Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Be A Better Beta Reader Series: So, You Want to Be a Beta Reader...

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the different kinds of problematic beta readers you might find in your writing group. I realized afterward that not everyone knows what a beta reader is or, more importantly, how to be a GOOD beta reader. So this week, I'm taking a tiny step back to fill in those basics.

Why become a beta reader?

Writing can be a lonely job. Beta reading is a way to show you respect what a writer is doing and want to see them succeed.

In my experience, most beta readers are writers who trade manuscripts with fellow writers. Beta reading is an excellent way to make connection and build relationships within a writing community.

Use What You've Got
Your day job might not appreciate all those college English classes you took, your nose for typos, or the fact that can spot stilted dialogue from across the room, but my Twitter timeline is filled with authors looking for someone with just those talents!

"I can't spend the day with your crazy Aunt Millie. I've got to finish reading this." Be honest. Who among us wouldn't love a legitimate excuse to stay in and read?

What is a Beta Reader?

Simply put, a beta reader is someone who reads a finished manuscript prior to publishing and provides feedback to the author. Beta readers serve as a sample audience, helping the author step out of her own head and see her story from another perspective. Many common problems--flat characters, plot holes, inconsistencies, etc--are more easily spotted by fresh eyes.

There's more to beta reading than the ability to read and enjoy a good story, however. Beta readers must be able to look critically at a story and analyze exactly what it is that they like or dislike about it. To this end, a beta reader must be
  • attentive to details
  • knowledgeable about aspects of storytelling
  • able to express themselves clearly

Beta Reader Basics:

Many people have written about this topic. I'll share some links to articles and posts I found most helpful. Here's what I've learned in my experiences as a writer and a beta reader:

Communicate clearly.
Make sure you understand exactly what kind of feedback the author needs at this point. Is this an early draft or is it about to be sent off to an agent? Is the author trying to nail down characterization and plot? Or is he looking for a line edit? Having a conversation about these things before you start reading can save you both time and frustration.

Set a reasonable deadline. Let the author know how long you think it will take you to get back to him. (Keep in mind that it will take longer to read critically than it does to read just for fun.) Once you've established a timeline, stick to it. Sending a manuscript out for beta reading is stressful. Don't make the author wait on pins and needles longer than necessary!

Write clear and descriptive comments. Explain your thought process whenever possible.

Respect the author's voice.
Remember, this is not your story; don't try to rewrite the story in your style. Instead, share your thoughts and feelings about the story and allow the author to decide how your responses will influence the story.

That's not to say you can't provide an example or give a suggestion now and then. Just remember that an author's voice is what makes their story unique.

Be honest.
First and foremost, it is your job to be honest. If you see something that isn't working, you must say something about it. Ignoring or sugarcoating problems to spare an author's feelings just sets them up for embarrassment. The agents she queries aren't going to rep her just to spare her feelings.

An author who is serious about being published will thank you for being completely honest. An author who only wants you to say nice things is wasting your time. That's what parents are for. :)

Be thoughtful.
There is a difference between giving an honest critique and tearing someone apart. Make sure that your comments are accurate and useful.

Remember to point out the good stuff. Not only does the occasional happy note make the rest of the critique easier to take, comparing what works to what doesn't work is extremely helpful.

Strong beta reading is built on analysis. Think about your own perspective and biases. Draw on your vast experience as a reader to make comparisons and draw conclusions. Don't just react to the story. Dig into your reactions.

Let it go.
Finally, you have to let it all go after you submit your critique. It is ultimately up to the author to accept or reject your comments. Don't take it personally.

Super Important Beta Reader Reminder:

A finished manuscript represents months, if not years, of an author's life. It is a labor of love and often represents sacrifice and struggle. It is vitally important to respect the author/beta reader relationship. Not sure what that means? Check out this post about the ethics of beta reading.


Helpful Links:

As promised, here are links to some of the other people who have written about beta reading. I found their posts helpful during my first beta read:

Corrine Jackson's How to Beta Read

Have you found some excellent advice on the role of beta reader? Do you have experiences to share? Leave us a comment!

1 comment:

  1. Great post. There's a lot more to beta reading than just reading, as you have aptly pointed out.