A thinly-cited Wikipedia entry credits IBM with originating the “alpha/beta testing” terminology for software development. Even if you’re not a software developer, you’ve probably seen software with labels like beta and early-access. The objective of beta testing is to get real-life users to spend time with the software and find the show-stopping bugs before the product is made generally available.
In many ways, novels are like software: they are drafted, edited, optimized, tested, and (hopefully) eventually published. There are plenty of resources on the Web about how to alpha and beta test your manuscript (e.g., here and here), so I won’t duplicate their contents. Instead, I’ll provide some thoughts, based on my experience, about what makes the process work and what breaks it.
- Don’t confuse alpha and beta testing. Alpha testing is early in the process and generally should use a tester that is a good big-picture thinker who can tell you if the major concepts work. Beta readers, on the other hand, are readers who resemble customers that would actually buy your book. Your betas help you polish by identifying bugs. If your betas are finding major plot and character issues, you might want to rethink where you are on your manuscript development path.
- Dread, impostor syndrome, anxiety, etc. are all perfectly normal feelings once you hit send and your manuscript goes to betas. It’s rare in life that we put our flaws on display with the express purpose of having them called out. If you don’t feel uncomfortable, you’re doing it wrong.
- Diversify your readers. You want readers who closely resemble your target audience, but if they are all too similar in their likes and preferences, they’ll share blindspots that can be large.
- Beta readers are probably right when several identify the same problems. Remember, your story doesn’t take place on the paper; it takes place in the reader’s head. If you get consistent feedback that something is broken, assume that it is, or at the very least that it can be improved.
- Avoid biased readers, like close friends and family. So much can go wrong here. Overly positive feedback can be damaging — it can blind you to real problems. Also, assume that some beta readers won’t end up finishing your manuscript. If that’s going to create awkwardness each time you encounter this person going forward, maybe you don’t want them as a beta.
- Cherish good beta readers and respect them by only sending work that is truly ready. You’re asking someone to several hours attentively focusing on your work. That’s a lot to ask of someone. If you’re unsure whether your manuscript is ready, use writing workshops, critique partners, and other resources first.