Hey y’all and welcome back and happy February. I hope you’ve had a good start to your year. Kinda wild we’re already done with one month. I spent most of January working on my own edits, and also beta reading for another author. Because of that, I thought to share a few things I’ve learned over the years.
Most authors probably already know what a beta reader is, but in case you don’t, according to Wikipedia:
A beta reader is a test reader of an unreleased work of writing, typically literature, who gives feedback to the author from the point of view of an average reader. This feedback can be used by the writer to fix remaining issues with plot, pacing, and consistency. The beta reader also serves as a sounding board to see if the work has the intended intellectual or emotional impact on the target market.
Pretty simple right? But not really. Beta reading can be nerve wracking (or maybe it’s just me) because someone has entrusted their story and opened themselves up to hearing outside opinions. That’s a heavy responsibility. And it’s not something everyone wants to do.
I’ve been beta’ing for a few years now. When I first started out, I had worries that my feedback wouldn’t be helpful in anyway and that the whole thing would have been a waste of time for both parties. Luckily that wasn’t the case, but I’ve had to do some learning along the way and now I’ve reached a point where I’ve developed a style that provides value to the people who hire me.
As I said, not everyone wants to be a beta reader. It’s time consuming. Not is comfortable with giving detailed feedback to another author. And various other reasons why they wouldn’t want to do the job. But, if you have thought about wanting to, this post will give you some starter tips on how you can be a more effective reader should you find yourself in that role.
Very first thing:
This is a must. Find out what the author is wanting in terms of feedback. Do they want comments left in the document or are they looking for overall summaries? This can save you time and energy to know up front. Leaving in doc comments slows down the reading process and if they don’t want that sort of thing, why do it?
Do they have certain areas they are more concerned about that they want you to pay extra attention to? Is it a plot hole, an issue with a character’s growth? Unsure of the beginning or ending? Sometimes authors simply want an overall check, but other times there could be something specific that had been bothering them, so finding that out can help guide you as you’re reading.
Also in those expectations, what is the timeline? That is important for both parties. If the author is on a deadline and you are backed up with other things, don’t take it on. The author is trusting you to give your full attention to their manuscript, don’t short change them because you took on too much and couldn’t properly manage your time. Or make them miss their deadline if you can’t deliver in the timeframe. It’s unfair in general, even more so if you’re charging for the service.
Ask about trigger/content warnings if you have them. The author may tell you up front if they know they have subjects that could be sensitive for some readers, but they may not. It’s okay to ask because that protects you as the beta from being surprised by content you didn’t expect and it can save you both some time if you aren’t able to read because of said content.
Like for me, cancer storylines are hard. I can deal with small mentions say for instance it’s something that happened in the past and it’s mostly off page. However, if it’s going to be a deep part of the storyline, I’m not going to be the beta for you because I’m not going to be able to be fully into the story if I’m continually upset in some way by the content.
I take that kind of care with my betas. I have one who is triggered by car accident/ accident adjacent situations. When she beta’d for me I had two incidents of near accidents that she was aware of, but I changed the font color to white for those sections before I sent it to her. That way if she was in the right mind frame to read, she could highlight to see, but if she wasn’t, the context clues around them was enough that she didn’t need to read the actual incidents to understand.
Respect yourself as a beta, and if you know you have specific triggers that the author may not list, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask them and not put yourself in harm’s way.
I’m not a grammar person, so you won’t find me doing much commenting in the way of missing or misplaced commas and things like that. And as a beta, that’s not really your job. The author will be hiring an editor for that. If you see something glaring, sure point it out, but you are there to give impressions of the overall story. Don’t get caught up in the small details of trying to be a copy editor.
Genre choices is also a consideration. For instance, I’m not someone that reads/knows a lot of history, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t beta’d historical romances. What it does mean is I’m not going to be the best person to point or correct their historical facts. And this is something I would tell the author up front. What I am able to do for them is follow the story as it’s been presented to me. Watch the characters for inconsistencies, or the plot for errors like I would with contemporaries that I read.
I don’t read sci-fi even for pleasure because my brain can’t seem to process keeping up with the setup, worldbuilding, and other science-y aspects. I will watch a sci-fi movie though because the visual is something I can follow. But knowing my weakness there means I would not be the beta for someone’s sci-fi novel. It would be a disservice to them to take on that job knowing it’s something I struggle with.
Both parties benefit if you are upfront during the setting of expectations portion about what type of stories you do and don’t read.
If you are an author who also betas, remembering that each of us has a different author voice is paramount. When you’re beta reading, you should not be doing line edits/corrections on things based on how ‘you’ would have written it. That is an overstep. Any feedback that you give should fit with how the author chose to present their story based on the world they built.
Now that is not to say if a sentence or something reads awkwardly you can’t offer suggestions/ask questions to clear it up. But what you shouldn’t be doing is deleting sentences or paragraphs to rework them how you think they should be. That is not your job, and that is overwriting the author’s voice with your own.
If something doesn’t make sense, ask a question. I do that a lot. Whether it’s something in the plot, or something a character does, I will ask if something doesn’t quite make sense. But asking a question or even making a comment about something that could possibly benefit with some tweaking is far different than dictating a change (unless it’s something harmful that needs to be addressed. Though, even then you can’t dictate they change, but you can make a super strong case for why it should be changed).
We are all individuals as authors, and when you are beta reading you have to turn off your author voice so that you can be fully engaged with your client’s.
What I mean by that, is it’s not all about corrections. Don’t go into a beta read thinking you’re only looking for errors and/or things to be fixed. If you find issues, point them out, but you should also point out what works well. Did you laugh at a certain part? Do you love a particular phrase they used? Did the story make you cry? Telling the author the highlights is just as important on any low points. It’s all about balance.
Some people use the ‘sandwich’ method, which is nice-issue-nice. I don’t read like that because I’m scattered, but I set that expectation (see what I did there) up front when I take on a project. I let the author know what sort of reader I am and how they can expect to get my feedback. If I’m working with a new author, I only take on one chapter so I can see if I’ll be able to get into the story, and so they can get a feel of how I roll.
Wanting to help is a given, but not everyone meshes and that’s okay. It goes back to knowing your strengths. Neither party is a failure if a beta relationship doesn’t work out. Believe me I kissed a lot of frogs before I found my beta princesses.
At the end of the day, being a beta isn’t meant to be a power trip to try and tear down someone. Even if you have a lot of feedback/concerns, it needs to be handled in a constructive way. Yes, be honest, but be honest with tact.
***On the flip side, if someone is beta'ing for you, and you get back feedback that is hard, remember two little words: thank you. I’ve also been there, because let’s face it, no matter how much we think our stories are perfect, they aren’t and that’s why we seek out betas to begin with. In *most* cases the person is not being harsh just to be a pain, at least they shouldn’t be. Any and all feedback should be given with the intent to help the author see things they may not have thought about. But at the end of the day, this person took time away from what they were doing to read for you. Appreciate them!
Now you’re probably going what? Isn’t that the point? Yes, that is, but way back in the day, as I was kissing those frogs, I’d have betas that questioned things that were in fact answered. Them asking about it signaled to me that they skim read and didn’t give it their full attention. That's not a good feeling.
When you take on a beta, you are making an agreement to give them honest and true feedback. They are counting on you to do that. If you can’t, then you shouldn’t take on the project.
That’s it. I hope these tips help you if you are thinking about becoming a beta, or wanted to figure out ways you can be a more effective one. All of these are things I’ve had personal experience with over the years either as a beta or being beta read for.
If you have any questions, drop them in the comments. If you're in the market for a beta reader for your upcoming romance novel, check out my list of services. I'd love to work with you.
Until next time