Understand the do’s and don’ts of beta reading
Beta reading is a popular concept, and for good reason: it offers a chance for writers to get feedback on their work at no cost.
Beta readers are fairly simple to find; ask a friend who loves to read, find a classmate or coworker who also likes to write, or join an online writer’s group.
They’re not always so simple, however, to work with. Many relationships have been strained or even terminated through beta reading mistakes or miscommunications.
Here are a few laws of beta reader etiquette that will ensure you and your beta reader are still friends down the road.
- If you say you’re going to beta read for someone, do it.
- Don’t rip their story apart, even if it’s horrible.
- If someone beta reads for you, be prepared to return the favor.
- Do your research.
- Be objective.
- Only check what you’ve been asked to check.
- Be specific.
- Point out problems, but don’t offer solutions.
If you say you’re going to beta read for someone, do it.
This sounds simple enough, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent someone a story of mine and then never heard from that person again. As a writer, it leaves you thinking that you’re not important enough to warrant even a few minutes of their time.
I understand that life is busy and people are always on the run, but it’s important to honor your commitments. So if someone asks you to beta read, but you don’t have the time, it’s perfectly okay to say no.
Recently someone asked me to beta read his ten-thousand-word draft, and I had no problem saying no. But I told him why: “I’d love to read your novel, but since I’m currently working three jobs, I just can’t give your work the attention that it deserves.
I don’t want to commit to something I can’t finish. Ask me again next time, though!” Believe me, people would much rather hear an honest response that you don’t have time rather than just have their manuscript disappear into a black hole.
Don’t rip their story apart, even if it’s horrible.
The classic sandwich rule can be put to good use here: first, say something positive. Second, mention what you didn’t like. Finally, finish up on another positive note.
For example: “Your world building was excellent. I felt like the middle of the story really dragged, but the ending was great!”
The idea here is to soften the blow of the negative criticism without eliminating it altogether—it’s important to be honest, but there’s no need to be brutally so. When choosing beta readers, it may be more beneficial to choose a beta reader who’s not very close to you (for example, try to stay away from immediate family or your spouse).
These people will probably be very proud of you and will find it hard to give you honest feedback because they don’t want to hurt your feelings or ambitions (unless, of course, your pesky older brother gets ahold of your manuscript).
If someone beta reads for you, be prepared to return the favor.
Really, this is only fair—after all, you’re getting free editing.
Do your most thorough job on their manuscript if you want them to do a good job on yours. When you enlist a beta reader for your work, make sure to clarify exactly what you’d like them to look for.
It can be helpful to type up a short list of questions—did the prologue make you excited for the book? Were the chapters a good length? Was this character’s personality consistent?
This helps your beta reader to know exactly what to check, and it helps you make the edits that need to be done.
Do your research.
If someone asks you to read his or her dark fantasy novel, but you’ve never read dark fantasy in your life, you need to brush up on the genre.
Grab a few dark fantasy novels from the library, read book blogs that discuss genre clichés, ask your friend who their favorite authors are—whatever you need to do to gain at least a working understanding of the genre.
If you don’t understand the genre, you won’t be able to effectively critique it. And if someone asks you to read a genre that you’re completely unfamiliar with, remember—it’s always fine to say no.
It’s difficult to be completely objective, but nevertheless, try your hardest.
Is your affinity for romance the reason you don’t like your friend’s completely platonic manuscript? Are you blind to the fact that Lucius’s death advances the story because you helped choose his name, so you’re emotionally attached?
Did you cover the manuscript in figurative red ink just because it’s in free verse, and you’ve never liked free verse? Take a step back and try to be as impartial as possible.
Only check what you’ve been asked to check.
Recently, I sent a manuscript of mine to a couple of friends with one simple request: tell me if this is a fantasy novel or a sci-fi novel because I feel like the line is becoming blurred.
One friend responded with one sentence: she thought it was fantasy, and she briefly told me why. Perfect—that was all I needed to know. The other friend, though, took matters into her own hands and gave me very detailed line edits for every page in the novel, including her thoughts on my characters and plot.
Since I was still writing the first draft, I had not begun editing yet, and she sounded a bit condescending as she pointed out all my typos and mistakes. If someone asks you to critique only one aspect of his or her manuscript, then please, critique only that part.
If you don’t like something, it’s perfectly acceptable to say so—but say why. Instead of a vague “I didn’t like the ending,” clarify exactly what you meant—“I didn’t like the ending because it felt a little predictable and a little cheesy.”
This way, the writer can make changes accordingly. Saying only that you liked or didn’t like the book isn’t helpful at all. No one wants to drag the specifics out of you, so just make a point to be detailed up front.
Point out problems, but don’t offer solutions.
It’s the writer’s job to figure out that character’s backstory, so while you should feel free to indicate the holes you see, don’t tell them how they should patch things up.
If they ask for suggestions, you can absolutely give them some, but don’t be offended if the writer doesn’t use them. Remember that this is their work, not yours.
That was a lot to take in, but many beta reading blunders can be avoided by simply being kind.
Be polite, be nice, and do the best job that you can as you check whatever the writer has asked you to check. You and the writer will still be friends by the end of the process!
Related reading: How To Locate And Use Beta Readers More Effectively
Hailey Hudson is a blogger and freelance writer pursuing her career from the mountains of north Georgia. She works for a nonprofit, plays fastpitch softball, and loves Harry Potter and her beagle puppy, Sophie. She loves Jesus and invests much of her time in mentoring younger girls in their faith. Follow her blog to learn more.