I didn't plan on running my novel critiques like a psych experiment. I just wanted some folks to read the manuscript and recruited/blackmailed some friends accordingly.
A week into the process, I noticed that I was using principles from experimental psychology to ensure better data from my beta readers. Another week after that, I realized that it wasn’t normal to use words like "data" when talking about beta feedback. Then I began emailing my writing group with phrases like "I'm starting to notice clear trends emerging in the responses," and it was all downhill from there.
By now, I’ve embraced the “beta reading as psych experiment” analogy. But nerdy or not, I kinda like the way things turned out. Some writer friends requested that I post about my experience in more detail, and that was the inspiration for this next series: An Experimental Psychologist’s Approach to Beta Reading.
In the next four posts, I will detail what I did last month. My approach is not the best for everybody, but hopefully folks will find some useful tips here and there.
Let's start at the beginning. You (a.k.a. intrepid author/mad scientist), have just finished your manuscript and are ready to start the great experiment. Let's call it "Affective Outcomes of [insert manuscript name] On the Reading Population." In other words, "Does My Novel Suck? And If So, How?"
First step is to recruit subjects. (Actually, the real first step would be to design the experiment and test it on pilot subjects to ensure things are working. You could draw an analogy to fixing obvious kinks with your writing group before showing it to other readers. But anyways…)
How many subjects do you recruit? I started out shooting for 10 readers, and due to various unforeseen circumstances, ended up with 16. Why did I want so many? For the same reason you want large subject numbers in psych experiments. There’s a lot of individual variation in taste, and unless you have enough readers, it's hard to tell which viewpoints are representative and which viewpoints are outliers.
How do you find 16 people to read your novel? The issue of subject recruitment has always been a tricky one, and where you find your subjects can have a huge effect on experimental results. For my beta readers, I recruited from three main populations, each with its advantages and disadvantages.
1. Friends and family who have been asking to read your novel
Pros: They will finally stop bugging you. Also, you know these people pretty well -- their preferences and their personalities. This is helpful for interpreting their feedback.
Cons: The biggest concern is whether you can hear their feedback without taking it personally and damaging your friendship. Know yourself and act accordingly.
2. Friends and acquaintances who read in your genre.
Pros: They know the genre.
Cons: I can't think of many downsides that apply to the whole group. If you don't know them very well, you might feel awkward asking them for help. Same warning applies about protecting friendships.
3. Writer friends
Pros: They can give you feedback from a writer's perspective and generally give more detailed feedback then non-writers.
Cons: The biggest practical issue is that beta reading is usually reciprical, so be careful about overcommitting yourself to reading too many manuscripts.
In the next installment, we'll get to the mechanics of recruitment and running the "experiment."
In the meantime, tell me. Where do you find your beta readers?
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