An Experimental Psychologist's Take on Beta Reading Part IV: Results and Conclusions

In earlier installments, we discussed finding beta readersgetting them to read while respecting their time, and extracting useful feedback. Today we'll continue the "beta reading as experiment" analogy. The final sections of a research paper are the results and discussion. First I'll share what I learned about my own manuscript, and then I will generalize to some broader lessons. Also, I promised Jake that I’d have charts, and I aim to deliver.

So how did my beta reading experience go? These are the major themes.

What I did well: People kept reading. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of readers who finished in one or two sittings, stayed up late reading, or otherwise deviated from their normal routines. As expected, the closer a reader was to my target audience (young women who enjoy Tamora Pierce), the more she tended to like the manuscript. One definite high point was receiving an e-mail from a beta reader’s sister saying she felt like the book was written just for her. I'm counting that as my first successful word of mouth referral :-)

What needs improvement: I was so focused on trying to keep the plot moving that I sacrificed depth. My readers found room for character development, world building, and scene setting. In my next round of revisions my focus will be on fleshing things out -- developing relationships, backstory, and world details. Much of it is convincing myself that I don't need a cliffhanger ending or knife fight in every chapter to keep the reader engaged.

Most controversial issue: My beta readers were pretty low key, but one particular subject brought out strong opinions of all possible shades. I had a slightly nontraditional romance thread, and here's a sampling of the reactions.

“EWWWWWW… Are you really going to put that in?”
“It was really really awkward.”
“I really liked the tension between those two!”
“F---- Yeah! It made my stomach tingle.”

(And no, it’s not what you think. This is YA, folks. Get your mind out of the gutter. Besides, we’ve established already that my love scenes are very tame.)

Not only were reactions all over the board, but  people were very quick to attribute character flaws to fellow beta readers who disagreed with them.. Has anybody else had this experience? And if so, over what kind of passage?

So that was what I learned about my own manuscript. But what did I learn about writing in general?

Actually, it was a lesson I wasn’t expecting. The beta reading process opened my eyes to the reader landscape. I really got to see how personalities and tastes affected someone's reading experience.

If you could represent my view of book quality before I did the experiment, it would've looked something like this.

The y axis represents a book's quality, and the error bars represent subjective differences in opinion.

After the experiment, my understanding is something more like this.

Here, the Z axis represents how much someone enjoys a book, and the X and Y axes represent reader characteristics, anything from their favorite genre, their attention span, their worldview, the number of traumatic childhood experiences they've had involving killer pigeons, etc. All come into play when they read a story.

Now I knew this already, in theory. In fact, I published an essay that talked at length about what a reader brings to the table. But I didn't really internalize this until I sat down (or e-mailed) with 14 different people and had 14 different conversations about my novel. Hopefully this epiphany will give me some psychological resiliance when I enter the land of queries and bad reviews.

So readers, what lessons have you learned from your beta readers?

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  1. Yay, graphs! (And a very impressive 3D one at that)

    In other news, I think I'll keep each beta reader's opinion from the others, lest they start insulting one another. That is a very disturbing finding.

    I have a question. The second graph seems to suggest that a reader's "tolerance for cheesy dialogue" decreases his enjoyment unless he is sensitive to violence. Or am I reading it the wrong way around?

    As my own lessons go, I don't think I have a large enough subject pool at this point to make any accurate findings. I will go to the supermarket to recruit more people.

    Anyway, I'm glad you got valuable information from your subjects/beta readers. Thanks for an awesome series about the beta reading thing.

  2. Well, of course you don't need to put a knife fight in every chapter. Explosions work just as well. Mix it up a little.

    I don't have much experience with betas yet, but I have found it doesn't even have to be a controversial issue to raise controversy. What two people called their favorite part in a recent short story, one said was quite unnecessary and should be taken out. Almost everything -- particularly sense of humor -- is subjective. (When the jury is split, I tend to side with the side that agrees with me.)

    Best of luck with the rewrites, Livia, and may all your readers fall into that verdant green patch over the 2 in tolerance.

  3. Jake -- Good graph reading :-) As for betas insulting each other, it was highly amusing. There were accusations of repressed sexuality, immaturity, and my favorite -- "Oh, do they read *romance* novels?"

    Nate -- Explosians, maybe the occasional wild animal or runaway plague... And thanks for the verdant green patch well wishes.

  4. Very interesting findings, Livia. In my novel writers' group, we each read 5000 words from someone's manuscript each month and provide verbal feedback at the meeting. This has definitely opened my eyes to how varied people's opinions can be and how much their experiences play a part in their enjoyment.

    It's helped me to take criticism on the chin. For example, when a friend of mind told me my first two chapters didn't grab him, I wasn't too concerned as I know he mainly reads adult fantasy and my MS is contemporary YA. I'm sure it will be harder to deflect, though, when someone in my target audience tells me they didn't enjoy it. I'm sure that day will come, but hopefully I'll have other more positive opinions to balance it against. :-)

  5. I remember that love scene. I don't know which was hotter: that one, or the neuroscientist romance.


    Great series, good lady!

  6. Interesting to listen to your experience. As for me, I have a longtstanding group who reads chapters, but I just hired a freelance editor to do a substantive edit before I show the mss to my agent.