If you’re a regular follower of mine you might be thinking, “Vivien, haven’t you already told us about beta readers? Are you suffering from amnesia?”
Nope. At least I think I’m not...but would I really know it if I were?
At the request of one of my YouTube viewers, I thought this week would be the perfect opportunity to tackle this topic.
For those that need a refresher, beta readers offer suggestions on your manuscript before you send it off to your editor. After the first draft, a writer self-edits their novel and polishes it up as much as they can on their own. This second draft is sent to a group of people who give them feedback. Some writers already do this and they don’t know it - does your girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband, mom, dad, sister or brother look at your book? Best friend? They’re your betas.
If you want more information on beta readers and if you should use them in your novel, I wrote a whole post about it!
I’m a firm believer in the power of beta readers and what an outside perspective can do for your novel. I personally go through two rounds of betas - those that I know very well, and then total strangers for the second round.
However you decide to do it, here are my top tips for betas!
As always, if you would prefer to watch me talk about this topic, click on the video below.
I’m not talking about the feedback here, although this piece of advice does apply there as well. I mean be honest in your ability to complete beta reading tasks.
Most writers will be working with some kind of schedule. If that writer says they need to have the manuscript back in three weeks, and you know you have a wedding to attend, a week of finals to prep for, and you’re moving to a new state, don’t volunteer! However interested in that story you might be, it’s frustrating to a writer who needs to keep on track with their own goals.
If you have things pop up while beta reading and you’re afraid you won’t be able to totally complete the manuscript then let the writer know. Don’t leave them hanging, even if you’re afraid they’re going to be upset. Them knowing you’re only going to make it halfway through the manuscript allows them to find a replacement as soon as possible.
Follow the rules.
Once you’re accepted to be a beta, pay particular attention to any guidelines the writer has for you. If the writer wants communication to be through Facebook, then get your booty on over there. If you prefer email or Twitter chat, but they’re not up for that, then too bad. You have to remember that some writers may be enlisting the help of ten, twenty or more betas - they have a lot of coordinating to do. Most of us are pretty well-versed in the various methods of communication so this might not be an issue.
Some other rules might include age restrictions, using Microsoft Word or Google Docs for your edits, or answering certain questions. If a writer only wants critiques on structural items, then don’t highlight every typo that you find.
Every observation that you make on a manuscript should include a description of why you think that way. Don’t like the main character? You’re not helping if that’s all you say. You need to say why you hate them. Don’t like how they treat women? Say it!
You were drafted as a beta reader to assist the writer in identifying issues that degrade the overall story. Saying that you hate the description of a city doesn’t allow the writer to rectify that issue. Never leave out that explanation!
As a beta reader, your comments are ways to fix a novel, not highlight the things you don’t like. Make sure you tell the writer exactly your thoughts on the chapter or characters!
Don’t be a jerk.
Are you really not digging that writers manuscript? No need to bash everything they’ve ever done in life and damn their first child to hell.
Keep those comments to yourself, because guess what? You signed up to do this because you wanted to be helpful.
Are you being helpful if you tell them they’re a waste of precious oxygen and they should go jump off a cliff?
No. Because you signed up to make their writing better. Not to make their lives worse. Don’t use the anonymity of a screen to make hateful comments. You’re not helping the writer and you’re just making yourself the jerk in this situation.
We’re all professionals, so treat people with courtesy when giving criticism and make sure the reasons behind your apprehension are clear.
Prepare to learn.
Beta reading can teach you a lot about writing if you put in the work. Any beta reading I have ever done in my life always improved my writing.
Ever heard the saying that you can learn more by teaching someone else? That’s because not everyone thinks the same way and not every one writes the same way. Someone may have a question that you’ve never thought of before, and a writer may make mistakes that you’ve never noticed in your own writing.
You’re reading something you’re not personally invested in. This allows you to more easily notice writing faux pas in someone else's manuscript.
Also, you may research a grammar rule or two as you probably don't want to tell the writer something incorrect.
So be ready to absorb some knowledge!
If you hate the word “behoove” (I do...I had a teacher that used it in every other sentence) then don’t bash the writer for using it. You’re weird! We’re all weird! Don’t push your weird little ticks onto other people because most other humans are perfectly okay with the word...because they didn’t have the same teacher I did.
However, if you think that a character's name reminds you too much of another well-known character in a published novel, tell the writer! In all likelihood it was something they hadn’t considered.
If you’re worried that your weird tick might affect some of your other feedback, make sure you mention this to the writer. For example, if you hate Patrick because he reminds you of a boy you kissed in middle school and regretted, and there’s a kissing scene that you have to comment on, give the writer a disclaimer about your bias. Tell them how you feel, but also tell them that you might not represent the general population in your observation.
Just check most of those odd idiosyncrasies at the door unless it’s something the majority of the world agrees on - like the word “moist.”
I'm wondering how many of you are cringing right now...
Read it twice.
Read first as a reader and then as a beta reader. On your first pass through the chapter, read it as if you’re reading an already-published novel. Let yourself get lost in the characters and their stories and don’t stop to analyze anything.
This is where you can typically see the broader issues, like if the pacing was off or if the character’s behavior was unrealistic.
Your second pass through should be with your editor’s hat on. If it’s what the writer wants, point out awkward sentences, descriptions that you didn’t understand, sections that could be cut, or any other issues that stick out to you.
Yes, it might take a little longer, but it’s far more helpful to the writer in the end!
Where it’s due, of course.
If you had siblings growing up, you know that it was okay for you to make fun of your dorky sister, but it was never okay for anyone else to.
Writers feel the same way. It’s a demon that many of us have to wrestle with when we receive critiques.
So if you think a writer absolutely nailed it with a sentence or made you laugh out loud, tell them! Don’t hold out on those little gems because it just might keep them from crying themselves to sleep that night.
But don’t make disingenuous comments. Don’t praise for the sake of praise, just don’t save the things you love about the manuscript because you’re too busy trying to fix it.
Beta reading can be an extremely satisfying endeavor. Knowing that you’ve helped someone perfect a published work feels amazing! Holding that book in your hands makes you feel like you had some small part in writing it.
It has a piece of you now and that’s amazing!
Most beta readers are or want to be writers themselves, so it’s gratifying to know that you’re taking part in the publication process of a novel. Learn from it. Enjoy those discussions you have with the writer and most importantly, help them.
Because what better reward is there than helping someone else?
There you have it: my nine tips for being a better beta reader. Since I couldn’t come up with a tenth one, I’m challenging anyone who's used betas before to give us a piece of their own advice!
Give me a number ten in the comments below.
I’m so genuinely happy that you took the time to check out my post. Happy writing everyone!