Writing 101 – The Importance of Beta Readers

You’ve put in a lot of hard work. You’ve polished, you’ve cut, you’ve had the sleepless nights and the caffeine highs but now it’s time to let your story fly the nest. Or is it?

There comes a time when we must stop writing (and editing) and release our work into the world. This can be the most daunting prospect faced by a writer. Having someone read your work for the first time is never an easy thing. What you need is a beta-reader.

What is a beta-reader?

Beta-readers (sometimes called alpha-readers or critical readers) are individuals, or a group, a writer uses as a test audience for their work. As the name suggests, they are readers but readers with a specific task and that is: tell me everything you like and don’t like about this book, including a full list of notes and supporting references. They are the ones we trust to be honest, to cast a critical eye over our grammar, spelling, flow and any other improvements in narrative that will make the story better. Beta-readers are typically the first, after the writer, to read the work and are essential in pointing out the gaping plot holes, loose ends, continuity issues and whether or not the story is even believable.

It is a pretty foolish endeavour to release a book without first running it by a beta-reader.

What should you look for in a beta-reader?

When drafting this post, I came up with a list of all the things to look for in a beta-reader and soon realised (after two full pages of A4 paper) that it’s a matter of personal preference. However, there were a few items on that list that are essential.

A good beta-reader should:

  • Have a good sense of grammar, spelling and flow;
  • Enjoy reading and be avid readers;
  • Be able to give constructive criticism;
  • Be able to maintain an unbiased view (friends and family members don’t always make for the best beta-readers);
  • Be willing to give an honest opinion of the work; and
  • Not resort to violence after the writer asks them, for the nine-hundredth time, if they’ve finished the book yet (and we will).

Beta-readers don’t have to be other writers but I would strongly recommend having at least one with a sense of what it’s like to be a writer or have some knowledge about the world of publishing.

How to be a beta-reader

Okay, we’ve covered the what, the why and the who and now it’s time for the how. Being a writer’s beta-reader can be difficult (what with all the constant nagging about reading the book), so here’s a few tips to help you along.

  1. What has the writer asked for?

For me, getting feedback from a beta-reader is exciting but there’s nothing more frustrating than reading through page after page of notes to find that none of the questions I’d specifically asked have been broached. If the writer ask you to tell them about plot holes, then mention the plot holes (or tell them there aren’t any). If they ask about grammar (I will), tell them about my changes in tense or questionable punctuation. Don’t assume they will pick up on things themselves because they may not have seen the problem.

  1. Be constructive.

If a particular scene doesn’t work for you then say so, but also say why it doesn’t work and what you think can be done to improve on it. Comments like ‘I don’t like this’ don’t really help. Be specific about what you don’t like and suggest alternatives if you wish. It is also important that you…

  1. Don’t focus on the negative

It’s easy to list all the things that you don’t like about a writer’s work but remember that what you are reading is someone’s labour of love. Even if you don’t like the story, it’s unlikely you’ll not find a single thing you enjoy about it. What about the description of the birdhouse? Didn’t it remind you of the one in your garden when you were a kid? Tell the writer what you do like as well as what you don’t. And remember to explain why you like it.

  1. Concentrate on the work, not the writer

Writers have pretty messed up heads, it comes with the territory (you try and stay sane with random characters popping in and out of your head). But just because we sometimes write about dark thoughts doesn’t mean we share them. Do not surmise that a character’s actions and opinions are shared/condoned by the writer. Likewise, avoid asking probing questions to see if the author has committed a felony/romped in the breaking waves/danced with the devil in the pale moonlight. The question to ask is ‘does this fit the character or story?’

  1. Be timely

The work you are reading is a work-in-progress (WIP) and is likely to be evolving as you’re reading it. Because it’s a WIP, the writer will want your feedback as soon as possible. Be conscious of any deadlines or timescales the author has set and be sure to return any comments on or before these dates. Also, if other matter become a priority or you can no longer commit to the deadline, let the writer know as soon as possible.

If anyone has any other tips for beta-readers, please add them in the usual manner observed amongst bloggers (put them in the comments).

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!

Writing 101: How to Treat your Beta Readers

BetareadingI have done a lot of beta-reading this past year, and in turn, I’ve had people read my own work. Nothing is more essential in the early stages of a manuscript than its beta readers, so if you have a collection of reliable readers, you should do everything in your power to hold onto them. Below I’ve amassed a series of points that I think are important to take into consideration when you ask people to read for you.

  1. ) Do not give them a first draft. The first draft is crap. You can write the first draft, edit the hell out of it, and then share it with your readers. And that’s okay. Because, by then, it’s no longer a first draft. But do not give away a draft you haven’t even bothered to edit yourself. That’s a waste of your readers’ time. If you’re desperate for someone to read your manuscript after you’ve completed it, then find an alpha reader to go through and do a developmental read-through while you have the manuscript in its “resting” phase.
  1. ) Offer your beta readers a list of points you want them to focus on while reading. I personally love when authors do this. This redirects the attention of your readers to areas you’re unsure about. Want to know how the reader reacts to a certain character? Want to know if a particular scene is working the way you want it to? Specify those questions throughout your document or in a separate attachment.
  1. ) Let your reader form his/her own opinions. This means don’t bombard your readers with your (very biased) opinions of your work before they’ve even gotten to read it. Send out your document with your focus points and then thank them for their help. Don’t tell them what to think. Don’t tell them what you think. Don’t tell them anything. That defeats the purpose of having beta readers in the first place.
  1. ) Give the readers enough time to read the novel. Your beta readers are probably just as busy as you are, so be considerate of what you’re asking them to do for you. Plan your beta reading around your own deadlines while keeping in mind the schedule of your beta readers.
  1. ) Accept your beta comments with grace, even if you disagree. It’s a given that you’re not going to agree with each and every comment you receive. It’s a given that occasionally comments may ruffle your defensive feathers. Your beta readers know this. If you have questions about a specific comment, then you should certainly ask, but don’t argue over or criticize feedback. They didn’t have to read your manuscript. Their time wasn’t compensated in any way by helping you. Squelch your ego, thank them, and move on.
  1. ) If you’re under an agreement of mutual exchange, honor it. If one of your readers is also a writer, then it’s polite to offer to read their work in exchange. If you are in a critique group of some kind, then you should give back what you get. Don’t be that writer who never returns the favor.

In conclusion, make beta reading a pleasure for your readers and you are one step closer to making your manuscript shine before getting it out to the world.

I’d love to know what you all think about beta readers? How have your experiences been? Do you have any specific way of going about it? Let me know in the comments!