One of the biggest complaints I see on various social media pages is about, and from, beta readers. Authors complain about betas who don’t give appropriate feedback, disappear, or want paid. Betas complain about authors who rush them, who give them butchered manuscripts (I’m actually guilty of this one), who expect them to do the work of an editor at light speed, and who argue over any feedback that might be negative. Now if the beta was part of a critique swap there are even more complaints. So I thought I would take the time to explain what being a beta reader means to me, how I do it, and what an author can expect from me.
First, let me state that not every beta reader does what I do so you cannot expect the same thing from each one. My process goes like this:
Step one: I correspond with the writer and ask what they are looking for in a critique. Some may want to know about character development, others might want to know about pacing. The biggest issue I have is when an author says “oh just run through it and let me know of any trouble spots”. I hate that. Trouble spots? What exactly do you consider a trouble spot? To me a trouble spot could be when your female protagonist hates a person for most of the story, including comparing them to a serial killer, and suddenly over the course of four hours falls in love. Another personal trouble spot is when an author starts every other sentence with a conjunction. If you are asking for an honest response from me, then please at least have the courtesy to act professional with your reader.
Step two: I read the work from beginning to end. I do this to get a feel for the story. I don’t stop in the middle, I don’t walk away, and I don’t write any comments about my perception until after I have finished. I want to experience this work as a READER, not as an AUTHOR. Each author is unique and expecting someone to write a story my way would be rude.
Step three: I reread the entire work adding comments. As a beta reader, I prefer to be given a manuscript as a Word document. I do this so I can add comments directly to it. I color code comments based on what I’m trying to show to the author. Since I only speak to them through the anonymity of the internet they have no way of reading my body language so I need to be very clear in my comments.
Step four: I reread the work again, except this time I use spellcheck, grammar check, and two other programs I won’t name here. If you want to know you’ll have to ask me. One of the programs is another spell/grammar check, the other is evil. The evil one helps me find overused words, sticky sentences, and more. It is the bane of my existence as an author, but it has shown me a lot about the mechanics of writing and my personal writing style. Then we’re on to the fifth and most brutal step of all.
Step five: Feedback. I use a worksheet that I created from several examples I found online. For any betas interested in using worksheets I recommend the one at Jami Gold’s Blog as a good starting point. At the end of the worksheet I add my own comments, including what worked for me, what didn’t, explanations for the various colors that I used, and finally I thank the author for trusting me with their masterpiece. I also caution them to take my feedback with a grain of salt. If another beta reader says similar things, then I’d pay attention. If it’s just me, then ignore it or not at their own discretion.
It’s actually pretty easy to become a beta if it’s something you’re interested in. I found it to be one of the most important things I’ve done for improving my craft as an author.
There are several ways you can do this. Goodreads has a great beta reading group that connects authors with betas. Some are critique swaps so those who are both author and beta can connect with someone who writes in the same genre if that’s what you’re looking for.
Another great source is Facebook. Do a search for writing groups join several and offer your services as a beta. If you’re planning on offering the services for free (like most do) you will be swamped with work in a couple of hours.
I feel it is very important to point out that as betas authors trust us to be honest, communicative, and professional … even when we are not being paid. If you have some limits about what you are willing to read, please tell your prospective clients. They are not mind readers.
WARNING! WHAT FOLLOWS THIS TEXT MAY BE OFFENSIVE TO SOME READERS … PLEASE PROCEED WITH CAUTION!
In my opinion no beta reader should EVER tell an author any variation of the following statements. Before we get to the statements I want to mention all of these are based on my personal experience as a beta and an author and may involve several rude and downright hostile comments.
Statement one: “It was okay, but I could have told that story in less than 40,000 words” when discussing a 93,000 word manuscript. My response to this statement when I read it went as follows ,”I’m glad you could tell my story in less than half the words I used for it. You’re amazing! Guess what, I’M NOT YOU!” I didn’t actually say that to the reader, instead I thanked them and filed in my mental file on how not to be as a beta reader/author.
Statement two: “I didn’t like the amount of bad language in the book, was it really necessary?” This one actually came from another author friend. My response would have gone something like this “Probably not, but that’s my choice as the author not yours. I swear like a sailor when I’m angry and it doesn’t phase me in the least to read an f-bomb multiple times in a book, if you don’t like it DON’T BUY IT!” Actually, I would love to say that to someone. In reality, I would politely thank them and tell them that I would consider their advice when I did my next round of revisions.
Statement three: “Were all the sex scenes really necessary?” This is another one that came from a friend of mine who is an erotic romance author. I believe that when an author tells you a novel is an erotic romance then as the reader you should expect sex, probably lots of it. As a beta reader if you don’t want to read erotica make sure you clarify that with your author before you start. I don’t read horror, I make sure that every author knows that before I agree to read for them.
Statement four: “I don’t think the material is really appropriate for a young adult audience.” Okay, this is a valid issue, however, if the author has given you an urban fantasy with a forty-something female main character who swears like a drunken sailor during fleet week, the odds are that it wasn’t intended for a young audience. Authors make sure that you are not giving an YA beta reader a hard core adult, curse word laden, sex fest. It’s rude.
Next time I will post the do’s and don’ts for authors when it comes to beta reading. Please leave comments and tell me what issues you’ve had as a beta or as an author. I’d love your insight.