Rule: Don’t Respond to Reviews, Fix Problems Instead

First up, never reply to negative reviews. It’s not worth your time, and if a review is lying about you or your work, it’s better to let your fans respond and defend your honor and work than get into the muck yourself. So, don’t. Responding to reviews isn’t customer support, if they wanted customer support they would have contacted you directly.

Trust me. I’ve replied to negative reviews many times before until I realized how much of a dumb waste of time it is. If a customer brings up a valid complaint that is in your power to fix and it seems worthwhile to fix, then fix it. That’s how you address critical reviews as a response.

Beta readers can be extremely important.

But first, let’s compare beta readers to other authors.

While other authors can give you useful information, don’t focus on getting feedback from other writers. Why? Writers write. Readers read. Writers have their own opinions about the craft, and might not have their finger on the pulse of what actually sells. Readers do, because they actually buy things. I saw the same thing in games. Early on when I started making games full time, a part of my gamer brain broke and my analytical game development brain took over. After a while I could not enjoy them, because I was constantly analyzing them from the point of view of obsessively iterating and polishing games myself. It took years for me to get over that feeling and finally get good at enjoying games again. The same can be said for writers too, especially writers who are obsessed with the craft as an art form and not a commercial enterprise. You need to get paid. Listen to people who pay you.

I see the same thing in gamedev and writing too in terms of art and money. You should never let people obsessed with art bully you into not making money. Think for yourself and do what you want to do, what will make money in your market.

You need tough love from people who either are ruthlessly business orientated, or give a damn because they are paying for it. Find either of those and grow.

Developmental editors

Besides good beta readers, developmental editors are also great at giving feedback. Because they are also probably much more of a reader, a mass consumer, than an author.

Developmental editors: editors who don’t just fix your bad commas but actually can tell you why your story sucks and how you might fix it without stepping on your toes too much. If you’re lucky enough to have a good developmental editor involved, they can be the most valuable source of feedback toward improving your story.

Finding good developmental editors is not what this article is about and involves much more luck / ability to network with others than getting beta readers through critical reviews.

Editors who just fix grammar mistakes are useful. But having someone who will tell you raw that your story is broken is crucial. Even better if they are skilled enough in storytelling to tell you in what ways you can fix your work.

Converting Bad Reviews to Beta Readers

Why would you want someone who slagged your work to join your side as a friend and ally?

Mostly when someone writes a review, it’s because they had an emotional reaction. Either very positive or even slightly negative. Another kind of review are the types who review everything. Finally, there are reviewers who were prompted to write a review by you (though you should only ever ask people to give their honest review, you can strategically place that prompt such as when they beat the game).

If they wrote a review based on an emotional reaction, then that is most of the time someone who loves your work, or something who was slightly annoyed by something in your work but also loves the genre.

These people are true fans of the genre. They want more good works to happen.

They might not think your work is really that bad. There was just some stuff in it that really bothered them for whatever reason. And they may be completely valid in their complaints as well.

These kinds of people can make excellent beta readers due to their emotional reactions to flaws in what they love. Even if you don’t implement their critiques, it can still be highly valuable to know the kinds of problems people would highlight well before publishing. That’s what beta readers are for.

So, in a way, people who slag off your work can end up being your most precious allies.

I have converted negative, or just low score reviewers, to beta testers in my games. Most of the time, the people are happy to help and excited too. Remember, these are emotionally charged people who want great works to happen, and if they can help steer the ship toward greatness, that is a win to them.

Though they may be robbed from experiencing a final work, it’s fine because after a negative review they might have not given your other work as much of a chance, so don’t feel bad about converting them to early beta readers!

Sometimes you do not want to convert negative reviews to beta readers. It should be obvious the ones that are the rotten apples who you don’t want any contact with. A few red flags are that they may have prejudicial based reactions toward your product that goes beyond the core of it and hyper focuses on some aspect of it that you’re uncomfortable even thinking about, that never really occurred to you. These kinds of reviewers go beyond the normal emotional reaction toward the obsessive ideologue. Even contacting them politely can be playing with fire.

Simple mean spirited reviewers can also be ones you don’t want to engage with. Though it’s up to you, based on how desperate you are for beta reviewers. You might find that these are just people who don’t really realize that an actual human being made what they are cruel toward, and would be happy to help you make something better.

How to Beta Reader

You need a way that’s not creepy to contact people. For platforms which allow direct messages that can be a way. You can also search their username and find them on another platform with direct messages, and hope they are not weirded out by that / are the same person.

Some easy ways would be to directly e-mail people and include the e-mails of the beta readers in the BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) section of the e-mail. Then in the to e-mail box you send it as yourself. This way, your beta readers don’t get to know who else are beta readers.

You can also setup a mailing list using any e-mail newsletter provider. You can manually import the list with no public sign up to secure it.

A private Discord server / channel can also work. You can even setup a channel for other beta readers to discuss updates, which may be valuable to you. Make sure you have a private way to provide feedback, such as DMing you on the platform, for people who are shy. Other chat programs can work too, but Discord is popular and stable, so it’s a decent choice.

Ideally, you should not need that many beta readers. A handful of passionate individuals who consistently provide well-reasoned feedback as super fans of the genre is all you need. Find people you trust, be careful of having too many cooks. Potentially great movies are ruined by having a thousand executive producers all giving their notes.

You don’t have to only ask negative reviewers to beta read too. Ask the positive readers as well! Especially if they provide reviews which detail exactly why they love a work. These people can help you ensure that your work continues to be worthy of their love.

Many people who agree to help beta read may never give feedback. You can contact them directly to ask them if they have had a chance to read, but don’t push it. Instead, focus on the people who are consistent in providing good feedback and spend time fishing for more good people to help.

How many words should you expect from a beta reader? Only about as much as their typical review length. You should let them know of that expectation as well, that they don’t need to provide a novel length response, and as many words in response they wish to provide is all that you ask.

If you want to ask questions directly to your readers, then some great ones would be if they understood the motivation of a character / what they wanted, ask them to describe the kind of person a character is. These sorts of questions can help you ensure that you are nailing your characters how you intended.

Another good question to ask is if they know what the theme of the work is. You may not even realize what the primary theme of your work is yet, but when fresh eyes can tell you what it clearly is then that might help you refine your work toward better serving that theme. It may also be a good warning sign if they can’t say what the theme might be — if you actually care that a theme is there at all or not.

Finally, it’s good to ask if any part of the work was boring. That can usually happen in scenes where characters don’t clearly want anything. When villains don’t have an objective and are only putting up obstacles for the sake of obstacles.

If you search, you can find many examples of lists of questions to ask beta readers. Here are a few you can take and use as your own:

  1. Who is the main character?

  2. At what point did you realize who the main character is?

  3. What is the primary motivation of the main character?

  4. What are some goals the main character has gained over the course of the story?

  5. What kind of person is the main character?

  6. Could you relate to the main character emotionally, be sympathetic toward their point of view?

  7. Without referencing the work, what does the main character usually look like?

  8. Was the work ever boring? If so where?

  9. Were there scenes where it wasn’t clear if those involved had clear motivations / desires?

  10. Did you finish reading the work in its entirety? It’s OK to say no. I want to know if it wasn’t strong enough to keep your attention and where. If you stopped without finishing, where did you give up on the story at?

  11. Can you clearly imagine the world / places the story takes place in? Are there any places you wish had more description?

  12. Did anything annoy you in the story?

  13. Was anything in the story confusing?

  14. Did you notice any continuity errors in the story? Such as eye colors mysteriously changing.

  15. Were there any characters you liked but wished had more details or words given to them?

  16. Were the number of characters at the right level to be kept track of?

  17. Did the dialog of the characters sound natural / did you notice characters which sound too similar and may need a more distinct voice?

  18. Did you enjoy the ending?

  19. What questions do you still have after the ending?

  20. Did you notice any grammatical or spelling errors?

  21. Will this work do well within its target genre? Why or why not?

  22. What other works would you directly compare this work to and why?

You can ask these questions for any character in the work. You can skip asking questions. You can rephrase them. You can add more. You can tell your beta readers they can use the list as a reference but don’t have to answer every question, but to only answer the questions they wish to answer / feel would be the most benefit toward you improving the work.

You can send these questions to your editors as well.

You can also ask these questions to yourself after you’ve done a re-read of your own!