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Writing 101: How to Be a Good Beta Reader

Beta-readerLast week I wrote a post on how authors should treat their beta readers. This week, to make it fair, I figured I’d write one on how beta readers should approach the manuscripts they are beta-ing (or in other words how to give the most efficient, useful feedback).

Beta readers have a harder job than it seems. They have been trusted with an author’s cherished child, they are often some of a novel’s first readers, and they are tasked with providing the author with the right kind of feedback to help him/her improve his/her manuscript. All the while they’ve got to find the right balance between holding true to the integrity of the piece while still being open and fair to the author. That’s definitely not as easy as it seems! So if you’ve taken on a manuscript to beta, here are some tips for attaining the best results:

1.) Be honest. I’m a firm believer in being honest over sparing feelings. Some people may disagree, but if you see a problem with the manuscript, don’t dumb down its significance to spare the author’s ego. It’s possible to be upfront about these issues while still stating the problems in a diplomatic way. And generally, after they’ve gotten over the sting of the criticism, they’ll probably agree with you.

2.) Be, first and foremost, a reader. Not an editor. Look for those areas where you slow down, where you get bored, where you get confused. Pay attention to the things the author has hopefully asked you to address. Don’t sweat the small stuff like sentence structure or punctuation. Most of those issues will change after future edits anyway.

3.) Ask questions. One of the best ways of pointing out a problem is to word it as a question. If I come to a scene that somehow isn’t fitting with the rest of the narrative, I may state it just like that (“This scene really isn’t working.”), but I always try to work in a few questions so that the author can understand why the scene wasn’t working for me. “Did you mean . . .” or “Why is this character behaving this way even though he’s never acted like this before?” Not only does this sound a lot less confrontational, but it also forces the author to think about the characters, the prose, and the scene itself.

4.) If you leave a comment, give reasons. This ties in with asking questions, but I can’t stress this one enough. If you critique something in the manuscript, state why you’ve commented the way you have. There are several reasons to do this: it shows you’ve been paying attention to the continuity of the piece, the characters, etc; it shows that you yourself have taken the time to think about why you found certain areas to be problematic; it gives the author some form of lucid “proof” — so they know you’re not simply nitpicking.

5.) Be professional. When an author chooses you to be a beta reader, they are agreeing to let you say whatever you want about the manuscript. Regardless of that, I would still recommend treating it like a job. Do your best to honor the integrity of the work itself. If your feedback in some way offends the author (even if you’ve worded it all as neutrally as you can), then do not argue with them. Realize that the author has the final say (for the good or the ill of his work) and move on. And if they were that confrontational about the feedback, simply don’t beta for them again.

6.) Strike a balance between critique and praise. No writer wants to have their manuscript returned to them covered in thousands of criticisms. Likewise, receiving nothing but fawning praise isn’t very useful either. It goes without saying that you should mark a problematic area of the text, but if there’s a place where you laugh, a place where the prose sings to you, a place where you react in some way, shape, or form, then mark that too. Let the author know what they are doing right!

What do you think? Any beta-reading experiences to share? Anything else you’d add to this list? Let me know in the comments!

10 thoughts on “Writing 101: How to Be a Good Beta Reader

  1. I’ve been on both sides of the book as a beta-reader and I think your last tip about balancing criticism with praise is key. I know how PAINFUL it is to read unpleasant things about my novel, so I try to really play up the things I like about others’ book, so they know I’m in their corner and am helping them improve their work.

    • Sometimes, something as simple as using a colour other than red to highlight areas which need work can make a huge difference. No one wants to see their manuscript covered in red text. Makes you feel like you’re back in school.

      As for unpleasant, a beta-reader should keep in mind that they’re not there to criticise but to help the author polish and find what’s best about their work. Criticism should only be given with reasons and, if this is not possible, they should remember what their mothers told told them: ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’.

    • Yes, definitely! And the more positive feedback is just as useful as the more negative feedback–just as we’re telling an author that something doesn’t work, we’re also showing them what does.

  2. I think the thing I want most as an author is for my beta reader to be precise. A lot of times I get vague comments that aren’t as helpful as something specific would be.

    • That’s a piece of advice I’d offer to anyone wanting to be a beta-reader: be specific. Don’t tell me that you don’t like a particular sentence, tell me EXACTLY what you don’t like about it. Was it the rhythm? The length? Did you not understand what the sentence was trying to communicate? Tell me what’s wrong and I can fix it.

    • Yes, exactly. I can definitely agree with you there. Precision is key, otherwise (as authors) we don’t necessarily know what exactly is problematic.

  3. I’d also add that, should you get a request to beta-read for someone who is heavy-handed or overly controlling, you do have the right to say no. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Writing 101: Writer’s Notebooks | The Sarcastic Muse

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