This is part two of the series An Experimental Psychologist’s Take on Beta Reading. Read Part I (Subject Pools) here. Again, I'm not claiming that these methods are the best for everyone, but hopefully everyone can find some useful tidbits.
Way back in the day, there was very little oversight for experiments involving human subjects. That era gave us classic studies like the Milgram Shock Experiments and the Stanford Prison Study. These studies revealed new insights about human nature but left many participants emotionally traumatized.
In these more enlightened times, human subject research is closely regulated to ensure that participants are treated fairly and ethically. One of the most important concepts involving human research is that of informed consent. In every study, we make sure the participant understands the risks and benefits involved in the experiment, and we emphasize that the participant may stop the experiment at any time.
Informed consent is extremely important for ethical research, but on a day to day level, it creates a bit of a balancing act for experimenters. We don't want participants to feel forced into something that makes them uncomfortable. But if we word things the wrong way, we sometimes give the false impression that our experiment is just a side thing that they can to join or drop at their convenience. There’s nothing quite like waiting around at lab, 8pm on a weeknight, having booked the scanner for a nonrefundable $1000 slot, and hearing that your test subject won’t be showing up because he decided to go drinking with his buddies.
Recruiting beta readers reminded me of this tightrope walk. On one hand, people have lives and are doing you a favor by reading your novel. On the other, many manuscripts die a lonely death in the depths of a beta reader's email inbox. So how do we maintain a balance between respecting our beta readers’ time and getting feedback in a timely manner?
Below are some of my thoughts – drawn less from any deep theoretical insight and more from the practicalities of relying on strangers for the data that shapes my scientific career. Perhaps others in people-oriented industries can also chime in.
1. Expect Participant Dropout and Plan Accordingly.
No experiment has a 100% completion rate. People have lives, and things come up. Keep this in mind when you’re deciding how many betas to recruit. (One of my beta readers gave birth a week after receiving my manuscript. Amazingly, she managed to get me feedback! She wins the most dedicated reader award.)
2. Make Sure Your Betas Know What’s Involved Before They Agree to Help You.
It’s always best to make sure everybody’s on the same page. When I recruited my beta readers, I sent out an email with the following: 1) a blurb for my story, 2) what I was asking, and 3) the proposed timeline. This allowed prospective betas to think about their schedule and decide realistically if this was something they wanted to do.
3. Make the Initial Commitment Small
Slogging through a full length manuscript can be painful if you’re not connecting with the story. Because of this, I didn’t feel comfortable asking my beta readers to commit to reading the entire thing. Instead, I asked for a smaller commitment -- they simply had to finish the first chapter. If the combined pull of the story’s plot and the readers' sense of social obligation was not enough to make them keep reading, that would be feedback in and of itself.
4. Set a Clear Timetable
The biggest hurdle is getting people to start. My intuition is that things move more smoothly once people actually begin. Since my first chapter was only five pages, I felt comfortable asking my betas to read it within the first week. I also let them know I’d be checking back in a month regardless of whether they had finished the manuscript. If they didn’t finish, they could simply tell me where they stopped.
5. Provide the Story in a Convenient Format.
This is huge. You want to make reading your manuscript as easy as reading an actual book. For this reason, emailed word documents may not be the best choice. I gave my betas a choice of 1) electronic word document, 2) ereader file, or 3) printed and mailed hardcopy. I used Calibre to make ereader files. For hard copies, I looked into binding options but ended up just printing double sided, single spaced, and stapling the manuscript in packets of 20 pages.
6. Send Periodic Reminders
I ended up sending 2 reminder emails: the first at the one week mark, and the second a week before the deadline. I tried to make my emails less obnoxious by including anecdotes and stories, but I’m not actually sure if I fooled anyone.
And that’s all for this week. Next week, we’ll talk about extracting useful feedback. And now, dear readers, it’s your turn. What are your beta methods?
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