The Care and Feeding of Magical Beta Readers ~ JP Barnaby: Outside the Margins

JP Barnaby OTM

Join us as JP Barnaby goes Outside the Margins.


As a software developer, I’ve used a beta testing paradigm extensively for years, so it only made sense to incorporate that into my writing process. In development, beta testing is the idea that once the program has been designed, written, and logic tested by the programming team, a group of end users uses the application in a non-production environment. In other words, they use it and see if it works for them the way they believe it should. That’s how my beta process works for books. I have three “power users”, my trusted team who reads the books and makes informed suggestions on its content. They don’t fix the commas—they tell me that this character isn’t working, or that they fell in love too fast, or for my male beta reader, if they don’t douche, he’s going to die.

Recently, I took a poll on Facebook of authors to see how many beta readers they used, how those beta readers were utilized, and what they expected to get out of the process. I found it very interesting that the answers ranged from zero readers to a dozen, with lots of differing variations for purpose. So, what that tells me is that every author’s process is different and each author should do what works for them.


This is what works for me:

Write a book to the commitment point

I write the book to the 1/3 point. By then, I have an established plan, I know where it’s going, and I have a handle on the characters. In a novel, this is about 25,000 words, which is the point I commit to finishing the novel. (Trust me, I have dozens of books that I’ve started sitting in my WIP folder that haven’t made it to that point.) Then, I send the book to Rowan Speedwell and my friend Jodi and I ask the essential question—does this suck? Because by that time, I am so sick of this book, I’m sure it’s an absolute mess. (When I write, I start by going back and tweaking what I’ve already written before adding to it—every time. I can’t help myself. So, by 25,000 words, I’m sick of looking at it.) Rowan and Jodi are the ones I need that first bit of support from – they know my writing style and my goals better than anyone.

Lather, rinse, repeat

When I get the book back with their assurances that it doesn’t suck, I keep going for the next third and send it again.

Try to break it

In software beta testing I tell my users – try to break it. That’s what I want my readers to do. I want them to sand the varnish off their opinion and tell me everything they liked and everything they didn’t. When I’ve finished my very best draft, I send it not only to Rowan and Jodi, but also to Kage Alan who has a brilliant way of looking at things. With his education and experience, he’s able to tell me when concepts aren’t working, where my pacing is off, and when a character development needs to be stronger. His suggestions are invaluable to me.

Make it pretty

Buff, polish, sand, and fill in the cracks until it shines.

Beta testing

Once I have a final draft, I submit it to the publisher and solicit 5-10 volunteers on Facebook to read the story. Since they’re Facebook friends, I would assume that means they generally enjoy my work – but what I’m looking for here is general feedback on how characters and scenes are working. I will send the book to them in .pdf format with their name embedded in the document and a non-disclosure statement on the opening page. It’s a risk – sending out an unpublished book to volunteers, but I think the quality of the book is better for it.

Reader feedback

Now, here is the tricky part – what do I do with the feedback I get from readers?

There are two filters I apply to the comments I get back:

1. The way I see my book and my characters in my head isn’t necessarily how it’s translating to the page. Everyone reads things differently and I’m not buying my book. When five people tell me something isn’t working, I shelve my ego and take a fresh look at it.

2. It is my name on the front of this book, my reputation on the line. Just because someone makes a suggestion doesn’t mean I have to use it if it doesn’t work for my vision of the story.

I use comment bubbles to add my feedback to the original document so I can see if I’m getting multiple notes in the same place. That could indicate that my intention isn’t coming across, no matter what their comments say.

Add comments

Go through each comment, read it, understand what they’re trying to say (getting clarification if necessary), then decide if I’m going to do anything about it. I color code my comments with different colors for ADDRESS or NOTED.

Showing love

Thank all of my readers. Reading for me isn’t a privilege, it’s a favor. It takes time out of my readers’ lives and beta reading even a polished draft is still reading a draft. They are helping to make my book better, to get me better reviews, and arguably more sales. Even if I didn’t agree with their assessment, they deserve my thanks and appreciation.

Let the dough rise

I put it on the shelf and don’t look at the manuscript again until it goes into first edits, which is generally a couple of months out. Why? Have you ever gone back and read a book you’ve written a year or two after publication? You look at it differently with distance.

Putting it all together

Once I get the first edits, I go back, look at the reader feedback, and put that up against edits. I made all of the changes I intend to make and send it back into the editing process.

It’s a long and arduous process, but I believe the quality of my books are paramount. I want to give my readers the best possible experience when they spend time and money to read the stories my boys tell me. Every author’s process is different and each artisan has a different way of making his or her art shine.

This is mine.


~ JP Barnaby

Farewell Giveaway
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.

Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,

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10 thoughts on “The Care and Feeding of Magical Beta Readers ~ JP Barnaby: Outside the Margins

  1. I really enjoyed reading about your beta process, J.P. Fun to hear how you approach stuff. I’ve never thought of involving someone at the 25,000 mark. Hey, follow-up question for you. How did you find your beta readers? Did you put out a general call to ask for some or were these trusted reader friends who eventually became betas?

    • I’m so sorry, I answered this from my phone, but I don’t think it posted. Generally while I’m talking about a WIP people will volunteer, or I put out a general call on Facebook.

  2. Every day I learn something new. Guess that’s what being a newbie is all about. Thank you for explaining what beta readers are and what they do. Actually, I may already have a beta system, as I ask friends to read my work and be honest — not worry about my feelings. When you put out your next call for volunteers, I would be honored to be one. Now I’m going all fangirl and saying I totally love your work. Cannot wait for GRL to meet you in person.

  3. The finished product shows how well this process works. I just wish every author was so conscientious with their Betas, edits and polishing. When I purchase a. JP Barnaby book, I know it will be well worth it.

  4. Thanks for an interesting post. I am going to pass it on to my daughter as she starts her writing the same way you do with the constant go back and tweak system so she might benefit from your experience.

  5. It is interesting to see your process lined out. I am a dedicated beta for one author and on occasion look at a few other authors’ works. Each author requires their specific type of feedback but for the most part it mirrors your own process (at least in functionality). I have had the honor of reading the same story over and over again. Although I do take the request of my time and input seriously, I have yet to feel put out. There is one story that I have lost count on how many times I have read it ( and it is far from done ) and I am still excited each time I can offer my own take on how it is progressing. I get VIP box seats to witness the unfolding of characters, worlds, lives, etc…and I LOVE every minute of it!!

  6. Thank you for sharing your process. I also find it all very interesting. You are dedicated to your craft and it shows in the quality of your works.

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