Being a Good Beta Reader

I came across a post on one of the creative writing forums from a member that was looking for a beta reader. Or readers I suppose. I don’t know. The genre and plot interested me and the member had a respectable number of posts. Not a lot, less than 100 for sure, but enough that I knew they had contributed. Rather than post on the thread directly, I went ahead and PM’ed (private messaged) them. They sent me the first two chapters of their work, which I edited and returned. They then sent the next three chapters, which I again worked on. After that, I gave them some overarching comments (things that needed to be addressed in what I’d read so far) and let them know that I would look at their revised chapters when they were done with them. This experience was as much a learning experience for me as (I hope) it was for them. They learned about where and how to improve their story. I learned a few things about being a beta reader. Here’s what I learned. Just so no one is confused, this is not a definitive list. I’m sure I have much more to learn and can’t wait to do so.

First, definition. A beta reader is what most people would call a proofreader. These are people who read a manuscript for multiple things. It isn’t just spelling and grammar (though these are certainly important), they’ll look at plot, characters, flow, voice, continuity, and more. I’ve found (mostly because I’ve worked with non-professionals), that each person has their strong and weak points. When I contacted the author, I told him that I could look at plot, characters, and “believability.” Some have told me that I’m good at dialogue as well, though I’ve always felt it was one of my weak points.

You need beta readers because you can’t catch all the errors. A computer can’t catch them all (not even the spelling/grammar ones which, by comparison, are easy next to plot/characters/continuity/etc.). You have to have someone else look over your work. A good beta reader will not only correct your obvious mistakes, but also let you know where your manuscript is weak. Is it drawn out at certain points? Did you forget that a character had left his coat at home? Could you shorten/eliminate whole sections to tighten up the story? These are the things a beta reader can do for you. Now, a few things you can do, as a beta reader, to help the author.

1) Read Thoroughly

It is one thing to read for enjoyment. Being a beta reader means a lot more. If you are reading for grammar or spelling, you have to pay attention not only to the content but the usage. This is not my forte. If you’ve spent any time on this site, you know that. When I offer to beta read, it is for plot, characterization, continuity, etc. That takes a lot more than just reading. You have to pay attention. Question everything. And, often, pose those questions to the author. Hopefully, through your questions, they’ll figure out how to fix their story.

2) Read Thoughtfully

It is hard, as an author, to put your own voice aside. Just because someone words something differently than you, doesn’t mean it is wrong. Or less right. It’s just different. Remembering to try to put your own writing idiosyncrasies aside is important. Read what is there with as little judgement as possible. You don’t like the character? Who cares? Not all characters are likeable. Don’t like the word choice? Ask a question about it. Don’t change it just because you think you have a better vocabulary. They very well may have a reason for their word choice that you don’t yet know.

3) Be Specific

I like it when people use track changes for grammar/spelling/tense and use comments for word choice/plot/character suggestions. I find myself resistant to word choice changes that I perceive to be stylistic. If I see suggestions for different words in the comments in the margin, I’m much more open. I love it when people ask specific question about how something works. Sometimes I fine with them not knowing, others, it is a cue that I need to make things clearer. Often, what I think is obvious, isn’t to a reader. That’s important to know. The more specific you can be with your suggestions/questions, the more help you’ll be.

4) Be Nice

Invariably, you’re going to get a document in front of you that you think is unsalvageable. It’s a complete redo. There can be thousands of reasons but, remember, you’re just one person. You very well may be wrong. So don’t be “that guy.” You know, the one that completely takes the wind out of somebody’s sails. The one that seems to make themselves feel better by crushing the dreams of other writers. It isn’t nice, it isn’t fair, and frankly, it is just plain evil.

We all started somewhere (I’m starting right here for example), and no one started off writing masterpieces. Taking the time to word your recommendations so that the fledgling author has, not only an understanding of the problems, but also has hope for improvement, is the goal. I’m not advocating the proverbial “compliment sandwich.” Instead, I’m suggesting thoughtful temperance. There is good in there, find it and point it out.

5) Know When to Say When

Your job as a beta reader is not to re-write. You’re there to polish. You may get to the end of a document, hit save, and return it to the author. Or you may get to a point, realize that you can’t go much further, and send it back with only partial edits. That point comes when the changes that (you think) need to be made to the document will negate any further suggestions you may have. It’s a fine line but, the minute you cross it, you start wasting your time.

6) Doesn’t Matter Your Experience

How many times have you had someone say, “I’m not XX, why would anyone care what I think?” Let me tell you, I care. And so should every author. If you are a reader, you count. I hope that every single reader, regardless of reading proclivity, enjoys my book. What I don’t care about is whether or not they “get” every single nuance. Personally, I find the things that people “get wrong” about my stories as informative to the writing process as those that immediately understand everything (and, often, read into my writing more than I ever intended). While it may be a single experience of a single reader, it very well may be that I’ve assumed something about the readers that just isn’t true.

Case in point, my wife, when reading the draft of Bob Moore: Desperate Times, was confused by the term “henchmen.” I thought it was a word most people would know. With the glut of super hero movies out there (Mystery Men being the one that comes to mind where it was used the most), I figured everyone knew what a henchman was. Well, she didn’t and, I realized, not everyone would. So I added a line or two and I’ve now ensured that this particular item wouldn’t confuse anyone else. Would my other beta readers have picked it up? Maybe. But probably not. Inexperience with a subject can, in my opinion, make your opinion (or more likely, confusion) on a book than those that have been fans for years.

So, what about you? What have you learned about being a good beta reader? Better yet, what do you find most helpful when working with beta readers?

3 thoughts on “Being a Good Beta Reader”

  1. I’ve been fortunate enough to work as a beta reader for Tom and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it! There are two things I’d like to add to this list:

    1) Sleep on it. As with any studying or decision making, the human brain processes information and organizes it during sleep. There are studies that strongly suggest getting even just a few hours of sleep (enough to get in a couple of REM cycles) helps people remember and retain information far better than the proverbial “all-nighter”. It can be tempting to read and make suggestions as quickly as possible. But taking some time and getting some sleep can really help a beta reader to consider the “big picture” and better organize one’s thoughts so that they can be expressed in a more helpful manner.

    2) Be honest and direct. You’re here to help. I would hope that the author knows this. I completely agree with Tom that it is not helpful to be harsh and mean. But it also isn’t helpful to just say that everything is great or to mince words to the point that the criticism is lost amidst the niceties.

    So speak plainly. Ask direct questions. When I look for feedback, I want to get to it and be able to pin-point the things that need improvement. It can sometimes be a fine line, but personally, I would rather that any reader speak up – even if it sometimes seems a little bit harsh – than have them keep quiet out of fear of hurting my feelings. Gathering opinions, questions and suggestions is what the beta process is all about. So don’t be shy! Speak up. And say what you really, honestly think 🙂

  2. For writers, I’d add that it’s important to find a beta reader who’s actually in your audience. A lot of the time, authors use friends and family as beta readers, and sometimes strangers, and many of these folks just don’t “get it.” The work misfires with them, due to being outside their preferred genre or style or some other vagary that’s hard to nail down.

    That’s okay–like a bad first date, just chalk it up to experience and move on.

    If you’re the beta reader and the work just isn’t clicking for you, let the author know early so you can both avoid wasting time.

  3. Rob – Sleeping on it +1. Couldn’t agree more. I also would rather have too many than not enough comments. Harsh or no, I need to hear what you have to say.

    Joe – That’s a good one too. Especially if your work is targeted. I used both people like Rob that like the genre (at least, he seems too) and others that just like to read. In the end, I was able to filter out the comments from those that didn’t get it that were no appropriate and ended up with a novella that has been reviewed by many as, “Well, I don’t usually like this sort of thing, but…”

    Personally, I would never agree to be a beta reader for a romance novel for exactly the reason that it wouldn’t click. Though if a writer was trying to create a story that could cross out of the genre, I’d give that a shot.

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