Defrosting The Thaw: Surveying Beta Readers

I’m currently in the process of gaining feedback from a selection of beta-readers for my work-in-progress post-apocalyptic thriller novel The Thaw, which is now at draft 3 stage. I’ve had three out of the eight people who have been sent the work respond, and I’ve undertaken a couple of beta-reads myself in that time.

First of all, it’s important to understand what I wanted from my beta-readers – if I didn’t know what I wanted then the feedback I would’ve gotten would’ve been just as scatty. Just before I sent The Thaw out, after actually having agreed who would beta-read, I received an email from Bethany Votaw with her novella Tracker, which I agreed to beta-read for her. She included in her email a series of questions she wanted me to answer to comprise my feedback.

Actually, let’s step back: I’d already by this point been working on what to ask my beta-readers. Bethany’s email helped me focus my efforts as my initial questionnaire, even at an incomplete stage, was sitting at around 47 questions, and that was before I’d finished. I reflected and thought this would be a tall order for any of my beta-readers to complete without it seeming like “a job”. I wanted beta-reading The Thaw to be as easy as possible, as it’s meant to be fun.

To that end, I “zoomed out” with my questionnaire, choosing to ask less, broader questions and allowing my beta-readers to expand on their own thoughts. These are all intelligent, gracious people giving me their time – for free – and I felt bad “working” them too much, so the long questionnaire was simplified down to 25 broader questions.

The initial 47-questions one was an in-depth quiz featuring text boxes and tick-box answers. I structured it into what I thought were logical sections: General Thoughts, Story, The Ending, Setting & World, Themes & Influences, Characterisation and six sections I titled “character focus” sections on specific main characters. Can you see how this quickly became a nearly-50-question goliath that even I, the creator, was struggling to tame?

In organising the feedback for my beta-reader’s, I thought about including the questions via email, or on a separate, empty Word document for my beta-readers to fill in; this was the approach I took when the sole beta-reader (I did ask others!) replied. It worked but with this, as I was expecting a lot of feedback both in terms of scope and in terms of the number of beta-readers, I decided I needed to be organised off the bat and having feedback forms floating around in my emails just wasn’t right.

As a Microsoft 365 subscriber I have access to a product called Microsoft Forms, which is a tool in which surveys and quizzes can be created and responses collated. I have used it already with some success with my Doctor Who Fan-film Reverence of the Daleks, which has an Audience Survey attached to it. Therefore, I thought Microsoft Forms was a no-brainer in collating the feedback for The Thaw draft 3.

(Obviously, I’d be remiss to not mention that other providers are available: Google Forms, Survey Monkey, Jotform, etc; I just chose Microsoft Forms because it integrated with my OneDrive storage)

Microsoft Forms has a lot of powerful survey features – sections, branching etc – of which I used practically none in this instance. The difference between the “public” survey I created for the Doctor Who film and the “private” survey I was planning for the beta readers of The Thaw draft 3 was that with the “public” survey I decided to guide the responder a lot more with more mandatory questions, while also simplifying some of the questions for the sake of time and effort with tick-boxes, dropdowns or rating boxes, as if a form is “too much effort”, people won’t want to expend the effort, for better or worse.

With the “private” survey for my volunteer beta-readers I could be more confident that they would be inclined to fill in a long text field; indeed, the feedback form for The Thaw draft 3 was 25 questions and a “what would you rate the book out of 5?” question. I kept it simple and streamlined and I’m really pleased with how it worked out.

Even now, I am considering how I could’ve done the feedback form better – maybe I could’ve built on some of the interesting lessons from the “public” form I did for the Doctor Who film and included a section of tick-box answers to provide me with a quick snapshot of statistics for how my beta-readers felt that perhaps wouldn’t require a great deal of thought and typing into an open-ended text field.

That said, I’m confident that I hit a great balance with this feedback form in allowing for detailed discussion while not making it so overly-long that it felt like a slog or an effort, which would’ve been doubly concerning as Microsoft Forms, sadly, doesn’t give the option of saving a response partway though, it’s all or nothing – I am forever grateful of my beta-readers, all of whom so far have spent considerable time filling out the form, some nearly two hours!

So far, I have had three detailed and considered responses, all readily accessible in my Forms dashboard. They’re not going to be lost in my emails or scattered around my hard drive – though I will blog in the future about my efforts to centralise my workflow. My plan once I have more responses is to pull them out of Forms and put each question in a spreadsheet – yes! – with the answers from each respondent and draw my conclusions from there. I’ve already downloaded the responses so far to my computer so I can read them there as PDFs but they’re always accessible online and easy to find!

Bethany recently complimented me greatly on my organisation of my feedback during a live stream she hosted (I belatedly join the chat at around the 1hr13m point but it’s all great), and I am really pleased that my method worked and has made being a beta-reader of mine considerably less strenuous. While it may seem like a lot of effort to set up an online feedback form as opposed to sending questions as a document in an email, I think the organisational benefits of having that feedback readily accessible (for the author) and readily submittable (for the reader) really makes it worth considering, even if it may take some additional time to set up.

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