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!