How to be a good beta reader

Enlisting your fellow writing and reading friends to beat-read your work is so helpful, but becoming a beta reader for someone else is also a rewarding experience and a way to give back to your writing community.

However, some writers may struggle to disassociate their writing-self from the process. For this reason, I thought it would help to outline five tips for beta reading.

#1 / Ask for clarification

This may seem obvious, but some writers don’t tell their beta readers what kind of feedback they are looking for.

If this is the case, it is well-worth clarifying the matter.

Ask the writer if they’d like to hear your overall impressions or if they want a detailed response where you list what is working and not working within every chapter and the novel as a whole.

Would they like you to mark-up any punctuation or grammar errors?

Comment on the structure?

Would they like you to underline any sentences that ‘pushed’ you out of the story, felt odd, or heavy-handed?

You need clarification from the writer because sharing an unpolished manuscript is a vulnerable act. Depending on the writer, they may not be ready to receive harsh or honest criticism about their work, instead, they may simply be looking for encouragement.

When you know what kind of feedback the writer is looking for, it is much easier to focus your attention while reading.

Beta read helps you identify weaknesses in your own writing.

# 2 / You are not the author

As a writer, this will be the trickiest one to master.   

Remember, you’re not revising this manuscript as though it were your own. Be sure that any suggestions you make are not based on what you personally would do, or what your personal taste is regarding voice, style, or structure.

Instead, you need to think like an editor.

What needs to be done to make this story better? Not, how would I write this story?

# 3 / Take lots of notes

While you’re reading, be sure to make note of any passages you find dull or confusing.

Regardless of what feedback the writer is looking for in particular, everybody would appreciate a-heads-up on any section of the novel that is unclear.

And of course, it’s good to take ample notes as these will inform the feedback you give the writer.

# 4 / Pay attention to the big picture and the details

Novels are big beautiful beasts.

But sometimes, it can be tricky to contain that entire story in your head. For this reason, it is great to get feedback from someone for whom the story is brand new (and completed).

When beta reading, pay attention to the big picture issues that structure the novel, things like the character arches, the shape of the narrative, POV, and voice. Details would be line-level suggestions regarding word choice, punctuation, description, and sentence structure.

Note: it can be very difficult to keep a handle on both the macro and the micro in a single sitting which is why you should read the book once while making note of any first impressions, and then re-read the manuscript to confirm if those initial thoughts are true, and be sure to highlight any specific relevant passages.  

Use the ‘sandwich’ method when providing feedback.

# 5 / Make a suggestion

While you are not the author of this book, it always feels a bit crappy when someone points out a fault without offering a solution.

Bear in mind that while it is often easy to identify when something isn’t working, it isn’t always that easy to articulate why or how to fix it.

When writing up your critique of the manuscript, or when meeting the writer in-person to discuss your thoughts, reassure the writer that any feedback you offer is only a suggestion and that of course, it is up to them whether or not they wish to take on that advice.

The writer of course knows this, but they will appreciate knowing that YOU know this and that you won’t be personally offended if they don’t follow through with, or accept, all of the changes suggested.

Phrasing your suggestions need not be difficult. If something in the manuscript strikes you as clunky, problematic, or awkward, you may write a comment like, ‘This dialogue reads a tad stiff. Perhaps they can say…’ or ‘This word may trigger some readers. Might I suggest…’ or ‘The description here is overly long, consider reducing?’

Being critical of a work doesn’t mean being a jerk, nor does it mean that you need to tip-toe around the author’s feelings by burying your meaning in flowery language. Aim to be short and to the point, but polite.

As a beta reader, you are looking for all the ways the book isn’t working, but that doesn’t mean that all your feedback needs to be negative. If you read a poetic passage, or an exchange of dialogue that made you smile—let the author know! (This is particularly good if the author is considering removing this section later). Draw a smiley face, heart or double tick if editing on paper, or make a positive comment using track changes, something like, ‘nailed it’ or ‘good job!’ will make the writer’s day.

On that note, whether you write up your feedback or meet-up with the writer over coffee, be sure to use the sandwich method: start with something positive (I love the protagonist, they are so gutsy), followed by a critique (the timeline doesn’t seem to line up), and then end on another positive (the descriptions of the setting are impeccable, I felt like I was there).

Beta reading can be an incredibly fun and wonderful way to engage with your writing friends in a new way. Plus, it’s humbling whenever another artist invites you to be a part of their creative process, even if only in a small way.

What higher honour is there than to help another writer get that little bit closer to publishing their book project?

Plus, and here’s a nifty secret, when you beta reader other people’s books, it draws your attention to problems in your own work. Beta reading is just one more way for you to improve your own craft and knowledge of writing.

Now I’d love to hear from you. What tips do you have for beta readers? What kind of advice do you expect from beta readers or, have you beta read for someone else? What did you learn from the process? Leave a comment below and tell me all about it.

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