Once you’ve found your beta readers, your next step is pretty straightforward: getting the book in their hands. Before you actually hit send, though, take the time for a little prep work that can have a big payoff. A brief letter and questionnaire for your volunteers will help ensure you get the level of feedback you need to move forward.
The trick is to give readers enough context to know what you want from them without making the process seem overwhelming. Keep things simple, targeted, and specific to your book.
What information do beta readers need?
In your letter, you want to give readers a sense of how they fit into your revision process. Write up a short paragraph describing your goals for the book (finding an agent? prepping for a professional critique? assessing before self-publishing?). Understanding how the beta feedback will be applied encourages folks to send thoughtful responses.
Then sum up the logistics: your ideal timeline for turnaround, and how readers will get their comments to you. Notes within the manuscript itself can be very useful. If you do ask for notes, it’s good to be flexible on the format. Some readers will be comfortable using Track Changes in either Word or Google Docs. Others may need to go old-school with paper and pen.
I’ve found that offering a couple different formats and letting each beta reader choose leads to more notes and better turnaround. Creating a barebones e-book file will get you major points with some readers (and it makes the experience more like reading a published book). Two tools you can use are Draft2Digital (EPUB format) and Kindle Create (Mobi). If you go this route, readers can still make comments about specific parts of the text by referencing page or location numbers.
Some volunteers will only be up for giving summarized feedback. This is where your beta reader questionnaire becomes invaluable, to make sure you get a baseline level of feedback and to make things easier for your readers.
Putting together these beta feedback questions doesn’t just give your volunteers some parameters—it also helps you get ready for revisions once that feedback comes in. To narrow down your questions, you’ll need to think through the strengths and weaknesses in your draft. Taking the time to process and put your thoughts in coherent order creates parameters for you as well as for your betas.
What questions should you ask your beta readers?
An ideal questionnaire hits on the main elements of your book without bogging betas down with an intimidating list. Aim for at least five or six questions, but no more than ten to fifteen. For fiction, a good place to start is with the foundations of any novel: characters, plot, and setting. If there are specific parts of the novel you think may need tweaking, go ahead and ask about them directly. (But if your questionnaire has any spoilers, warn your betas!)
For nonfiction, you’ll still be focusing on storytelling elements, even though your story is factual. Memoir shares similar building blocks with fiction: people, timeline of events, and place or context. The building blocks of an informative or inspirational book will vary by topic, but common elements include background context, organization of key concepts, and practical applications for readers.
Another approach is getting beta reader feedback about craft areas you want to strengthen. If you work with critique partners, think about common themes that have emerged from their feedback. You may have a great ear for dialogue, but less skill with action descriptions. You might have a real way with describing complex ideas, but less of an instinct for how to organize sections and chapters. I often ask readers about pacing, since that can be one of the harder flaws to spot in our own work (and it applies to informational writing as well as fiction!).
If you’re feeling stuck brainstorming questions, a quick web search for “beta reader questions” will bring up lists from authors and editors. Here’s a sample of questions from one of my past fiction questionnaires:
Who was your favorite character, and why? Which scenes got you most interested in them?
Were there any characters who didn’t seem real to you? What didn’t ring true?
Did you notice any pacing issues? This could be a chapter that made you think, “Okay, when do we get back to the good stuff?” Or it could be a chapter that left you feeling like the story was rushing through important information.
Were you able to imagine what this world looked like, in terms of people and places? Anything you particularly liked, or anything that didn’t seem to fit?
How did the ending seem to you? Were you scratching your head about anything at the end of the last chapter?
Were there any logic holes that tripped you up? This could be something like issues with the timeline or practical logistics. Or it might be something about the worldbuilding and setting that wasn’t fully fleshed out.
And here’s a sample to get you started for informative nonfiction:
Did the flow of the chapters make logical sense to you? Were there any sections or concepts you wish had been introduced in a different order?
Were there any ideas you were left confused about at the end of the book? What kind of information might have added clarity?
Which chapters, sections, or exercises were the most interesting and engaging? Which felt the most exciting and relevant for you?
Did you notice sections where your mind wandered or where you were tempted to put down the book? If so, was the information less interesting, or was the writing less dynamic?
Was there enough background information to provide context for new ideas?
Which images or ideas from the book felt the most fresh or stuck with you the most?
You can close out by asking readers to write a few sentences with any other feedback they want to pass on. It’s a good idea to keep your full questionnaire to one page, so your volunteers won’t feel like they’ve been given a mountain of homework along with their reading.
It can be tempting to pepper your beta readers with additional questions after you’ve gotten their responses. Asking for one or two clarifications can be fine, but set a limit for yourself. When you send your letter out to betas, let them know you may be in touch with a follow-up email within a specific time frame. Two weeks to a month should give you time to process but keep the book fresh in their brains.
And here’s one last key piece of advice: make sure some of your questions are asking for what’s working, not just focusing on what’s weak. It’ll make the process of reading feedback much more pleasant - and knowing what readers are loving is just as important as knowing what to fix. With beta feedback on both of these angles, you’ll be that much closer to getting your book ready for the world.