I am Beta Reading a book right now, and I was introduced to the author by another author who called me a “Tough Crit-er”. Only in this industry are connections made by saying things like “She’s harsh and brutal… you’ll love her!”
But then I thought about it, and am still thinking about it, even as I read the book for the above mentioned author.
What makes a good Beta Reader?
(To give context to this post: I love the book I’m Beta reading right now, LOVE, but still I have like six pages of notes on the first few chapters… Picky, picky. But for me, the more I believe in the story the harsher I am.)
I hear things like it’s a professional relationship, find people in your style or genre, it takes a long time to find a good solid group of compatible readers… I agree completely with all of this, but also disagree. I argue that it has MORE to do with personality and critique delivery than what genre they read and what’s actually being said. I can be told the same exact thing by two different people and I will interpret it differently based on the delivery of the words and my association with the person that said it.
Beta’s don’t necessarily have to be compatible with you as a writer to be a good beta, and sometimes people who love all the same things you do and write the same stuff you do doesn’t mean they are the right person to give you feedback.
I have Beta Readers for my books who don’t read or even necessarily like YA… One would think this is pointless, but for me it helps tremendously because anything that is inconsistent, relying too heavily on the convention of YA or seems implausible is picked out by these readers. I’ve found plot holes in my work after going through readers notes because lovers of my genre are WAY more willing to forgive minor inconsistencies, because their brains fill in the blanks with convention.
So again, I asked what makes a good Beta Reader?
Here is the list I came up with based on my own opinions and experiences:
Ask and Listen – Ask the writer what kind of feedback they are looking for, where your attention should focus, and how in depth they want you to go… and then LISTEN to what they say. And then adhere to the guidelines the author sets up. Sometimes I Beta for structure. Sometimes I copyedit. Sometimes I proofread (Which I’m TERRIBLE at, so I try to say no to these ones…) I read a first draft piece once and was asked only to point out plot problems. So that’s what I did. I ignored all the typos, I glossed over the sentences that didn’t quite work, I left the words that were used out of context… but I tore into the plot with everything I had, which brings me to number two…
Be honest – The author wants readers to love their book after they publish it, so you being ‘gentle’ or assuming they will pick up on an inconsistency you found on their own, or not wanting to hurt feelings is not going to help them make their book the best it can be before they publish. When I’m asked to Beta I point out EVERY SINGLE TINY thing I find within the perameters that the author and I set up. This is why I’m considered brutal or harsh, but in my opinion it is a complete and utter waste of my time and the time of the author if I’m not going to put effort into it. That being said… here’s number three…
Know when to say no more – If you can’t give helpful feedback, if you strongly dislike the book, or find that you have problems with EVERYTHING, you need to say no more. Give it back to the author and say “I’m sorry but I don’t feel I can add anything that will help you with this book. My personal bias/reading style/general taste in books is clouding my ability to give constructive criticism.” This might offend the author but it’s the right thing to do. Your personal distaste for first person present is not going to help them if that’s the way they write, neither is skim reading and sending a vague email about fixing problems that are made up so the authors feelings aren’t hurt. Especially unhelpful is attacking the author’s sensibilities. If underage drinking and teen sex offends you, then don’t agree to Beta a book about an alcoholic teen who sleeps around to get her booze…I feel like this would be obvious, but I’m mentioning it anyway…It’s about the book, not the author, moving us onto number four.
Avoid ‘you’ statements – I forget this one all the time and often fall into this way of critiquing because I don’t mean it offensively and it doesn’t offend me when I’m on the receiving end, so it slips my mind. Saying things like, “You didn’t put enough character development into Chapter four… you ended this scene too abruptly…etc.” is something to be avoided. It’s hard to keep on top of this one but here’s why I think it’s important: First off, it’s not hard to say “This scene is too abrupt. Chapter four needs more development.” but for some reason people think it’s mean because it’s short and impersonal, but that’s exactly why it’s good. The second reason ties into this because if the author is sensative or having a crap day or whatever the case may be, seeing a whole pile of “YOU DID WRONG” can be crushing. Instead it should be “THIS DOESN’T WORK” because it’s about the story. It’s about making it better not stroking egos or bringing down dreams.
I don’t have a clever segway into the number one thing so I’ll just get on with it…
Be assertive and thorough – The author is the author. They were, are, will always be, the master and creator of the story. To Beta read effectively you have to assume the writer has a brain in their head with the ability to make decisions for themselves. If they don’t, they are not ready to have their work critiqued. Above I mention that I mark everything I see. Everything. Even if I pause to think about something while reading I mark it down… Why? because that’s what I was asked to do. Do I think all my suggestions are followed by the author? No. Never. I bet when I hand back a manuscript to an author I’d be lucky if half the things I point out get changed/fixed/reworked/rewritten. Because it’s not my story, and the author knows how the story needs to go, the job of the beta is to point out things for the author to think about. To catch what the author may have missed. So if I say, “I don’t feel like this scene adds to the story” the author might look at it and say “I disagree, it stays in.” When people Beta for me I don’t take all their suggestions, some of them I FLAT out disagree with, but the point is that they took the time to give their opinions and offer their suggestions so I read them, I consider them, I think about them and then I decide. Your suggestions as a Beta reader can be accepted OR rejected, so mark it down and let the author decide.
And just for fun here’s a bonus tip on what makes a BAD BETA
Making it about you – It’s not helpful to tell an author what you would have done. I had a crit once where the reader just didn’t like my writing style so instead of telling me they were not the person for the job I just got pages of notes on how THEY would have wrote it. I couldn’t use any of it and it was a waste of time for the reader more than it was for me. When I read I always try to give options when things aren’t working for me by saying “I feel like this doesn’t work for this reason but if this happened, or if they go there and do this, or if it gets cut completely, it would help.”
What are your tips to good Beta reading? Let’s try to stay positive though!