How to be a Good and Helpful Beta Reader

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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

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

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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.

Beta Readers: How to Find Them and What to Expect

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You’ve written a somewhat final-ish draft of your novel (Good. For. You!), and you want to take it out into the world and give it a spin before you start searching for an agent or publisher. Your next step will be to find a few beta readers to see how your story lands. So, how do you find beta readers, and what can you expect from the process?

I recently did the beta read process with my novel, Miranda’s Garden, and I learned a few things. While I can’t speak for every writer who’s gone through the process, I can share what my experience was like and give you a few tips.

How to Find Beta Readers

  1. Email your top picks directly—Craft a well-thought out email that offers a synopsis of the story and what it’s about (without giving too much away). Due to the subject matter of my story, I also provided a caveat that if anyone considering needed trigger warnings, it likely wasn’t a good fit for them.
  2. Send a request to your email list—After you see who responds and who doesn’t from your first email and if you didn’t get enough readers, consider sending a request to your email list of followers. (If you haven’t been building this list, start now. One thing publishers look for is a following. This lets them know you have a built-in reach for marketing, which will make their job easier.)
  3. Do a social media blast—After the first two attempts, you might want to do a social media blast and see what it turns up. You may get people you know and/or total strangers who want to read your book. You get to decide who to send your baby off to. Not everyone deserves a go at your precious creation.

What to Look for in Potential Beta Readers

  1. People who fit your intended audience—Ideally, you want people who you know will want to read a story like yours. Back when I did book coaching, I always told my clients that for non-fiction books, you want to be crystal clear about your audience up front. For fiction, not so much. Just write the story and build the characters and their fictional world. By the time you’re done, your audience will be more evident to you.
  2. People who don’t fit your intended audience—This might be more personal choice, but I thought it would be helpful to have people who I knew weren’t my intended audience read my novel. It was. It confirmed for me that I’m on the right path for the readership I have in mind.
  3. People who appreciate your genre—This may be the same as your intended audience, or it may not be. For example, I consider my novel literary fiction with magical realism elements. I consider my intended audience to be women in their late 20s to mid-40s. One of my readers was far outside this range and was one of my best readers.
  4. Gender—I know my story is a woman’s story. Did this mean I didn’t want men to do a beta read for me? Not at all. A group of both men and women read my book, and each had different responses to it that weren’t dependent on their gender.

What You Can Expect

  1. Not everyone will know how to do the process—Some people don’t understand what a beta read means. Even when you give them guidelines. Some will want to edit and/or proofread. If they attempt to do this, they may not finish, may get tired and skim a large portion, and/or you’ll wind up with unhelpful comments. So it goes. Not the end of the world.
  2. Not everyone will like your book—Some people won’t like it. Some people will hate it… Your book, your story, your character, and/or your writing style. Like I always say, my work and I are a lot alike: We’re not for everyone. I wouldn’t want it any other way. If you get a response that only finds fault with the work you’ve done, try doing what I do. Chuckle, shrug, and move on. And embrace the knowledge that you’re clarifying your audience.
  3. Not everyone will finish—People mean well. But as I say above, some people don’t understand what they’re biting off. They’ll start, life will get in the way, or the story doesn’t resonate with them, so they’ll drop the ball. This is why it’s a good idea to get several people to read your book. No one’s fault. Just the nature of the beast.
  4. Not everyone will be helpful if they do finish—Also as mentioned above, be prepared to get feedback that doesn’t inform your next revision. If all a reader could manage is to throw you a bone or two at the end of an unhelpful feedback, accept whatever bones serve you and your work, and leave the others behind.
  5. Some people miss the mark completely—You’ll know they’ve missed the mark when others have not. Trust your readers. Trust yourself.
  6. Some people will love your book—Of course, this is nice to hear, but even with this, look for valuable feedback within the praise to make your book even better. When someone loves your book, you’re getting even more clarity about your audience.

What to do with the Information

  1. Look for recurring comments across all feedback—If two or three people offer the same feedback about something in your book or about your writing, pay attention. Especially, if this feedback comes from people who both love and don’t love your book.
  2. Take what you can use and throw the rest away—As I say above, take whatever comments will make your book better. Leave comments that don’t resonate behind. If someone doesn’t like your character for her personality, so what? If you love her, don’t change her.

What NOT to do with the Information

  1. Don’t converse with you beta readers—Some beta readers may offer to have a conversation with you after they’ve sent their comments. They may offer to answer questions you might have. I strongly encourage you to NOT do this. You don’t need to put yourself in a position of defending your work. And you don’t need to give them the airtime to defend their comments or challenge you. Simply thank them for their time, and save yours so you can get back to the important business at hand. Your revision.
  2. Don’t take feedback personally—Remember that the people reading your work are other humans with specific, personal tastes and varying degrees of training and expertise. Whether the feedback is positive and glowing or negative and caustic, take it all in stride. Use your head and your heart to discern what you need to bring into your next revision.

Offer a Few Perks

Of course, be sure to thank your readers, no matter how skilled they were at providing feedback. This is a big ask! Genuinely show your appreciation for the time they’ve taken from their busy lives. They are the first few people who will have read your creation in its entirety. That’s a big deal.

Here’s what I offered my readers

  • a free, signed copy when the novel is published
  • their names in the Acknowledgements of the book
  • a free hour of book coaching
  • a complimentary workshop to their clients (for business owners with a following that would benefit from this service)

In my next post, I’ll talk about how to be a beta reader so you’ll be primed and ready to go if you’re asked to perform this valuable task for another writer in the future.

Sending you mad writing mojo…