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Beta Testing Your Book

· Writing,beta readers,Advice

After the book is written comes one of the most exciting and intimidating aspects of the writing experience: putting it in front of beta readers.

What makes a good beta reader? The answer depends largely on what kind of feedback you're looking for. Personally, my approach comes from what I've learned running video game playtests during development. Picking beta readers is partly about identifying your target market and partly about understanding your story's ability to have appeal beyond its genre.

First, I try to choose people who are avid readers. I want people who know what they like and who won't be afraid to express their opinions. Beta reading isn't for the wish-washy or faint of heart.

I also try to select for a range of experiences with the genre I'm working in. I want people who read the sort of thing I'm writing, since they're the "target market," the first group of people the book must speak to. But I also want people who tend to read other things, lest the feedback I gather be too insular, to restricted to a single set of expectations or assumptions. Ideally, my book has the ability to reach a wider audience than just die-hard genre adherents, and I want to know if that's the case just as much as I want to know if it's hitting the mark for its core audience.

In free-to-play games, it's very common to present early builds to a sample group of players to collect their qualitative feedback. The goal of this feedback isn't to get a critic's critique or the opinion of another craft expert, but rather to understand how the player is responding to what's put in front of them. If the best laid battle plans rarely survive contact with the enemy, the best laid game designs rarely survive contact with the player. I approach beta reading in much the same way.

Video game playtest feedback is both revelatory and humbling. Since games are software, they have to be useable, and the first thing these playtests usually reveal is all the ways the game falls short of basic useability. I have seen players fail to advance the game's story because they didn't understand how to complete basic tasks, seen them accidentally skip past dialogues, and heard them misread the name of the game due to font issues. From playtests we learn that intent doesn't matter, only what the player is able to understand.

This might seem like it has little bearing on a book; after all, one would assume a book's useability issues have long been solved. You start with page one, proceed to page two, and so on until you reach the end, as it has gone for hundreds of years. The reality is more complicated. Stories must be understood, and not only that, they must bear the reader along with them, smoothly and compellingly. Quality prose has much in common with a game user interface; it should be beautiful and feel like it contributes to the artistic whole, while also guiding the reader's attention toward what's most important in a scene or character.

When I work with beta readers, my questions focus on the story's useability. Are readers connecting with the characters and the story? Did anything trip them up along the way? Do the characters' motivations ever become confusing? Did they ever feel like they needed more historical context, or conversely, were overwhelmed with historical detail?

As with video game playtests, the answers are at once revelatory and humbling. Rarely do I find that disconnects with the story are the result of some deep, inherent flaw; more often, I've simply failed to communicate some key aspect of the characters or world clearly enough. I look over the scenes involving a character that readers struggled to connect with and find that their actions are, indeed, all over the place. I know what my intent was, but intent doesn't matter.

I make it a point not to dismiss or ignore beta reader feedback. I might not take on specific suggestions, but I take every bit of feedback as a rare and precious insight into how someone else sees my story. I assume that if a beta reader stumbles over something, there's probably a way I could improve it. That might mean a big change or a small one. That might mean fleshing out a bit of historical detail, or changing a scene entirely to better suit expectations. You know your story, and you can judge best what you want readers to take away from it, but readers know their experience of the story.

Of course, sometimes, the game just works. You see the five star rating pop up and you watch the play session and you get to hear someone as they vibe with your story, as they become invested in the mystery or start shouting at the characters. Sometimes you're bowled over, as beta readers sing the praises of your protagonist and the cast of characters that surround her. They tell you how they couldn't stop raving to their friends about this book they were reading, or how they were moved to tears by the ending, or how they struggled to note down feedback as a beta reader because they were so ready to be swept along by the story.

It's hard for a writer to know what to do with these reactions. The work is so challenging, the market (both games and publishing) so fickle, we rarely allow ourselves to admit that something we've written might actually be good. But this kind of feedback matters just as much. The work is challenging, and the market is fickle, and it's just as important to know what is working as what isn't.


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