In last week’s post on knowing when to stop polishing a manuscript, one of the strategies I suggested was to solicit feedback wisely and sparingly. Reader Laura asked this question in the comments: “How do I find beta readers? I don’t have a writers’ group, I don’t know know any serious writers in my ‘real’ life… the local universities don’t offer [many] creative writing classes… I don’t have a lot of money to spend on a professional editor or to go to conferences… I’m at the point where I need quality feedback on my third novel, but I’m baffled as to where I’d find it.”
Great question, Laura, and thanks for providing the topic for this week’s blog post!
Location, contacts, and limited budget can definitely be some challenges to finding quality beta readers. Not everyone lives in a mecca of artistic fellowship or can spend $400 to attend a conference once a month to meet other writers and writing professionals. So how DOES one find quality beta readers under these conditions? Here are a few ideas.
Local universities— Laura mentioned that the colleges in her area don’t offer a lot of creative writing classes. Even when that’s the case, any community college or liberal arts school has at least a few faculty members who are (hopefully) qualified to give you feedback on your writing, even if they’re not experts in your genre, so even when there isn’t a writing class available for you to enroll in and connect that way with other writers, you can still try to connect with the adjunct or full-time faculty members who teach the literature and composition classes, and you at least know that these readers have a lot of experience in reading and editing. You can usually find contact info for these faculty members on the college’s website, so consider sending a polite email explaining that you’re a writer looking for quality feedback and wondering whether they might be willing to take a look at your writing. If a college you have some connection with (you’re an alumnus, you live nearby, etc.) has a graduate writing program, offer some chapters for use in class, either for discussion or editing practice, and ask if you can sit in on the discussion or receive notes on the class’s feedback.
Published authors— Published authors are very accessible in this day and age– they’re on Twitter, they have an author Facebook page, they have websites and blogs— if you’re not trying to connect with someone who’s major hugely successful (don’t hold your breath waiting for Stephen King to get back to your request to review your manuscript for free), you have a really good chance of being able to connect personally with them, and there’s a good chance that the average published author will be willing to offer some feedback to a reader. If you plan to approach a published author, it’s a good idea to spend some time engaging with them on social media, first– comment on a blog or two, mention them on Twitter, link to their website from your Facebook profile, etc., and then use whatever contact method they specify as their preference (this is usually mentioned on their website) to reach out. Be specific about why you approached them—what is it about their writing that you admire, why would you value their feedback? Be clear that you’re NOT seeking an endorsement or an introduction to their agent (if they like it enough, they’ll probably offer), simply a more experienced writer’s eye than yours, and be open to alternatives— if they can’t review your chapters but can recommend a friend or another resource, that can be helpful, too.
Writers’ Groups– Laura mentioned that she isn’t part of a local writers’ group and that the online group she was part of was a disappointment. While it’s true that not every group is going to be a good fit (or helpful in any way at all), the beauty of the Internet age is that if there IS a group out there that’s a good fit, you can probably find it if you’re willing to put some time into the search. A Google search of “writers groups” turned up dozens of pages of resources– sites that connect you with local writers in your area, sites that connect you with similar writers online, groups organized by genre, publishing status, area, etc. “Writers’ groups (state or city name here)” will return even more specific results, possibly of local groups with physical meetings you can attend to get a feel for the dynamic. There’s nothing wrong with shopping around, either locally or online, for a writers’ group that’s a good fit– you should feel challenged but not overwhelmed, you should feet like your input and your contributions are respected, and you should feel like the other members of the group have the same amount of motivation as you do.
When a quality beta reader says yes, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Be clear (and reasonable) about your expectations. Are you looking for feedback on the plot? the writing? the mechanics? Are you expecting an edit, or just some comments/direction? How much of the manuscript would you like them to read? Five chapters? Fifty pages? The full manuscript? Make sure the person you’re asking knows what you’re looking for so they make an informed commitment. If you can’t pay them for their service, or can’t pay much, be up front about it, and adjust your expectations accordingly. Rather than asking for a full edit of a 100,000-word manuscript, ask them to take a look at a shorter selection. If you can pay $50 for a manuscript review, ask them how many pages or how much review time that would buy.
- Don’t rush them. Everyone is busy, and they’re doing you a favor (if they’re doing it for free or low cost). Don’t expect an immediate reply, and don’t pester them for a response—it’s perfectly all right to follow-up/check if they’ve had your ms for a month, but be patient!
- Accept their feedback politely. I know letting other people see your writing can be terrifying— you’re sharing something very personal that you’ve worked really hard on, and so every piece of criticism can feel like a personal attack, but your readers are just trying to make your book stronger—at YOUR request, I might add. If you’re confused by a comment, you can ask the reader to clarify, but don’t come back with a defensive response or an argument. You don’t have to agree with them, but you DID ask for their input, so accept it graciously.
- Say thank you. Even if you can’t pay or can’t pay much, send them a nice thank-you note, and maybe a token like a gift card to let them know you appreciated their time.
I hope that helps, Laura, thanks again for the question! If you have a question on craft or the writing process, I’d love to hear it. Thanks for reading!