What I learned from the test-reading process
I had two dozen people test read Hidden Truths, and it’s been quite helpful, so I thought I’d share some of what I learned in the process — without giving away too much of the novel’s plot.
- Test reading takes time. Beta reading takes even more time. Don’t expect feedback within less than a week.
- Test readers who read the complete novel within a few days find inconsistencies that you and your beta readers who worked on it chapter for chapter over a lot of months might not find.
- The more test readers you have, the more feedback you get. Even with feedback from twenty-five test readers, information doesn’t get redundant. No two people point out the same things. Every reader brings something new to the table.
- Don’t try this at home — unless you are an experienced writer. If you are just starting out as a writer, that much feedback – and often conflicting feedback – will send you screaming into the night, never to return to a keyboard again. It’s a bit like juggling too many balls. So for more inexperienced writers, having just one or two test readers might be better.
- Never underestimate your readers. They pay attention to every little detail. If you have your main character use a weapon that was slightly outdated by the year the novel takes places, readers will notice. If you spell a name a certain way (e.g., Emmett) and then later in the story spell it another way (Emmet), readers will notice. If you give your red-headed character a tan, even though it’s winter/spring in Oregon, readers will notice. Not all of the test readers, of course. But rest assured, if you have enough (test) readers, someone will notice.
- If you have more than one test reader, chances are you’ll get conflicting feedback. I prepared a questionnaire for structured feedback with seventeen questions. My test readers didn’t agree on even one of those questions. There was always at least one person who saw things differently. I had one reader tell me to cut a scene, while the next reader told me that scene is her absolute favorite. Well, it’s what I expected. As I said before, beta readers and test readers bring different experiences, personalities, and preferences to the table. That’s why I wanted not just one or two test readers. I wanted a broader picture.
- Even with conflicting feedback, my large number of test readers allowed me to see what is probably just an opinion of a single test reader and what really needs to be revised. One reader said the beginning is too long and depressing, but all the rest said they loved the beginning. One reader said Hidden Truths can’t stand on its own, but all the others thought it can be read and enjoyed without having read Backwards to Oregon. Half of my test readers pointed out that Nattie’s storyline takes too big of a leap at the end, so I know I’ll need to work on that.
- If you want specific feedback, ask specific questions.
- If you ask specific questions, be prepared for the answers — and be prepared to act on the answers and to revise the novel accordingly.
- Readers can’t always explain why they liked or disliked something. It’s not their job to be able to explain. It’s mine as a writer to figure it out.
- If two or more test readers say the same thing, take it seriously. Of course you should take what just one test readers says seriously too, but if the majority of test readers agrees that something isn’t working, than it’s more than a mere opinion.
- Asking for help from someone with first-hand knowledge is a great idea. Even though I did a lot of research before I started writing Hidden Truths, getting an expert to read the novel is very helpful. For example, one test reader who is an experienced horsewoman pointed out that flies rarely bother horses when it’s raining. Another pointed out that the Willamette River is too deep to cross it on horseback. That’s information you won’t learn through book research.
- Readers often have different favorite characters. I think almost every single character I have in my novel got named as a favorite by at least one reader. Sometimes, their favorite character is even someone you never expected to be a favorite. In Hidden Truths, I was surprised how many readers said Frankie (whom I introduced in The Art of Pretending) was one of their favorite characters.
- Readers see characters differently. They form their own opinion and impression, and it might differ from yours. The most interesting thing for me was that some readers referred to Luke as “she,” while others used “he,” and some readers switched back and forth between pronouns when they talked about Luke.
- There is a place for heterosexual characters and even a bit of heterosexual romance in lesbian fiction. After getting some puzzling feedback on Amazon and in e-mails that told me my writing is “too heterosexual” or “too bi,” it was great to have almost every test reader ask for more information on a heterosexual pairing in the story. Maybe because of that puzzling feedback, I had provided too little details to make that storyline believing. Interestingly, not one test reader told me to remove that storyline.
- I found the test readers who gave balanced feedback and mixed constructive criticism and praise most helpful. It lets me know that they won’t accept and love anything I write, no matter what, but give praise only if praise is due. If test readers point out just the mistakes and what didn’t work, it gets frustrating. And if they say that everything was just perfect, with not even a comma in the wrong place, it doesn’t help me improve.
- You don’t need to be a writer to give helpful feedback. I got some very detailed, precise, and incredibly helpful feedback from people who have never written a novel.
Again, thank you so much to all the helpful people who took the time to test read Hidden Truths.