4 Golden Rules of Beta Reading
Is my story good? Does the plot make sense? Are the characters engaging? Am I ready to query/publish?
These internal questions are constantly asked by writers throughout every stage of the creative process. When one puts so much time and effort into a manuscript, it can be difficult to judge how readers will react. To get the answers to these questions—usually before hiring a freelance editor or formally querying a literary agent or publisher—authors turn to beta readers.
If you’re not already familiar with the term, a beta reader is a person who reads a manuscript—most often fiction—before it’s published to give the writer constructive feedback. Although a professional editor can be a beta reader, it’s usually a friend, family member, or fellow bookworm that serves in this role. The person doesn’t necessarily have to work in publishing or be a writer themselves, but it should be someone who is an avid reader, who is familiar with the genre category, and who you trust to give helpful feedback.
A major benefit of having a beta reader is that the author gains a tangible sense of how his/her story is initially perceived. A beta read can occur while the author is still working on the story (for consistent guidance and support) or after the manuscript is completed (to view the “big picture”). Whether you’re just starting out as a beta reader or will be the receiver of such a critique—in which case feel free to share this post with your beta—there are four golden rules to keep in mind when reading and offering feedback:
Rule #1: Have a detailed checklist
As with any other important task in life, it’s best to be prepared. Ask the author what elements of the story s/he wants you to really focus on. Make a checklist to have on hand while you’re reading as a reminder. This will help you to analyze certain aspects more critically and deliver targeted feedback. You’ll also have a clearer idea of the author’s creative intent and be able to assess whether the writing brings that vision to fruition.
If the author wants an organic assessment, in which you read the manuscript and provide feedback without any prompted considerations in mind, then find or develop your own list of questions to guide your critique. A checklist can still help you organize your thoughts and ensure you’re thoroughly reviewing all major aspects of the story.
Need some help creating a checklist? Here are a few resources to get you started:
Rule #2: Trust your instincts
When reading a piece of writing, make note of your first impression of the text. What is your initial emotional reaction? Are you captivated from the get-go, or have you lost interest quickly? What kinds of sentiments do certain characters or events evoke in you throughout the read?
Reading and interpreting a story is a highly subjective process, because everyone has their own personal preferences for what elements they like and dislike (be upfront with the author if those biases affect your critique). Most often, when we begin reading a new novel, we’re not analyzing those elements in-depth. We’re taking in the story, absorbing it, and basing our enjoyment of the novel on how we feel as the plot unfolds.
As a beta reader, it’s important to be aware of your emotional reaction to give the author a sense of how the target audience may also interpret it during the first read. If you don’t have any strong emotional reactions and feel it is just meh, make note of your lack of a reaction, as well.
Rule #3: Be honest, be specific
You’ve noted your emotional reactions and your likes and dislikes, but now you must take that interpretation one step further. An effective beta reader is honest: If you love the manuscript, tell the author. If you really don’t like it, you still have to tell the author. The key is providing your feedback in a way that’s both constructive and tactful.
Letting someone read his/her writing is an incredibly vulnerable experience for an author; even veteran writers can feel anxious when receiving a critique. The best way to give feedback is to provide detailed explanations or examples from the text to support your opinion. The author will not only appreciate your effort but it also allows him/her to understand why you’ve drawn that conclusion.
Most writers will undoubtedly feel dejected or defensive if your feedback is, “I hate the main protagonist. She’s so awful!”
But if you say, “I had a difficult time rooting for the protagonist toward the end because in the middle of the book she did x, y, and z...” you’re being honest in a way that is still supportive and highly effective.
Another option may be to add a rating scale to your checklist of questions. It can be for your own personal use or something you share with the author to quantify the detailed feedback. That way s/he has a better idea of the level of revision that needs to be done. As previously mentioned, just make sure that the rating scale is constructive and not insulting (e.g., Rating scale: 1=It needs reworking; 2=This is somewhat confusing; 3=I like it, but it needs more depth; 4=Really good execution; 5=Wow, this is awesome!).
Rule #4: Know your role
Remember that you are the beta reader and not the writer. Although you are giving the author your opinion on what’s working or needs revision, try to refrain from telling the author how the story “should be written” or actually rewriting or reorganizing the text (gasp!). If the author wants your help with brainstorming and asks for suggestions, then you’ve been given the green light to get creative. It might actually be a fun experience exchanging ideas and building off of them together.
If the author hasn’t asked for your creative input, however, then s/he might be annoyed that you’re overstepping the professional boundary. An author’s book is like his/her child, and no parent likes when someone tries to discipline his/her child without permission.
Now that you’ve learned the four golden rules of beta reading, you’re ready to start delivering tangible feedback in your own unique way.