This is it.

You have had an Idea.

A brilliant, shiny idea. It’s a masterpiece in the making, you’re sure of it. You can already see it being bought by Netflix if Disney doesn’t beat them to it first.

You can’t wait until the kids are in bed so you can finally start writing it all down.

But as you get more and more words on the page, the doubt begins to creep in. You begin to struggle with the setting, or with the plot. Maybe it slowly dawns on you that you don’t understand your characters internal motivations as well as you thought.

Or perhaps you were so overflowing with the zeal of creation that you could barely keep up with the jumble of ideas and words pouring from your fingers. As you type feverishly away you begin to wonder if the story makes sense to anyone but you.

You want feedback on what you have so far, but this is dangerous territory.

Your story is in its infancy. It has barely begun to draw breath. Even the slightest criticism could crush it irrevocably. What do you do? Do you continue on, ploughing through the words while plagued with self-doubt?

Or do you risk showing it to someone, knowing your vision could be destroyed before it ever gets off the ground?

If you find yourself in this situation then what you need is a first reader.

A first reader is someone you trust and someone who will act as a cheerleader for you.

A first reader will be positive and support your efforts no matter what. And while your first reader should be supportive, they should also give you useful feedback on your unpolished story. What did and didn’t work for them about the plot? What characters did they love or dislike and why? In Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ he mentions that his wife, Tabitha, is his first reader and he can feel secure in the knowledge that she’ll be supportive of his efforts, but also let him know where his story is going astray.

It’s important you trust your first reader and that you know they have your best interests at heart. Your first reader should be able to be honest with you without crushing the life from your story.

It can be hard to find a first reader that strikes right balance between honesty and cheerleader. While it may make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside to have someone tell you that every word you wrote is brilliance, it is not very helpful.

ALL first drafts have room for improvement, no matter who wrote them.

If your first reader showers you with nothing but praise you would do well to look further afield for someone who can give you more objective feedback.

If you don’t have a first reader that you trust, then I would suggest not showing the work to anyone until it is completed. It is all too easy have your creative vision derailed by a savage or thoughtless comment.

Alpha Readers

Alpha readers, in my opinion, tend to be writers. Often, they are your writing group and they do not critique your novel as a whole but on a chapter by chapter (or word-count by word-count) basis. The type of feedback they provide is very much dependent on the individuals and the nature of the writing group.

Writing groups are peculiar creatures, each one having its own quirks and agenda’s.

Hopefully you have found a positive and supportive writing group – be it face-to-face or online. If not, it is well worth your time to do so. Don’t be afraid to try out different groups until you find the one that feels right for you. Not all writing groups are going to suit all people.

In general writing groups should focus on structural level elements of your piece, such as plot, consistent character motivation, believable dialogue, and avoiding rookie writing mistakes such as all telling rather than showing, ‘As You Know, Bob’ dialogue and so on. But each writing group will have a hobby horse or two that they like to harp on about, as will individuals within the group. Don’t be surprised if different members of your writing group nit-pick different things, like commas or use of prose despite your manuscript being at the structural stage of development.

The great thing about the diverse focus of writing group members is that they help flag problematical aspects of your novel that might otherwise not have occurred to you, such as the way a fire spreads in a closed room, or the real colour of a river in a certain climate. Each little piece of feedback is another ragged edge you can file off your story; so be thankful for it even if its not immediately relevant to your structural edit.

At the alpha reader stage you’re looking to smooth anything out that will be jarring to your beta readers. You want to avoid throwing your beta readers out of the story wherever possible so that they can focus on their reader experience.

Beta Readers

Beta readers are your test audience. They are a group of people who read your novel as a whole and provide feedback on what did and didn’t work for them. They are often not writers themselves and that is fine because what you are looking for at this level of feedback is the reader’s response to your story, not a writer’s response. Beta readers don’t need to be concerned with grammar and punctuation, what you want them to focus on is what worked for them and what didn’t? What did they love? What did they hate? Where were they bored or confused?

Where Do You Find Beta Readers?

Beta readers can either be volunteers or paid. Most writers try to source willing victims readers amongst friends, family and followers on social media. I would suggest that you get ten to twenty people to beta read your novel. Any less than that is too small a sample size to give you meaningful feedback.

You can do two rounds of beta reading if you like, having ten people read the first version, then making the necessary edits before having the second ten people read your manuscript.

Skimp on beta reading at your own peril.

It can be hard to find quality beta readers and emotionally painful to wade through their feedback. It can also feel overwhelming to go through your novel and implement the required changes. But if you don’t get this feedback from beta readers you will soon be getting it via poor reviews and lack of sales if you self-publish and from agents if you go the traditional publishing route.

When seeking beta readers, it helps to keep in mind that most people, no matter how well intentioned, will leave reading your manuscript until the last possible moment. If you give them four weeks to read it they won’t start until the third week. If you give them six weeks to read it they most likely wont start till the fifth week. It is simply human nature. Similarly, you can expect 30 – 50% of volunteers not to complete the assignment for one reason or another. Life gets busy and being a beta reader is hard work.

Therefore, you should treat your reliable beta readers like the amazing golden people they are. Never take them for granted and always be gracious in your response to them, regardless of it you agree with their feedback on not.

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On that note at the end of the day only you can know the correct vision for your story. You don’t need to implement all changes your beta readers suggest, nor should you. What you are looking for is a general consensus. If two thirds of readers felt the pacing was uneven, then its quite likely that the pacing of your story is uneven. If eight out of ten people love your main character but two find him whiny and annoying then feel free to ignore that those two opinions.

How Long Does It Take To Beta Read A Novel?

You can grant your beta readers any amount of time you like to read your novel. Though I’d say two weeks is too short a time for people to read and critique a novel, and six weeks is too long. As mentioned above, most people will leave it till the last minute anyways, so the longer you give them, the longer they will leave it for.

What Type Of Feedback Should I Ask For?

You can ask your beta readers to focus on any aspect of your story that you like, though as mentioned earlier beta reading tends to focus on the readers response to the story structure. Some of your beta readers may do little more than note things like: ‘LOL’ and ‘I thought his coat was red?’ while others (like myself) won’t be able to help but line edit as they go. Both forms of feedback are fine. They all add to giving you an overview of your novel.

I provide simple instructions to my beta readers ask them to flag the following areas (credit for the system belongs to Mary Robinette Kowal):

A – awesome: Let me know anything you think is awesome so it doesn’t end up on the cutting room floor

B – boring: let me know where your attention wandered.

C – confusion: Let me know anywhere you felt confused and why

D – didn’t Believe: let me know anything you didn’t buy into and why

E –  expectation: Let me know where you think the story is going next.

What If The General Consensus Is My Novel Sucks?

Ouch. That’s going to hurt. Getting beta feedback can be tough at the best of times. If you have ten people beta read for you and your novel is 300 pages long that’s 3000 pages of people nit-picking at your work that you have to wade through. Even if people predominately liked the story the weight of all the feedback can start getting to you, but you just have to soldier through it. And maybe bolster your spirits with a glass of wine, or a hot chocolate. Trust me, if you don’t have tough skin at the beginning of the process you certainly will by the end. Either that or you will have been swallowed by a pit of despair and vowed never to write again.

As mentioned earlier, if two thirds of people flag an element as problematic you’re going to want to look into it, whether you end up implementing changes or not. If most people didn’t finish your novel, or only finished under duress because they felt obligated as your friend/family member/partner there’s a problem there. Online readers are not going to be as forgiving and your book will end up on their DNF (did not finish) pile. You may also end up on the receiving end of a scathing review.

Put simply – if people consistently don’t finish your novel, there’s a problem with your writing. It could be the story structure; it could be the prose or any number of things. Go back to the feedback you received from your writing group and beta readers and see what you could take on to improve your story.

If the response to the story is overwhelmingly poor the novel may be a ‘trunker’. Put it away in a box under the bed or in a folder on the computer and start a new story. No words are ever truly wasted. They all add to your skill and experience. Take the lessons you learnt on this novel and apply them to your next project. Now you can get busy making a higher level of mistakes and receiving a whole new level of nit-picking.


Welcome to the world of writing friends.

It sucks.

You’re gonna love it

Jesse xxx

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