Results of an experiment: finding beta readers online from among fans vs in-person writing groups

A couple weeks back, I sent out a very short story I’d written a few days earlier to people who had signed up for my newsletter (you can sign up for that newsletter on my welcome page). I wanted some feedback, and I had more than a week until the next scheduled meeting of my writing group, so I decided to try something I’d heard other authors have done: generating beta readers from my mailing list and asking for feedback from them.

Here’s the results of my little experiment with beta readers:

  • I didn’t get as many emails with feedback as I had hoped.
  • What I got, though, was very high quality.
  • The people who gave me feedback were more likely to read my genre than to write it, although they were typically writers.
  • I asked for readers to list a few things they liked, and a few things they thought needed to be improved, along with any general impressions. Because they had time to read at leisure and consider their words carefully, I got very astute comments from the people who participated, worded very thoughtfully. They suggested a few really precise places for me to start making improvements, and…
  • since I got a lot of overlap from independent sources (who hadn’t communicated with each other), I was pretty confident that weaknesses the people identified were genuine trouble spots.

Using those beta readers was useful, although the numbers of people sending me their impressions was significantly smaller than I’d imagined.

On the other hand, last week, my usual writers’ meeting convened. I got excellent advice, as usual, but noticed it was of a very different kind:

  • The comments generated were social, in that if one member said something, it might be elaborated on by another member of the group.
  • My group members are all writers, many of them writing the same genres I write.
  • We were able to workshop issues right there, in person, generating possible solutions to wording or areas to cut on the spot.
  • Comments were not only verbal, but could be written, or even understood via body language, tone of voice, etc.
  • Comments were more off-the-cuff, generated after a single reading, with no opportunity for re-reading or considering how to best make the comment.
  • There were, however, a lot of distractions, most of them very pleasant small-talk or shop-talk that didn’t pertain directly to the stories being shared that night.

Do I think one kind of feedback is more valuable than the other? I think I still prefer my reading group, but I can definitely see the utility of accessing beta readers online.

If you have an opinion either way, I’d love to hear from you in a comment. Please make one!

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6 thoughts on “Results of an experiment: finding beta readers online from among fans vs in-person writing groups

  1. In terms of professional success, your beta-testing group is more important. The feedback from those readers allows you to align your writing style with the preferences of your readers. You can thereby increase your chances of professional success by writing material that directly appeals to the preferences of your loyal readers.

    If professional success is less important, and your main interest is to produce high quality work, then feedback from your writer’s group is more valuable.

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  2. This post offers well-organized and valuable insight into these two forums for feedback. Thank you!

    The one thing I like about the beta readers is the revelation of commonalities (“I was pretty confident that weaknesses the people identified were genuine trouble spots”). While l think the on-the-spot troubleshooting of a reader group would be more productive, I also wonder about breadth of feedback. Here’s what I mean: If there is a time constraint to the meeting, or to the time spent on your piece at the meeting, and because several people go down a certain path to give you feedback (building on one another’s comments), someone who has a completely different point might be reluctant to launch another conversation. Does that make sense? Though I suspect if it’s a well-established group, that conversation might be had post-meeting or something, so maybe that’s not a concern.

    Thank you for provoking my thoughts. 🙂

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    • I know exactly what you mean…there are definitely times where in the limited time available at a face-to-face meeting, a large amount of time gets devoted to a relatively minor issue in the excerpt shared, whereas something else might be entirely overlooked. And while I like to think that the members of our group feel comfortable enough to voice unpopular opinions, that may in fact not be true. Very interesting.

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