Beta Readers: How to Be One

There are still a lot of writing topics that I feel inadequately qualified to write about, particularly topics about the publishing industry itself since I have yet to break into it professionally.

But there is one topic outside of the writing process itself in which I feel pretty highly experienced, and that is beta reading. In undergrad creative writing programs (or at least at Canisius, where I went), beta reading is about 35% of the experience you get, with another 35-40% experience in how to receive criticism gracefully and graciously, and then the last bit of math (I’m too lazy to do it) being writing/editing experience.

Okay, those percentages aren’t based off of any actual data, but you get the point. In creative writing courses, you spend a lot of time reading your classmates’ work and delivering feedback to them in a workshop-esque format.

As a freshman in these courses, you’re likely to be shy and nervous, not just because you have to sit and listen to your classmates tear your short stories and poems apart, but also because you have to figure out how to tell your classmates what didn’t work in their drafts without hurting anyone’s feelings. I’ve met many fellow writers in my lifetime and I think the majority of us are kind and enthusiastic people who like to encourage creativity and positivity in one another… and who tend to be on the sensitive side. So saying anything negative about someone else’s hard work isn’t easy. We have the innate ability to put ourselves into other people’s shoes, and we all know how hard it is to brave the blank page. And if I’m honest, even after four years of practice I still get nervous about this sort of stuff, whether I’m reading someone else’s work or letting them read mine.

But there are ways you can make the experience at least a little easier. In this post I want to focus on a few things you can do to be a good beta reader for other writers. (In the future, I’ll probably also write another post about how to receive constructive feedback, and another about selecting beta readers, so stay tuned for those!)

For those of you who may be unsure of what a beta reader is, basically it is someone who reads a draft of a writer’s work (usually a second draft or later) and who offers them feedback. A beta reader’s job is NOT to copy-edit (unless they find a major typo that confuses them — for example, ID-ing the incorrect character in dialogue, or using the completely incorrect spelling of a word that messes with the meaning of the sentence); rather, beta readers are meant to tell a writer what does and doesn’t work in the story overall.

It isn’t necessarily *required* that you have beta readers read your manuscript before you send it out to agents or publishers, but it is highly, HIGHLY recommended. A second (and third and maybe even fourth) set of well-read eyes can catch plot holes you might not have noticed, or maybe they can even make a suggestion for edits that would improve your story a million-fold. They can let you know which scenes feel like unnecessary filler, and which ones pack the most powerful punches. They might notice a scientific fact you got wrong, or they might point out how unrealistic your portrayal of, say, a tattoo artist or a plumber or a doctor is (y’know, someone outside of the writing profession, which a beta reader might better understand because maybe they are in that profession themselves and know what the work actually entails).

A beta reader might just be the difference between an acceptance letter and a rejection letter from agents and publishers.

And anyone can be a beta reader! You don’t have to be a writer — just a reader. So whether you are a freshman facing your first workshop, or just an eager literature enthusiast willing to help out someone you know who has written a manuscript, here are a few tips for being a great beta reader:

  1. Refrain from simply saying “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” This ranges from your overall opinion of the story/poetry to specific scenes. Although hearing “I liked it” is nice, it doesn’t provide much depth. When a writer asks you to be a beta reader, they are seeking genuine feedback. We want details! What did you like specifically, or what didn’t work for you? Do you think this character seemed inconsistent or shallow, do you think that scene was too slow-paced, do you feel like the dialogue was unrealistic? (Or did you feel the exact opposite? Did you feel this character was realistic and human, did you think the pacing was just right, do you feel like the dialogue flowed naturally?) We want to know the specifics, good or bad!
  2. Police yourself. Be conscious of your tone when you give the writer constructive feedback. Be very, very careful not to sound like a know-it-all, and if you hated something about the story (other than, say, the antagonist, who you are probably supposed to hate), probably don’t use the word hate! As I said before, many writers are sensitive, and hearing that someone hates something can be a devastating blow to our self-confidence. Learn how to give tips in a way that doesn’t sound condescending or judgmental. Saying something like, “Maybe this would work better here,” or, “Some readers might not like this technique” is better than saying, “Holy shit, this is awful, change it!” You have to be extra careful if you are delivering your critique online or via text messages. Tone is hard to read over text or email or instant messaging sometimes. Word your feedback carefully, so as not to unintentionally hurt the writer’s feelings. To be a good beta reader, you have to be a good communicator.
  3. Balance your constructive criticism with positive points. This is probably one of the more important points to keep in mind, and was stressed pretty heavily by every professor I worked with in undergrad. Taking all that feedback in can be exhausting and honestly even a little traumatic for most writers. They can walk out of that workshop or finish reading through their beta reader’s suggestions feeling as if becoming a writer was a mistake. Though it is necessary for us writers to develop a tough skin, given the nature of creative work, it really helps our self-esteem if you tell us what you did like about our writing. In fact, it’s most helpful if you start on a positive note. Begin with something like, “First things first: I LOVE your protagonist!” or even something a little silly like, “You are great at making me feel all the feels!” Then counter with, “But what I think needs a little work is ___.” This softens the blow a little. Maybe throw a few more positive points in throughout your critique, and definitely end with another positive point, just to cheer the writer up after criticizing them so much… Trust me, it helps.
  4. Seriously, you do not have to worry about doing thorough copy-edits. It’s not your job. Many publishing companies have their own copy-editors, and most writers might even hire a copy-editor before sending out their manuscript for submission. I mean, you’re totally free to mark up the manuscript all you want, but unless you find a glaringly bad typo that changes the meaning of a sentence, or the author calls a character the wrong name or something, you can totally avoid this time-consuming task. You can definitely include grammar tips if you notice the writer making consistent mistakes that might get their manuscript rejected (for example, using semicolons incorrectly or writing dialogue in the wrong format, like, “Blah blah”. Hanna said, instead of “Blah blah,” Hanna said). And if you happen to catch a glaringly obvious and embarrassing typo, PLEASE for the love of God tell the writer and save them from future embarrassment. But it is not in the beta reader’s job description to copy-edit, and therefore, if you don’t know that much about proper grammar, then there is no problem. There are people who get paid to do that (and as a related side-note, most beta readers do not get paid, so probably don’t demand money from the writer whom you offer to help — and I am fully serious! Google it: “Should you pay your beta readers?”).
  5. Read closely. If you offer to be someone’s beta reader, you have to take it seriously. Yes, you can leave fun comments on the manuscript — especially if you are beta reading for a close friend. Last year I beta read for a friend of mine and left a lot of comments like, “OMG! So-and-so is just the most adorable character!” and “I CANNOT believe so-and-so just did this!!! Rude!” You can definitely have fun with it. Just know that writers want actual feedback. Getting your genuine reaction is nice, but we also want to know what works (or not) on a structural level. This requires a general knowledge of how stories work: conflict, plot, dialogue, characterization, tone and mood, setting, detail, climax and resolution, etc. Be aware of these aspects as you read the manuscript and TAKE. NOTES!!! If you don’t feel you can read closely, whether you are too busy with life to read something that carefully, or whether you simply do not feel you understand how stories are constructed, be honest with the writer. Maybe they will still ask you to read it for general feedback and reactions, even if that means you only give a light reading. Maybe not. Your honesty will be appreciated though!
  6. Don’t hold back on the positivity! This is pretty self-explanatory. Hearing someone’s genuine and enthusiastic, fan-girly reactions to our work is a huge ego boost. I still remember being nervous for my first workshop, only to have one of my classmates start off by saying, “I loved this! It reminded me so much of something John Green might write, and I was so wrapped up in the story!” It felt awesome. Granted, she followed with a healthy dose of criticism, but the compliment definitely made me feel better. We are only human. Plz validate us. Lololol.
  7. But don’t sugarcoat your criticism TOO much. Avoid bias. If you feel you are too close to the writer to say anything that could be construed as remotely negative, maybe don’t beta read for them… or try to get over it if you really, really want to help them out. Your positivity is nice and all, and writers definitely want to hear good things about their writing, but a beta reader’s job is to help a writer improve their manuscript. If you do not want to critically evaluate the writing, don’t bother.
  8. Work as quickly as you can, and keep your writer updated as you read. Life is busy. Trust me, writers know that! But, in the same way you shouldn’t be a beta reader if you cannot offer constructive criticism, do not offer to be one if it is going to take you months and months to read the manuscript and give feedback. It should take you no longer than two weeks, in my opinion, to get the manuscript back to the writer — and that is being generous. Many others will say it should take you no longer than a single week, and some writers might even ask you to finish it in a few days. For one thing, your reaction and your ability to get absorbed in the story is more reliable if you sweep through the story as quickly as you can; if you take your time reading a book, for example, you might pick it up a week later and forget what was happening. Taking your time takes you out of the story. Beta reading depends heavily on your ability to pick up on details and consistencies (or inconsistencies), which are easier to notice if it is all still fresh in your mind. Additionally, even waiting for just one week can be agony to the writer. The whole time we’re left wondering, “Do they hate the story? Are they even reading it? What will they think?!” Plus, by this point in the novel-writing process, the writer is no doubt anxious to do a final round of edits and submit the manuscript already, dammit! All that waiting around ain’t good for the anxiety! So read as quickly as you can, as carefully as you can — and on top of that, try to keep your writer updated on a day-to-day basis. Let them know where you’re at in the manuscript, and generally how it’s going so far. If there is a delay and for some reason you have to take a few days longer — or, God forbid, if there is a personal emergency that prevents you from giving feedback at all — tell the writer! Shoot them a quick text or email. Not knowing what is going on is frustrating. We appreciate the communication, and will be more pissed off if you just don’t tell us what’s going on.
  9. Before you start, ask the writer if there is anything in particular they want you to evaluate. Maybe the writer is worried about the clarity of their antagonist’s motives, or maybe they feel they haven’t developed their setting well enough. Maybe they worry that their prose is too purple, or that they don’t use enough metaphors and similes. Maybe they want to know what you think the themes of the story or poem are. Whatever the case, knowing what the writer wants will give you a better idea of what to keep an eye out for as you read. Of course, don’t limit yourself to those aspects. Continue to be aware of any inconsistencies or other flaws. But definitely be sure, as you read/leave comments, to address the issues the writer asked about. And for that matter, don’t be afraid to ask questions in your commentary! For example, maybe a sentence confuses you, and you might ask in your comments, “What did you mean by this? It’s a little unclear.” Or maybe the tone of a scene is vague, so you might ask, “Is this meant to be a dark scene? It doesn’t feel as dark as I expected it to.” This allows the writer to assess how other readers will understand — or misunderstand — their work.
  10. Finally, be aware that the writer is not in ANY way obligated to make the changes you suggest. We appreciate your help and your hard work, and if you’re a beta reader, no doubt the writer will thank you in the back of their book. But overall, it is up to the writer to decide which edits will and will not suit their story. If you find out they are not making a specific change you suggested, do not get mad at them or bad-mouth them, even if they are successfully published (and if their book flops, do NOT say, “Told ya so — you should’ve done what I said!”). Bottom line is: The book belongs to the writer, not to you. It is the writer’s story, not yours, and the writer knows their characters and their setting best. Maybe you disagree with one of their choices, and that is okay. Just don’t be a dick about it.

That’s kind of the overarching message I guess: If you’re going to be a beta reader, don’t be a dick.

Hopefully this list of tips helped! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to discuss below.

Happy beta reading!

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