How to be a Beta Reader

Here’s a potentially useful post from Jane Friedman’s blog: Looking for a Beta Reader? Flip That Question Around.

Why do I argue for the flip? Two reasons:

  1. Because helping each other is always a good thing (you’re not the only one with this dream!), and
  2. Because the more you practice your editing skills, the stronger you will become as a writer.

Which is true, sure, but I’m more interested right now in the practical suggestions for how to do a good job as a beta reader. Here they are:

  • Think about more than grammar, punctuation, and spelling perfection.
  • Think about celebrating strengths just as much as pointing out areas needing more work.
    • When you see an awesome line, celebrate it.
    • When you love a character, let the writer know.
    • When you’re terrified or swooning or utterly fascinated, applaud how the scene is crafted.
  • Think about specific notes that could be helpful to the writer.
    • Where are you confused?
    • Where does the story seem to wander off-focus?
    • Where is a motivation or a plot twist unclear?
    • Where does the story seem slow?
  • When you finish, see if you can articulate what the book was about (the plot) in three sentences or fewer and what you saw as the overarching theme or takeaway. (The writer will be inspired when your understanding matches their own, or if it doesn’t, that too can be telling!)
  • Think about what would be helpful to you if you were the writer receiving feedback.
    • Critique with kindness not brutality.
    • Remember you are in “editor” mode, not a “ghostwriter” tasked with rewriting anything as you would do it.

I’m interested in this right now because (a) I’m currently beta reading a manuscript for Sherwood Smith; and (b) I’ve got workshop critiques to write for a workshop that’s taking place in July; and (c) I’m just curious because my expectations for various first readers are quite different. Let’s take a look at the above …

Okay, here’s my takeaway:

Yes, first, it’s easy to get distracted by tiny queries about grammar, punctuation, and syntax. Do you want this one sentence to be in the present tense? Why? is a legitimate query, but very small scale. If you are just proofreading, that’s useful, but it’s not the same as beta reading. Beta reading is, or can be, a lot more like editing than proofreading.

Second: yes again. It’s very nice for the author if you cheer nice phrases, good description, effective lines of dialogue, etc. I’m saying this from personal experience. Please don’t hesitate to put in little smiley faces and nice little “wonderful” comments in the margin. That’s a great thing to do. Thank you for doing that.

Third: yes, when you feel iffy about something, train yourself not to make an excuse for that iffy section. “Oh, I’m sure it’s really all right,” is fine from a reader, but not great from a beta reader. Pause and add a comment. If you can figure out what you don’t like, that’s fine (“I suddenly lost interest and found myself skimming through this part.” “I suddenly can’t stand this character after she did this.” “Oh my God, he would NEVER do this!”) If you can’t figure out what you don’t like, you can still add a comment (“Something here isn’t working for me, but I’m not sure why.”

Fourth: I hadn’t thought about pausing to summarize or articulate the theme. I’m terrible at spotting themes, but sure, it’s neat when a reader comments in a review, “The powerful theme of ….” and is completely and obviously right that this is one of the themes.

Fifth: Yes, resist the urge to rewrite the sentences. It’s not your book.

And finally, not from the above, different first readers are good at different things and that’s fine.

When I ask someone if they have time to read something for me — a request that everyone should always answer with NO if they do not have time; I completely understand that — but sometimes what I’m looking for are broad emotional reactions to different scenes. Does the scene really nail it for you or is it off? If you can put a finger on why a scene doesn’t feel quite right to you — maybe it feels truncated or something — that’s fine, but it’s also fine if you just are doubtful about that scene, period. That’s what I want. That’s plenty to help me re-focus on what is going on in that scene and think about ways to possibly make the scene more effective.

On the other hand, I might be looking for editorial feedback about pacing, places where the worldbuilding feels thin, or feedback about awkward sentences or phrases. Or maybe all I want to know is whether the relationships ring true — maybe that’s someone’s particular focus and I want to make sure that the central relationships are working. Or whether the story feels finished, does the conclusion feel like a conclusion, maybe THAT is the one thing I most want to know.

I’ve seen suggestions — I don’t remember where — that you should have a bunch of beta readers, including some that don’t really read your genre and at least one who doesn’t really like your writing. (I think that’s weird advice.) I don’t know; to me, it seems that a couple beta readers are plenty, but someone needs to have good editorial skills and someone has to get what you’re trying to do with relationships and provide feedback just about that. Those are the two crucial types of beta readers as far as I’m concerned. The first person says, “You’ve said this before, this is repetitious, can you cut these two paragraphs?” The second says, “Oh, this poor guy, I just want to give him all the hugs!” Both are really valuable feedback.

And THEN proofreading, which as you all know is simultaneously invaluable and hopeless. I sent myself SUELEN as a mobi file so I could read it on my phone, which I did very slowly over the past week, and you know what? I found about thirty sentences to fiddle with and THREE MORE ACTUAL ERRORS. Well, surely that’s the last of the actual typos! (I am fairly sure it will turn out not to be the very, very last ones).

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7 thoughts on “How to be a Beta Reader”

  1. I love seeing how people talk about fiction writing. I don’t think you’ll be surprised by this, but I use so many of these tips when editing manuscripts or grants for others in my lab. It’s fun to see where there are overlaps!

  2. It’s been a long time since I focused on anything nonfiction, but yes, I can see how “I’m finding this section confusing” would apply both ways. I bet you never say, “Pacing seems slow here” though!

    Grant writing, ugh. I’ve done it. That’s a special subset of writing that ought to be called Bureaucratic Bullshit Writing Style. I can do it, but I hate it! Academic writing as such isn’t so bad.

    I bet — I hope — you also say, as appropriate, “I hate to point this out, but your methodology here is not great. You’re not testing what you say you’re testing. You’ve failed to control for x, y, and z. Your samples are subject to these fundamental biases, which you have done nothing to avoid. Your conclusions are therefore highly iffy.”

    I’ve seen enough really crappy “studies” that these days my first impulse when somebody says they found some result — not my second or third, but right up front — is to say, “Really? Can I see your methods section?”

  3. Interesting post, but also a bit of a let down. When I first read the title, I anticipated something about how to BECOME a betta reader, and I thought, Oh! Early access to Rachel Neumeier novels! Sign me up! I can hardly wait for Suelen, can you tell?

  4. Prioritize big picture stuff.

    If you have to tell the writer that the beginning of his story and the ending of his story belong to two different stories, by the time he’s done he will have removed all the spelling nitpicks — and introduced new ones. Systemic style issues are another matter; it is a big picture thing to point out that his excessive use of sentence fragments make the story choppy.

    Also, remember that when criticizing grammar, you can be wrong. I have seen people object to excessive use of passive voice in a story with one instance of it (I think it was perhaps the progressive voice being objected to), and call sentences runons when you could diagram them and use them for coatracks, they were so grammatical. It’s hard to take your objections seriously when you do that. So, know your grammar terms.

  5. Sorry, Melanie! If I need another beta reader, I hope you’ll see my post when I ask for volunteers!

    Mary, yes, I bet you’d only be asked to beta or proofread ONCE if you got the grammar wrong yourself. And yes, I agree: big picture stuff is by far what a beta reader needs to do. Proofreading is for catching the little stuff.

  6. I don’t say “pacing seems slow” but I do pull out “this background is far too detailed” every now and again ;) I actually love grant writing, and I think it’s because I see it mostly as an excuse to get people excited about the science I’m doing. I totally understand why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea though.

    I know exactly the kind of studies you’re talking about. Science journalism that goes waaaay beyond the scope or intentions of the paper doesn’t help either! I’ve seen so many articles where the headline is sensational and the actual linked study is much more conservative and realistic in its scope.

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