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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An Experimental Psychologist's Take on Beta Reading Part III: Data Collection

So far in this series we've talked about selecting beta readers, recruiting them, and getting them to read. Now is the part we’ve all be waiting for: getting feedback.

There are two challenges to soliciting feedback (especially if the beta readers are not writers themselves). First, readers might not have much to say beyond “It was okay.” Second, even if they do say something,  they might just be telling you what you want to hear*. I tried to minimize these problems by doing the following:

The Common Thread Between Heroes and Villains

"Mythology, science fiction and comic books are chock full of stories of heroes and their battles against the ills of society—the eternal struggle between good and evil. We are meant to view these two main characters—the Hero and the Villain—as opposites on the spectrum of ethics and morality. But are they really so different when you look at their individual traits and behaviors?

Contrary to popular belief, right and wrong, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical—are not always on opposite ends of the spectrum of good and evil. In addition, the people who fight for the cause on either side may not always look or act like the one you would expect. Science may finally give some support to the old saying: There is a fine line between good and evil."

Read the rest of this fascinating article by Andrea Kuszewski at Scientific American.

An Experimental Psychologist's Take on Beta Reading Part II: Recruiting Betas and Getting Them To Read

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?

An Experimental Psychologist's Take on Beta Reading Part I: Subject Pools

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.