In my last post, I wrote about how to find beta readers and what to expect from the process. Now, I want to share a little about what it means to be a good and helpful beta reader, all based on my recent experience of sending my novel, Miranda’s Garden, out to beta readers. And also from talking with other writer friends who have done the same.
Understand What Beta Reading Is
A beta reader is a test reader of an unreleased piece of written work. This could be for a novel, memoir, non-fiction book, or a script.
A beta reader provides the author feedback from an average reader’s point of view rather than from a professional point of view, like an editor, proofreader, writing coach, agent, publisher, or another author/writer.
This feedback is used by the writer of the unreleased book to fix remaining issues with plot, pacing, or consistency. It may also point out sections that confuse and/or don’t ring true or important threads that get lost or aren’t resolved.
The beta reader also serves as an audience to see what kind of emotional impact the story has.
Understand What Beta Reading is Not
A beta reader is NOT any of the following.
Editor – A critical reader of a piece of written work who polishes and refines. This will be THE WRITER’S job on the revision – or an editor of HER choosing.
Proofreader – A reader who looks for and changes/points out spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. A proofreader may also look for formatting issues, make sure all elements are included as they should be—for example, bold headings, missing sentences/words, etc. This will come AFTER the writer has made yet another pass at her manuscript AFTER she’s received beta reader comments and feedback.
Writing Coach – An experienced writer who walks another writer through the process of writing a book. By the time a manuscript gets to the beta reader stage, the writer has already done this.
Agent – A person who helps a writer find a publisher for her manuscript. Some agents also help writers of novels, for example, find film producers. An agent looks out for the business interests of the writer.
Publisher – A publisher oversees the selection of manuscripts, the subsequent printing, and the dissemination of the printed book.
Of course, you can be a beta reader if you DO assume these roles in your everyday life, but you need to be able to remove your professional hat and put on a beta reader hat. Know that this isn’t your next editing project (you can’t edit the work and expect to be paid), that it isn’t appropriate for you to try and sell your services, and/or that the WRITER OF THE MANUSCRIPT will get to the editing/proofing/revising in her next pass at the manuscript.
How to Help / Questions to Ask
If you’re approached to do a beta read on a manuscript, know the following.
1—It isn’t a finished manuscript The writer of the manuscript has not gone through the process of line editing and/or proofing. It’s too soon for that. Don’t waste your time on the minutia. Don’t “correct” or make suggestions about punctuation and grammar or point out typos. This will take too long and will likely burn you out. It may even cause you to not be able to finish.
2—You are not an editor or proofreader Not on this manuscript, anyway. (See #1 above.)
3—This is a big-picture read Pull back and imagine that you’re reading the manuscript from an aerial view. Look at character arc and development (how a character changes/grows). Look at story arc and development (how a story starts, gets complicated, peaks, then settles into a new normal). Look for important threads that run through the story (if they have a satisfying emotional resolution or get dropped). Identify your emotional experience (how the story made you feel… this will likely be a lot of different emotions, with one or two overarching ones at the end).
4—Be honest yet kind Rather than begin the statements in your feedback negatively (I didn’t like… There’s no way… You are incorrect…), find ways to do so positively (I didn’t understand… I was confused by… I wonder if/why,,,)
You’re certainly not responsible for the writer’s feelings or reaction to your feedback, but keep in mind what it took to get all those words on the page in a meaningful way and to then share it. And as I’ve said before, keep in mind that it’s a work in progress, so expect that some parts might be messy or feel unfinished. You likely will never know how your comments landed on the writer because, as I say in my last post, conversations between writers of in-progress manuscripts and beta readers is generally not a good idea. If for no other reason, in the interest of time.
If you’re intrigued at the prospect of serving as a beta reader for someone, here are some questions you might ask if they don’t provide the answers when they make the ask.
1—Is there anything in particular you’d like me to focus on? This may help the writer identify parts of the manuscript she has questions about herself yet hasn’t consciously identified. Her responses will also give you a framework to work in. If you don’t get any clearly defined instructions about how to proceed, if all you offer in the end is how you perceive the protagonist (and other characters), what you appreciate and/or are confused by regarding the characters and their choices, how you felt at various points in the story—and especially in the end, you will have performed a valuable service for the writer.
2—What is your timeframe? A fair amount of time to do a beta read and provide comments is one month, in my opinion. Of course, this varies, depending on readers’ schedules and the writer’s needs. If you find that the writer of the manuscript wants your feedback within a timeframe that’s challenging for you, either politely decline or explain and offer to do a quicker read that focuses on one or two aspects of the manuscript that you both agree on.
3—Have you intentionally used any special formatting or structuring I should be aware of? Sometimes, authors use special formatting or structuring, so it’s good to know this up front before you begin. For example, an author may use something as simple as a Prologue and/or Epilogue. (Be sure you understand how these function in a book.) She may use chapter titles or not. (If her intention is to inform the chapter content with the title, note whether or not it does.) She may use headings, white space, italics, or other markers to designate shifts in time, point of view, or mood. (Be sure you note how it affects the reading and comprehension of the story.)
4—How will I receive the manuscript and return my feedback? In this day and age, it’s likely assumed that the entire process will take place digitally. You will receive the manuscript, maybe as a .pdf in an email, and you will return your feedback via email, as well. You might be asked to send a summary in a separate Word document, or you might be asked to comment directly on the document you were sent.
What to Expect in Return
It’s nice when a writer of a manuscript offers something in return for their beta readers’ time and effort, but this is never, ever to be expected. You may get a promise to be in the Acknowledgements of the published book, a free copy of the published book, or some one-time service. If these are being offered, the writer will likely share this up front when they invite you to beta read. It’s best to go into the process with no expectation of any kind of tangible reward or compensation. Most certainly, the writer will not compensate you monetarily.
Appreciate the experience and satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped move an in-progress manuscript closer to publication or production.
Writers know this is a big ask, and you most definitely deserve a big “thank you” for your time, energy, and effort.
If you’ve served as a beta reader, let us know in the comments below about your experience.