Last year, I took a major step in my writing journey and enlisted beta readers for the first time.
Beta readers provide feedback on a manuscript from the perspective of a reader. They might highlight things such as strengths and weaknesses or plot holes, but feedback from betas mainly gives writers a sense of what readers might be thinking as they progress through the story and their overall impression. This lets the writer know what aspects work and what they might want to change ahead of querying agents or gearing up to self-publish.
My betas taught me a lot about writing that I detailed in this post. Now, I'm flipping that post about working with betas around with a list of tips for betas.
These tips come from my experiences receiving feedback on my projects, critiquing those of fellow writers, workshops, and various fiction classes I took in college and can help you help your writer friends by giving them the best possible assessment of their work.
Honesty Is The Best Policy
When you volunteer to be a beta reader, especially if the writer is a friend, you may find that critiquing the work and pointing out its flaws and weaknesses is difficult because you don't want to offend them or hurt their feelings. So you might only focus on talking about the positives rather than addressing problems.
Even though hearing praise and compliments feels good, it can actually be less helpful in the long run.
When a writer reaches out for beta reader feedback, they're expecting to receive the good and the bad. They know they're sending out something that isn't perfect in the hopes of improving it. This means they need to know what needs to be reworked.
When you encounter a problem with the story, don't be afraid to let the writer know.
We would rather hear the problems from you than from a bad review.
Get Into Specifics
Part of receiving feedback on a manuscript is helping us make our writing better. To do this, we need to know what isn't working.
Jotting down something like "This feels off" or "I'm not sure about this" tells the writer that something is wrong, but not what that something is.
When you're leaving comments or notes, taking a moment to go more into the details can be immensely helpful for us down the road because it gives us a better sense of direction.
I'm not sure about this because it feels out of character for Joan. I feel like she would curse Gigi out here.
I love this character's sense of humor and wit.
I'm not sure about the wording here. Rephrase?
Could you make this description a little clearer? I'm having trouble picturing the boat.
...are going to be more helpful to us because they let us know what is amiss and give us an idea of what we need to do to make it better.
You don't need to write an essay. Even a couple of sentences will do the trick.
Overall, the more information we have, the more we can do for our stories.
Giving negative feedback is part of a beta reader's job. However, some ways of going about it are better than others.
When you do have to give negative feedback as a beta reader, it's better to be constructive in your criticism.
This doesn't mean you need to sugarcoat everything, but you don't need to be cold (unless the writer specifically asks either of you).
What it does mean is to be honest and to be helpful while also being respectful.
In elementary school, we had the idea of "I statements" drilled into our heads when playground conflicts needed to be resolved. I felt bad when you said XYZ to me, or I am sad because XYZ happened.
In college, one of my writing professors often had us give feedback to peers during workshops by starting with "As a reader, I think..." or similar.
I personally like taking this route when giving feedback because it makes it feel less about the writer and more about the work—and find it's more preferable to receive.
A bad line of dialogue does not mean the writer is bad, but looking over a list of I don't like this and I don't like that can be discouraging. "As a reader" in particular shifts my focus from that of the writer who knows the story inside and out to that of someone who's only walking into it for the first time and can help me understand their experiences better because in the end, it's the reader's experience with the work that can matter more than mine as the writer.
"I statements" open up the door to conversation and can allow for more explanation of what is amiss, in turn making it potentially easier for the writer to make changes. "As a reader, this line feels out of place" can be more helpful than "This doesn't work."
I also know a few people who will start off with the positives before touching on the negatives, or may sandwich the negatives between two groups of positives. This approach is especially great because it not sets a warmer tone and not one of being harshly judged that can make the process more intimidating. Additionally, closing with positives leaves a better taste in one's mouth.
Commit To The Critique
Volunteering to be a beta reader can be fun. After all, you're getting an exclusive peek at an early version of a book!
But it's also a commitment.
Being a beta reader can be a little more intense than just reading a book because you're tasked with taking notes and being on the lookout for specific things the writer might have questions about. It might take you longer to get through the work because you're pausing every so often to jot down your comments.
When looking into how to recruit betas, a number of articles I read mentioned the likelihood that a percentage of people wouldn't get back to me.
This did, in fact, happen.
Even though I had the warning in mind, having a couple of volunteers not follow through was disappointing and discouraging because it had me wondering if there was something significantly wrong with the work that made it unfinishable.
When you sign on to be a beta reader, you're taking on a lot. It may not seem daunting because you're being asked to read or helping out a friend, but it can actually be more work than anticipated depending on the manuscript and what kind of feedback the writer is asking for.
Though this won't always be the case, some writers have deadlines to adhere to and will ask their beta to get things back to them within a certain timeframe. Not following through can add an additional strain to an already at-times stressful point in the process.
If you find that you're not able to get the material back to the writer as expected, be upfront about it. Let them know what's going on. Most will be pretty understanding.
There is always the chance you realize a story isn't right for you to beta for. Maybe it's not in an area you are familiar with or feel qualified to provide feedback on, or the material might hit too close to home for comfort.
And as I often say on the blog, life finds a way to get in the way. You might take on an unexpected double-shift at work or agree to go in on your day off to cover for a coworker. Family emergencies happen. Maybe you fall ill.
Sometimes things simply just slip our minds and get lost in the shuffle.
If there is a chance your feedback will be sent later than expected, sending a quick text or email to touch base with the writer is far better than just ghosting and leaving things up in the air.
Attention To The Questions
Along with the story, writers might include a set of questions with the materials they send to betas. These are meant to guide your feedback, but also highlight areas the writer is concerned about and looking for input on.
The questions might be general like "Who was your favorite character?" or "What was your favorite scene?" but might also get into specifics like "Are the symptoms of Character's A illness clear?" or "Does the romantic relationship between Characters B and C feel rushed or contrived at all?"
Pay close attention to these and make sure to address them thoroughly in your feedback.
Minding The Genre
One thing I tend to suggest when a writer is ready for betas is to enlist people not only within your genre but outside of it. While there are elements of storytelling present in most if not all genres, like character development and world-building, each genre is going to have things that are more characteristic of it than another.
Having a beta who is not as familiar with the genre can make sure your book is accessible to a broader audience and not only enjoyable for your target readers.
As a historical romance writer, doing this lets me determine how accessible the historical setting is to people who aren't as acquainted with it. While someone familiar with the Regency Era might have an easier time orientating themselves within the story or even point out inaccuracies or things that feel off based on their knowledge, a newcomer can help identify things that need more explanation. If a beta tells me they can't make sense of what the character is saying when they use slang from that time period, don't know what something like blancmange is, or why a societal custom has a character acting a certain way, this lets me know I might need to go back and explain something in more depth.
Bringing in out-of-genre betas can help the writer bridge the gap and make their story more enjoyable for readers who are not steeped in research for hours on end.
At the same time, if you are a beta coming into a genre you're not as familiar with, it's important to remember the genre you are reading.
Say for example you are a beta reading a Western romance featuring a duel but you predominately read horror. When the dust settles and the gun smoke clears, the writer might shift the focus of the narration to the sweat glazing the lead's brow or rasping breaths as they grapple with the fact they've had to kill and figuring out how to explain that to their love interest despite a promise it would never come to that.
Your horror reader instincts might feel like you're missing out on the gore. You might want to make a note about how you feel there should be more on the bits of the antagonist splattered on the wall and less about the ache in the protagonist's bicep because they were clutching the pistol so tightly.
In a romance, however, the description of offal would probably be jarring and out of place.
The same goes for the age range the piece is intended for. No matter how intense the situation, you most would most likely not expect to have F-Bombs dropping in a book written for middle schoolers but instead substitutions like Dang or Darn.
As a beta, keep to the conventions of the genre you are reading and focus on what is relevant to or expected of it.
Beta readers are among the unsung heroes of the writing process. It's their feedback that can help authors take a good story and make it great. A trustworthy beta reader is a vital asset to the writer's toolkit, and doing your part will make the work enjoyable for everyone involved—especially readers of the final, published version.
Bringing your A-Game as a beta reader helps writers bring their A-Game to their craft and to bring their story ideas to fruition in the best way possible.