  2. Carrie Rubin says:

    Very true with number six. We know our story so well, but we have to remember we have info the reader doesn’t. And I agree–if more than one beta is saying the same thing, we better look closely at it, no matter how much the suggestion might pain us. 🙂

    • And sometimes we think we’ve conveyed info but we haven’t. 🙂 Oh yes. It definitely merits a closer look. And those suggestions that hurt the most are usually the most helpful to the story. 😉

  3. Excellent post, Kourtney! I think you’ve got this beta reader thing down. I found it interesting how many of my beta readers commented on certain parts of my manuscript that were obviously in need of revision, but a few made comments that felt completely off. Those were the ones that hit me weeks later to be cogent. Sometimes an idea just needs to percolate though my brain for a while.

    On a side note, I’m so glad I found your blog again. You fell out of my reader feed for some reason.

    • Thanks Elizabeth! LOL. Feedback is hard to process. But if we don’t, our story can’t reach it’s fullest potential. Yeah, it’s the ones I am most vehemently opposed to that take weeks to make sense and then bam, I get it. Rarely, those are just things that aren’t right for my vision of the story, but it’s very hard to separate it out. 🙂 Exactly, I can’t make a change unless I see the problem as clearly as the beta does. Until then it gets flagged for follow up.

      Me too. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. good advice, thanks, LMA

  5. I can relate to 4 and 5. I also see 6 a lot in my writer’s group when people feel they have to explain why something happened or what a character was thinking.

    • Yeah, 4 & 5 are important–those comments that are hot buttons are usually really important to the story. 🙂 If we find ourselves having to explain something–that’s definitely a red light flashing that something has to be reworked on the page. None of us will be sitting beside our readers and be able to say, “Oh well this is what I meant.”

  6. Ally Bean says:

    This post fascinates me. I enjoy knowing everyone’s process. Doesn’t matter what someone is doing, I like to know the “how” of it. I especially like your point #4. If more ppl took the time to think through why someone else is wrong, we’d live in a much more harmonious world, wouldn’t we? 😉

    • Thanks Ally. I think we all have to develop a method that works for us. This is simply what works for me. It’s funny because I will find myself getting worked up over a comment, but a part of me knows this likely means it’s valid on some level. So I fight with the comment and usually within a few weeks it becomes something I want to do. 😉 Especially is they thought it through instead of jumping on the person and verbally attacking them–much more harmonious. 🙂

  7. I found it hilarious that you secretly argue until you get the point. I don’t know why… It just hit my funny bone.

    You’re right, though, that feedback is such a generous gift and should be used with the spirit that the giver intended. 🙂

    • Kitt, as I’m doing it I’m so caught up in my reaction. But when I read what I wrote a few days later, I laugh at myself too. Because it’s an emotional gut reaction and it’s best kept between me and the page. 😉 It truly is. It takes so much time to read and analyze something to figure out what is and isn’t working for a beta and it is given with the intent to help. So I have my little private drama fest and then I get on with what the beta and I both want–the best possible book!

  8. jmmcdowell says:

    It’s encouraging to see your process is very similar to mine. 🙂 While I don’t secretly write to a beta about something I disagree with, I hold imaginary discussions with him/her in my head. And, ultimately, I have to come around to his/her viewpoints. 🙂 And that’s also why I’m rebuilding my two manuscripts into what should be better stories. Time will tell if they are, but the point for serious writers is to get the best story out there, not just to get a story out there.

    • Aw, that’s cool to hear too! Ah, that’s just as good. Probably better. 95% of the time, I do end up coming around. There’s only a rare instance where I find a suggestion I cannot implement. 🙂 That’s a hard task–rebuilding two manuscripts. My first manuscript went through lots of revisions and rebuilds. It ended up being much much better for it. Exactly, to put a story out there that readers will truly enjoy. 🙂

  9. I think the one that resonated most with me was having the argument on paper. I like that approach and I’m going to try it out. It only makes sense that if we’re writers, then writing should help us work through things–even difficult things like digesting feedback we may not want to hear.

    • I really find it useful for my process. My first reaction is NO, it can’t be done. Then, Okay, here is why I cannot do that. Then, Well, maybe I could tinker with that a little. And eventually, What a great idea I have to do this!

      • I love that progression! It speaks to the softening of resistance… one of the hardest things to do.

        • It’s pretty much what happens. I force myself to keep going over them and going back to the ones I have the most trouble with. It usually goes on for a few weeks but suddenly lightbulbs galore. 😉 Changing perspective is hard. Seeing the problem and understanding it is absolutely necessary before I can make any changes. 🙂

  10. Arlene says:

    Thanks for sharing your process Kourtney. I love getting a glimpse of how authors do what they do 🙂

    #4 seems like such a great idea (and would probably be a good for a lot of our strong emotional responses). But writing down your reaction and why you disagree then going back to it later seems like a great way to process both the feedback and why you reacted the way you did.

    I haven’t used betas (yet) but these are great tips for when I do. Saving this for later! 🙂

    • Glad you liked it! It’s really hard to not defend our work. So I do it in private. And I reason my way from no way to hmm that could work. 🙂 It takes me a few go rounds to reach that point. But I do get a chuckle at how vehement I was on round 1. I’m always so sure. Luckily, I know that’s a sign that I need to take more time with it.

      Betas are so helpful. I can’t believe how many things I missed. I owe my betas a big hug. And a definite shout out in the acknowledgements.

  11. Great points, Kourtney. I agree, if the same comments or questions are raised, then it’s time to take a second or third look. When we complete a project, it’s best to let it sit for some time before we start the editing process, I would imagine, the same holds true after we read the beta comments.
    Your secret beta arguments would make for an interesting read. 🙂

    • Thanks Jill. A few betas having the same issue is always a red flag to me. I am a huge fan of sabbaticals from projects. After I finish a first draft, I like it to sit for a few months. I let this sit for a year while I worked on my other novels. Oh it’s so funny. I am so certain I’m right and then by round 2 I’m questioning my logic. And round 3, I’m like hmm they may have a point. 😉

  12. This was such a great post, and one I’m going to bookmark for future reference if I ever get to the stage of having a completed manuscript (maybe this year?) I’d imagine it’s so overwhelming digesting the thoughts and suggestions of 2-4 readers, and learning how you process it in this systematic way is fascinating. A common thread I see is giving it time. That is, you may not agree or be able to process a comment immediately, but after setting it aside, you can understand the comment’s worth and evaluate it with a clearer mind. I’ve experienced this personally with critique partners and shorter pieces I’ve written, as well as learning how much of the story has remained in my head. How cool that you sometimes argue it out in secret. A great strategy that I’m going to tuck away for later. Thanks again for this informative post!

    • Thanks Gwen! It was your request that made it a reality. 🙂 You will get there. It just takes some time. Yeah, it’s very hard. And even when you don’t mean to be defensive, you can be. It took me a few books to figure out how best to understand beta feedback and use it to it’s fullest potential. It was funny–yours were some of the most useful comments. Sometimes it took me a few weeks to fully realize it. But then I’d thank my lucky stars we found each other! It took me years of feedback to figure out that I needed to take what was given and argue with it until it made sense or I convinced myself why it didn’t work. Most of the time it’s the former. Your comments were so so helpful with the stuff that stayed in my head. Thank you so much!

  13. 4amWriter says:

    I pretty much go through the same process, except I leave the easiest fixes for last. I tackle the hard stuff first for two reasons: one, I find that when I do the big stuff first, a lot of the little stuff is changed during that process so I am essentially killing two slugs with one stone. Two, I have more energy when I first dive into revisions, and that helps when I am tackling the meaty problems.

    I love that you write secret letters to your betas! 🙂

    • LOL. How funny we take the opposite approach. For me, it’s overwhelming in the beginning so I babystep into revision by tackling the easy stuff first. I find I get more excited as I get going. Also with a deadline, I need the extra couple of days I’m working on the small stuff to let my mind percolate on the big changes. I think your approach makes a lot of sense because you are 100% right, a lot of the small stuff does go away when you make the big changes.

      It’s the only way I can work through it. I know they are 95% right, but knowing it and seeing how to address it are two very different things. I have to feel my way through it. So sometimes my notes are snarky or frustrated. But that’s just because I can’t see it as they do. And only by venting can I get to a place where I can. 😉

  14. Aquileana says:

    Hello Kourtney…

    It is the first time I heard of Beta Readers and the whole issue made me think of a sort of Sci-Fi story. Well, that was a first sight. Thanks for explaining to us how does the whole Beta community works.
    I think it may be a very useful way to get feedback form readers as well as you exchange points of view as regard to your writing…

    All the best for you, Aquileana 😉

    • Hey Aquileana,

      It’s similar to rolling out a new technology. You need to test it with beta users. With a novel, beta readers, are there to test your draft and make sure it’s ready for a larger audience. 🙂 I find them super helpful. Mine are usually 1-2 friends, my mom, and at least one writing buddy.

  15. Lori D says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Kourtney. It helps me, because I received beta reader feedback two months ago and haven’t even begun making edits from their suggestions yet. I guess it’s cause I was kind of disappointed. I really didn’t receive the kind of feedback I’d been looking for. It’s not that I didn’t agree with the feedback, it’s that they didn’t really answer the questions I needed answered. I even sent them a list of ten specific questions, and none of them answered those questions. A couple of them did line edits, which I’m hiring an editor to do and wasn’t looking for from betas. However, I did get feedback on one particular point from all of them that I need to fix, so that’s the one good thing that came from it.

    Like you, I’ve had my writer’s critique group do line corrections for me that I didn’t agree with. I do the same thing as you. I go back and look at it later and then realize they were right. However, I do have one question for you. Are there suggestions that you don’t agree with and stick to your guns about not changing it?

    • It’s hard to find the right mix of beta readers. I have some people who give big picture comments, some who give writer comments in track changes throughout the manuscript, and some who just give me gut reactions. I’ve done my best to lay out what I’m looking for. Mine responded really well in delivering that. For some, I also follow up with them via conversation and ask, Did this work for you? Did you have a problem with this? What would you like to see more of? Sometimes they can articulate better in speaking that notes on paper.

      Absolutely. There are always a few suggestions that don’t work with my vision for the book. They are important to consider and analyze so I understand why I disagree and why I think they won’t work for the story. I also run them by my crit partner and get her thoughts to make sure I’m not being obstinate or missing something.

      • Lori D says:

        Thanks for sharing more of your experience, Kourtney. This was the first time I ever used beta readers, and I guess I didn’t know what to expect. BTW, if you have an editor(s) you can recommend for the women’s fiction genre, I’d love it. I have no idea where to begin too look.

        • Happy to help Lori. My mom and my friend have been betas on all 3 of my manuscripts. They both want to help me and so they take my requests and try to tailor the feedback to it. It’s time-consuming for them so I’m very lucky they were willing to take me on. Other writers are awesome, Gwen is a godsend. But it’s a tremendous amount of time for her to dedicate to my work. I don’t know any editors in the women’s fiction genre. I’d suggest reaching out to writing organizations like Backspace or RWA to see if they have a list of editors. My only tips would be to make sure you check their resume and references and request a sample from them before you hire them. To make sure their comments are what you are looking for.

          • Lori D says:

            My WIP reminds me a lot of the relationship issues between your Oliver and Kai, minus the telepathy. My story is all based in reality (pretty much taken from reality). My family could not beta read for me. Not only would they be too critical, but they really don’t have a clue about writing. Not to mention, one of my characters is based on me, and they know me too well. Thanks for the suggestions on what to do about an editor.

          • When it comes down to it, it’s about finding people whose opinions you trust and who can get through to you. Maybe friends, writing buddies, online groups, etc. 🙂 I prefer to have readers as betas and only 1-2 writers, just because most readers aren’t writers. Though writers definitely tend to provide more targeted comments. Best of luck with the editors. 🙂

  16. I hadn’t heard of Beta readers before.. so this is new to me 🙂 It made me smile though when you said Kourtney how much of your story remained in your head and didnt make it to what you had written… I smile because sometimes I catch myself doing the exact same thing..
    even missing words out as I type thinking I had written them down.. 🙂

    Wishing you well with your feedback… Love and Light.. and Hugs.. Sue xox

  17. This is really interesting Kourtney – I particularly like your secret arguments with the betas 🙂 Before I began blogging, I’d never heard of beta readers. I sent my MS off to a consultancy and paid for the feedback and it did take me some time to act on it (though some of it was really positive) – I think, as you say, I had to take a sabbatical from it before I worked out how to use it. I’ve now agreed to be a beta reader for a fellow blogger, so it’s interesting to know how you use the feedback.

    • Thanks Andrea. It really helps. I find anything that causes a strong NO is worth revisiting and discussing with myself. 😉 It’s one of those writer terms. I never heard of it until I joined writing groups. I need the sabbatical. Every draft is the best I can get it to at that point in time. So seeing faults takes time. That’s really awesome of you. Being a beta is a really important role. And you get a first peek at an author’s work.

  18. Pete Denton says:

    Excellent post, Kourtney. I do find that my memory of what I put in the story versus what I really did put in there are totally different beasts. Glad I’m not alone!

    Thanks for sharing the insight to how you work. Very informative.

  19. benzeknees says:

    I love how you explain your processes, thank you for your insights into a writer’s life.

  20. L. Palmer says:

    Thanks for sharing. I might use a few of these as I get my book back from beta readers over the next few weeks.

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