Beta Reading—Part 1

Beta reading has been a hot topic on my blog and others. Most, my own included, have focused on specific aspects rather than the entire concept. I thought a short series of posts that define beta reading and lay out some guidelines for both the writer and beta reader could be useful.

When done well, a beta read can help take a writer’s manuscript from the slush pile to the bestseller list. When mishandled, it can shatter a writer’s confidence and drive him away from an activity he loves and should still be doing.

Although beta readers don’t have to be writers, this series of posts is designed for writers who want to “beta read” with another writer. The guidelines for beta readers, however, apply to non-writers as well.

Today’s post, and those on the next three Saturdays, will cover this topic. I hope to provide a clear understanding of this important act that requires extreme tact, respect, and sensitivity.

What Is Beta Reading?

Beta reading can be defined as the critical read of a manuscript (e.g., novel, memoir, nonfiction) prior to submission for publication. The beta reader reviews an author’s manuscript for all or selected elements such as plot development, character descriptions and motivations, general readability, grammar, and logical inconsistencies.

Some writers use the term interchangeably with “critiquing.” But this term is also used for the exchange of a few manuscript pages between members of a critique group. For these posts, I’ll use beta reading to mean the review of a complete manuscript.

Also, beta reading is not a full-blown, line-by-line manuscript edit. The beta read comes before that. The final pre-query/pre-publication manuscript edit should be done by someone with excellent skills in this area. You should consider hiring a professional editor for this task.

Do You Need A Beta Reader?

This is the first question you should consider. Beta reading is done with an eye toward publication. This can be either traditional print or independent publishing.

If you write only for yourself or a few close friends and family, you don’t need a beta reader. Given the personal nature of this type of writing, a beta reader’s review might discourage you from continuing a hobby that you enjoy.

But if your goal is to publish short stories, novels, or even nonfiction, beta reading is a powerful tool for making your work the best it can be. Think about it. Would you rather have an objective reader identify weaknesses in your plot (or flaws in your argument) before you attempt publication or receive scathing reviews after the book is in the public eye?

Successful authors, even those with twenty or more books to their credit, have one or a few trusted readers who critique their draft manuscripts. If Stephen King still does it, why would I think I don’t need to?

Are You Ready For A Beta Reader?

This is a critical question you must consider. And you shouldn’t answer before you’ve given it serious thought.

Writing, like any creative act, is an intensely personal experience. Putting our work in the public’s eye requires courage and a thick skin. No book resonates with every reader. While most readers would say nothing or no more than “I don’t know what the big deal is,” some take great pleasure in writing mean-spirited reviews and trashing an author wherever they can.

Criticism is hard for everyone to take. It’s human nature. But if we’re going to become good writers, we must let others evaluate our work. We need to learn what we’re doing well and where we need improvement. This can be especially difficult for newer writers. It takes time to develop a thick skin. And the first critiques will hurt, no matter how gently and encouragingly they’re written. Be sure you’re ready to make this move.

Newer writers shouldn’t request a beta read on a raw first draft. It’s not ready for such a review. Put the draft away for a few weeks and do something else. Then, come back to it and review it yourself. You’ll find mistakes. You’ll see where characters need improvement. You’ll find plot inconsistencies. You’ll find other things. Fix these things first. Then decide if you are ready for a beta reader. You may want to run your revisions past a friend or family member for another round of rewrites first.

If you are ready, let the manuscript sit again for a few weeks before you ship it out. The distance will help you be more objective about the reviewer’s comments. (Thanks to Kourtney Heintz for this excellent suggestion.)

Are You Ready To Be A Beta Reader?

As noted above, I want this series to address the role of both the writer and the reader in the act of beta reading. Potential beta readers need to understand what’s involved in the process and to be prepared for the work and the writer’s response.

Are you ready to provide critical feedback to someone you may know only from blogging? Or from your writers’ group? Or your critique group? The writer will feel some level of pain and discouragement from your review, even if you do it in the most respectful and helpful way possible. You can’t control how the writer will react to you after the review. You must keep your personal preferences and opinions out of the review. You must be honest and tactful. Can you handle this? Not everyone can. That’s okay. But if you can’t, I suggest you politely decline if someone asks you to beta read a manuscript.

Next Time

Next Saturday I’ll discuss what both the writer and the beta reader should understand before beginning the process.

If you have additional recommendations or thoughts to add, please feel free to do so. When the series is done, I’ll place links to these posts on a separate blog page so people can reference them easily in the future. Comments often become some of the most helpful parts of a post, providing insight and recommendations for other resources.

42 thoughts on “Beta Reading—Part 1

  1. I can already tell this series is going to be well-planned and informative. I love it! I think you will get a lot of bloggers clamoring for more info–they may not want to wait for next Saturday!

    One fact I could elaborate on is how much more comprehensive, focused, and detailed the beta-read process is than exchanging a few pages here and there with a writing group. It is a big leap from finishing a couple of drafts to outright beta-reading. For some writers, they might need to ease into the process.

    I think baby steps are important for many writers, particularly ones who haven’t taken writing courses in school or learned writing under the tutelage of a writing instructor. I know that when I was in school and took writing courses, part of the process involved sharing our work and engaging in roundtable discussions about all the stories. These discussions were always moderated by the instructor so negative comments were killed swiftly, but nevertheless, writers are stripped bare even when they’re just sharing one page of their work.

    My suggestion to newbie writers who have never let their ms fall into the hands of anyone other than their mother, elderly neighbor, or their dog, is to start small. Get a feel for the process before you launch into a full manuscript exchange. This could include joining a writing group (either online or in person), finding a workshop (again, either online or in person), or taking a class at your local college.

    This suggestion would also apply to readers who have never done this before. Learn the ropes with small pieces first before offering your help to another writer.

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    • I hope people will see your comment is a perfect example of why 1) I want people to comment, and 2) why I’ll give this series its own page at the end.

      It’s hard to include everything in a single blog post—I might not cover a particular angle, and even if I managed to include everything, it might be 30,000 words or more!

      But your elaboration is dead-on and adds great content to the original post. Those of us who have personal experience can offer good suggestions and, alas, cautionary tales. I hope others will follow your lead. And I hope early readers will come back to see how the discussion is developing.

      Baby steps are best, especially for new writers and those who may be more sensitive to critique than others. And your suggestions for joining a writer’s group or taking a workshop or college course are excellent. I really want people to understand not only how helpful beta reading is but also what they’re getting into. These are great ideas for stepping into the world of critiques and beta reads.

      I hope your thoughts will encourage others to share their own! If we can help ourselves and others, we’ve done a good thing. 🙂

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  2. I will be ready for a beta read somewhere down the road; I already have someone in mind for the short works; we’ll see how we both feel about something longer.
    Enjoyed this immensely!
    Scott

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    • Thanks, Scott! Starting with shorter works is a great idea, too. You can see how the process will work without possibly hundreds of comments on a novel manuscript or 5 single-spaced pages of detailed criticism. And you and your beta partner can gain experience at both sides of the process before you tackle that longer work.

      Hopefully you’ll find some good pointers in the upcoming posts. 🙂

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  3. This is full of excellent advice jm. I can see how you are evolving and learning the ropes–this is an important part of the writing process and cannot be ignored!

    For myself, I have come to realize that I prefer writing for myself more as an outlet/therapy type of thing with an underlying hope that maybe it will resonate with someone else as well through my blog. I made a conscious decision to not ‘walk through the door’ of actively seeking publication as I once thought to because it is a road I don’t wish to walk. But that is for me, Even so, I still find constructive criticism helpful as I want to write well, and I want to learn and grow within the writing I do, such as it is.

    I’m thrilled for you!

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    • Thanks, Jeannie! 🙂

      Our first and foremost reason for writing should be for our own enjoyment, fulfillment, or other personal reason. Anyone who sets out writing only to “make it” in the marketplace will likely crash and burn. Even if my novels never go anywhere, I’ve still enjoyed discovering the stories and writing them out.

      Striving to improve one’s writing, even if it’s never meant for a public audience, is always good. And I wouldn’t discourage anyone from seeking another person’s thoughtful and objective review. But I do want people to understand how a beta read is so much more intensive than other reviews or critiques. It’s certainly not for everyone.

      And I think the comments I see on your blog show that your writing does resonate with a wide audience. 🙂

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  4. What a great series! I’ve read posts on beta-readers but never had anyone really define the process, so thanks for doing this. It will help a lot of people, I’m sure.

    Personally, I don’t think I could beta read for my circle of blogging friends. I want to keep that circle as neutral as I can. Plus, it would be hard for me not to feel like I was burdening someone by asking for a beta read. That may be my own hang up, I know, but it’s there. For my finished novel, I had my husband give the manuscript to a co-worker who loved to read and had offered her services in the past. I did not know this woman (not even her name–he works with a lot of people); she did not know me, and it was all done through my husband. I drafted 3 pages of questions and particular areas I wanted her to address. It was perfect, because she knew she could be honest without hurting my feelings. This was a few years ago, but I would go that route again. Obviously, it was just one person’s opinion, but she represented any reader out there. I also had a more professional critique done. Both were very helpful.

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    • I understand where you’re coming from. I always hesitate to ask another writer to beta read. I know how busy most people are, and I don’t want to burden them or have them say “yes,” even though in their hearts they want to say “no.” And when I do ask, I’m always prepared to follow up with helping them to the best of my abilities.

      It can work out very well, though, as it did for me and 4amWriter. So if you ever find someone in the blogging circle that feels like a good fit, I’d recommend giving it a try.

      But it sounds like you found a good route that works for you and that would also work for other writers. Sometimes it is easier to be honest with someone you don’t know. When friends critique each other’s work, there can be that strong fear of hurting the other’s feelings and ruining the friendship.

      And that professional critique is another option. Of course, one pays for that, and it can be serious money. Someone on a tight budget might not be able to afford it, especially since the final step should be the professional edit of the manuscript. Again, a serious expense.

      You’re touching on the next installment with the questions you asked and pointing out the areas where you wanted specific help from your reader. So I hope you’ll stay tuned. 🙂

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  5. I think that one of the keys to getting yourself ready to have others beta read for you is to really understand that the feedback isn’t an attack, it’s meant as a tool to help. Asking yourself if you can handle that should be an important part of starting that process, I think. Also understanding beforehand that it will not come back without some critical comments, some suggestions for improvement will help you to be prepared for what you receive. If all you get back is “I loved/hated it”, then it’s time to find another beta reader anyway, because that isn’t helpful and this is supposed to help you learn and improve. There should be more than that, and you should expect elements of both the positive and negative. Setting that expectation in yourself from the outset is, in my experience, very important.

    It’s also important when you receive criticism/feedback on your book to let your reactions to it sit for a bit before you email them back anything other than a simple “thank you”. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get defensive about your manuscript. Many writers talk about their book like it’s their child (which it kind of is in many respects) and defending it is often the first reaction for many. Giving yourself time before responding to feedback, especially when new at this part of the process, is essential in taming that instinct. Whatever you do, do NOT hit the send button on that angry diatribe you just typed out suggesting that they didn’t really read your book. It’s okay to type it out to get that out of your system, but never hit send. That’s what the delete button is there for. 🙂

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    • Like Carrie, you’re foreshadowing my upcoming posts! So you will see some of what you’ve just addressed in those. 🙂

      The more both parties understand what is expected from the beta read and how to do it tactfully and honestly, the less likely it is that there will be hurt feelings, anger, or misunderstanding. Well-done critiques are never a personal attack. But someone new to the receiving end can misinterpret them that way.

      All writers should remember that even a final published work isn’t perfect. And our drafts are even less so. But having someone point out the flaws and weak points is a blow to the ego. And you’re right, we need that distance from the comments before we reply to the reader.

      Thanks for your insight, and I hope you’ll tune in next week, too! 🙂

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      • Oh, I always tune in for your posts 🙂 And you’re right, no draft is going to be perfect. I think that was the hardest thing for me to accept as a writer, but doing so, giving myself permission to write it anyway, knowing it wouldn’t be perfect, was perhaps the biggest step I took as a writer, because it allowed me to start finishing things, rather than waiting until I had early parts perfect (because that would mean waiting forever really).

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        • Oh, yes, it’s easy to get caught up in “editing” too soon. At some point we learn to get the ideas down first and worry about finding the “perfect” words on later versions. That’s one of the big lessons we need to understand before we can move on to the more subtle crafting and molding of the story.

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  6. I would love to be able to beta read for people – its a helpful thing to be able to do – however I’m not entirely certain of my own skills yet. I wouldn’t want to take a manuscript and feel that I wasn’t giving it enough because of a lack/hole in my knowledge.

    Looking forward to further posts in this series to help me out. 🙂

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    • Hello and welcome!

      I understand how you feel. The first times I offered comments, even on a small scale, I wasn’t sure I was up to the task. A few writers have extreme confidence in their skills from day one. Most of us aren’t that way. 🙂

      Starting small, like 4amWriter suggested above, is a great way to learn and build your confidence. And even then, people like me who don’t come out of an English or Creative Writing background may remain less confident about some aspects of critiquing. But I know there are other areas where I can provide good, useful feedback for another writer.

      That’s one reason why I like to have several people read my manuscripts at different times—not all of them as full beta readers. Some are good at catching plot holes or inconsistencies. Others have great insights into how characters are working. But that good beta reader is worth his or her weight in gold. When you find someone like that, you don’t want to lose her!

      Hopefully you’ll find the series helpful—and do check out the other comments as we go along. There are some very skilled and talented writers/beta readers who have already chimed in, and I’m hoping some other regulars will, too. 🙂

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    • You’re very welcome. 🙂

      I think it helps if we understand what we’re getting into and what we should expect before we dive in. Hope the next three posts will be useful, too!

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  7. This is really excellent stuff, thanks for sharing it. So much of it chimes with my own experiences as a reader and a writer. (In fact I was so struck by a comment my beta reader made about an event at the beginning of my finished novel, that I’m posting about it later in the week.) I’ve been asked to beta read in the past and I’ve enjoyed it, (must be the latent teacher in me) although being tactful, open-minded and helpful can be stressful. Looking forward to the next installment. 🙂

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    • Thank you! I look forward to seeing your post, too. This is a huge topic, and no one can cover all of it! 🙂

      Please feel free to add your own experiences or takes on my upcoming posts, too. I know there are some readers who really want to learn more about this process. So I’d love for seasoned beta readers like you to share their expertise.

      Receiving a critique should never be a negative experience. It can hurt and be difficult to master, but when done well, we grow as writers.

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  8. JM, this is FANTASTIC! A must read for all beta readers and all writers in search of betas. Thanks so much for the shout out too. 🙂 This is such an important topic, I am so glad you are devoting a few posts to it!

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    • Hey, thank you, Kourtney, and you’re very welcome! As I just said to Norfolk Novelist, feel free to add your comments and suggestions on the upcoming posts. I’m trying to keep the posts to a manageable length, but comments are a great place for additional insights and experiences.

      If I can get ultra-organized for the final post, I’d like to include links to other helpful posts or websites on the topic. And I’ll try to remember to say that in next Saturday’s post so we can all put our thinking caps on and get together a good list! 😀 Everyone should feel free to remind me of their own posts on the subject!

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  9. I love this post, and I look forward to reading your next installments. I have several writer friends who have beta readers set up. My dad is my only real beta reader at this point (has a master’s in English, has taught), but I’d love to find a couple more writers/editors.

    As you mentioned, critique groups are wonderful for the bits and pieces as you go along. But as some of your commenters have addressed, asking someone else to spend a bunch of time reading your entire work critically (as opposed to skipping through a Janet Evanovich novel) can be construed as a burden. It’s what has kept me from asking writer friends who have big goals of getting their own works published.

    One thing I would say is that, like Carrie Rubin mentioned, it’s good to have a list of things you want the reader to be on the lookout for. I’d also add that a deadline (I know; they’re already doing you a favor!) would be important for me. I’m very open to criticism, but I don’t want to be sitting at my desk, wondering if they’ve devoured the manuscript (and hated every bit of it) or if they haven’t had time to turn to page one. A reasonable deadline keeps both parties from getting off course.

    I can’t wait to hear your suggestions! Thanks for the helpful posts.

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    • I know I have really talented and experienced writers reading this blog when you all keep presaging the next post! 🙂 Timeframes and clear goals will be discussed on the 28th (along with some other important points to understand)!

      I think it’s great that you have someone like your father who can beta read for you. Family members and friends can be objective readers, although we have to recognize that not everyone can be.

      If we can find that one person who can objectively cover all the areas we need help with, that may be all we need. But I always like a few pairs of eyes to see my drafts to see if there’s a consistency noted for problems or good areas. And some people are better at critiquing one area (e.g., character motives) than others (e.g., shifting point of view).

      Please do keep commenting, though, on the later posts! I think experienced writers can always use refreshers (I certainly can), and any overlap, repetition, or presaging can help newer writers learn about some important tools and techniques. 🙂

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    • Thank you and you’re very welcome 🙂 Sometimes we dive into topics and forget that not everyone knows where the pool is. I think a lot of the points I’ll cover apply to any kind of critiquing of any creative endeavor. So hopefully lots of people will find them helpful. Fingers crossed!

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  10. This is a great idea. I love the section “are you ready”. There are definitelypeople out there that are not quite ready. I get frustrated when I see them because I want to try so hard to help them, but it ends up being a HUGE drain on my time when I need to explain general writing principles.

    I never chuck these people away though, if they are at least listening and learning… because I realize, at one time, that was me. If that first beta reader didn’t help me so much, I would not be the writer I am today.

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    • Knowing when we’re ready for something is key. I would never suggest that anyone ask for such a serious critique right off the bat. The pyschological impact could really drive them away from writing. As several others have noted, it’s best to take small steps first regarding feedback to learn what it’s about and to start developing that thicker skin.

      And it is a time-consuming process for the reader. We can’t be teacher, coach, editor, and reader at the same time. So I hope this first post will help people who have heard about beta readers understand the stakes. If we’re serious about getting published, there is a time for beta readers. But it’s not in the early days!

      Do please feel free to share experiences and insights on the future posts! Some newer bloggers may not have found your site yet, and they should definitely visit! They will learn a lot about writing from you. 🙂

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  11. This is timely for me because I was asked to be, not a beta reader, but to give a review of a published e-book. They two are different but the advice still resonates. Thanks!

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    • Oh, yes, reviews are another sensitive subject. Why some people think vicious attacks are acceptable is beyond me! And it would be so difficult for me to write a review for something I didn’t think was good. I hate hurting people’s feelings. My beta reader “do’s” include always finding something positive to say, even if the writer has a long rewrite process ahead. But of course, those are “works in progress.” A published book is already completed and out there. Still, I personally prefer to read reviews that are based on tangible points, not emotion-driven “I hated it” remarks.

      You might consider some posts on guidelines for reviews of published works!

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    • Thanks! I’m glad people are finding it helpful. 🙂 Beta reading can be such a helpful tool. I’ll always put manuscripts through one or two rounds of it. But it’s also grueling when the comments come back. I think people need to understand what they’re getting into to avoid as much hurt and confusion as possible. So hopefully you’ll find the next installments useful, too!

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    • Hi, Eloise, thanks for stopping by to comment! You’re absolutely right. Every writer needs that set of fresh eyes, and maybe more than one pair. Criticism is tough, but it’s essential if we’re going to make our work the best it can be. I hope this series will help people see that and also help readers go about the critique in a sensitive (but thorough) manner.

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  12. Pingback: Beta Reading—Part 2 « jmmcdowell

    • Thanks, Bella! I know they may not be terribly interesting to non-writers, but once this series is done, I’ll also do some lighter and fun posts again. I enjoy the playfulness of those, too. 😉

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  13. Pingback: Beta Reading—Part 4 « jmmcdowell

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