Beta Reading—Part 2

Last Saturday, I introduced the concept of beta reading and initial questions you should consider before diving into it. If you missed that post, you can catch up here. If you think you’re up for the challenge, keep reading!

Today, I want to focus on the importance for both the writer and the beta reader to understand the goals of the work. If you are exchanging manuscripts and will beta read each other’s works, you need to understand both sides of the process.

What The Writer Needs To Understand

If you have someone beta read your manuscript, you must understand what you want from the review.

Newer writers probably need a thorough critique: character development and motivation, plot/story interest, inconsistent POV (point of view) in scenes, overall quality and “engaging factor” of the writing style—everything that goes into a good, engrossing read. More established writers may need less input, perhaps focusing on their known problem areas (perhaps a tendency toward plot inconsistencies or “information dumping” in early drafts). Once you know what you want from the review, be sure you let your beta reader know this. The beta reader can’t read your mind. Without clear guidance from you, he may focus on elements important to him and miss part of what you want to know.

Let the beta reader know how far along your manuscript is. Are you asking him to read a second draft? A fifth? On an earlier draft, I wouldn’t expect your reader to focus too much on word choices or specific grammar and punctuation points. At this stage, he should be looking at broader issues such as plot and characterization. But on a later draft, you’ll want more attention to the finer points of writing. For example, is your use of past tenses accurate and consistent, do you have comma faults, are you overdoing the adverbs, or do you have favorite words or phrases that are getting too repetitive.

Tell the beta reader what your genre is, even though a good beta reader doesn’t have to read or write in it. He can identify flaws and good points, regardless. But if a point confuses him, he can note that it might not confuse someone who reads your genre. Tell him if you are writing about controversial or heavy issues. He may not be able to review that subject matter objectively.

Set a realistic timeframe for the beta reader. Beta readers have lives, jobs, and responsibilities, just like you. It takes time to read a novel for pure enjoyment. But it takes even more time when the reader must go through it critically and offer comments. Don’t expect a beta reader to return your manuscript in a few days. Give him at least a few weeks, and if he tells you it will take a month or six weeks, don’t argue. You want a thoughtful, objective, and thorough review, not a slapdash job from a cranky, overworked, and now former blog follower or critique partner.

What format would you like for the review? If you both work in the same software, such as Microsoft Word, the beta reader can use a tracking/commenting feature and email the document back to you when he’s finished. If one or both of you is old school, you could send a paper copy (preferably double-spaced and single-sided, please), and your beta reader can handwrite his comments.

How will you reciprocate with the beta reader? Will you read his manuscript while he reads yours? Will you read his at a later date when it’s ready? If you agree to do a later read, be sure you follow through on the commitment. You’ll win no friends in the writing community if you develop a reputation as someone who takes, but never gives. If you don’t feel qualified to read his manuscript, how about exchanging another skill? Maybe you can help him design his website. Maybe he’s writing about an accountant, and that’s your day job. You could give him realistic information to work into his character or let him bounce ideas off you. Be creative!

What The Beta Reader Needs To Understand

Be sure the writer has made it clear what she expects from your review. If you’re unsure, ask her. You don’t want to inadvertently miss something that’s important to her.

Do you know how far along her draft is? Is it the second? Fifth? Are her requests consistent with that stage? If it’s her second draft, is she asking you to correct punctuation? A newer writer isn’t really ready for that in the second draft unless it’s to point out consistent errors that she should learn to correct.

Has she told you the genre? You don’t have to read it to beta read her manuscript. But if it’s one you’re not familiar with, remember that some of your comments may not apply. Regular readers of the genre will “get” some of the concepts or plot structures that may pull you out of the story. (But do note them. The author may not be making things as clear as she should.)

Is the writer asking for an acceptable turnaround time? If you don’t think you can do a proper review in that time, be up front about it. Offer a more realistic timetable for your schedule. You want to do good work. Once you’ve agreed on the schedule, don’t be late. If you are, she’ll be climbing the walls, thinking you hate the book and are afraid to tell her. She’ll think she’s a terrible writer and should give up.

Make sure you know what kind of book the writer wants you to review. If she’s writing about prostitution or drug addiction and you find the concept morally reprehensible, you probably can’t be objective about the book. If you can’t keep personal opinions or values out of this review, you shouldn’t be a beta reader for it. Politely inform the writer that you cannot objectively read this particular work. Stepping back in this case should not be a judgment on you or the writer.

And remember, the purpose of the beta read is not to tell the writer how you would have written the book. Suggestions for improvement are fine. Personal rewrites are not.

Next Time

Next Saturday we’ll go into the details of the beta reading process and what the writer should expect to receive and how the beta reader should read the work and offer his critique.

As before, comments and other suggestions for this stage of the beta read are most welcome. Also, if you have some “go to” web sites on this topic (including your own posts), please feel free to include links in your comments. I’d like to add a “recommended links” section to the final post.

25 thoughts on “Beta Reading—Part 2

  1. Another excellent piece, JM. I’m going to save these posts to my favorites bar so I can reference them later if I ever decide to go this route. It appears communication is really the key–letting the beta reader know what the you want and the beta reader clarifying what he or she believes to be the expectations of the writer. Like a good marriage, it always comes down to communication, doesn’t it?

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    • Thanks, Carrie. Communication is always key—in marriage and all human interactions, really. If we did a better job of it, maybe the world would be a better place than it is…. Okay, that’s as “political” as I’ll get on this blog!

      In regards to beta reading, I think when the reader knows what the writer is expecting, s/he can really focus on the key points and make better comments. And it never hurts for the writer to think about the potential weak points in the manuscript ahead of time.

      Next week’s post will have lots of specific do’s and don’ts for both readers and writers. 🙂

      Thanks as always for your comments!

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  2. Excellent post. The one thing I might add is that the reader needs to offer a combination of positive and negative feedback. And it’s not just to encourage the writer, or to at least avoid discouraging them. Knowing that you did something right offers you a chance to analyze what you did that worked, allowing you to learn and hopefully repeat the feat. I’ve seen some readers who forget that, who think that they’re just there to identify what was done wrong, which isn’t the case, at least not in my less-than-humble opinion.

    The writer also needs to understand that there will be a mix of positive and negative feedback. That should be obvious, but I’m amazed how often, at least with newer writers, it isn’t. I’ve seen some situations on forums and in a couple of personal experiences where it was clear that the writer seemed to just expect to be told how good their work was, not that it was flawed and here were the flaws as well as the good parts. In almost every one of those cases, the writer went on to argue and tell the person who was offering the comments how and why they were wrong. That’s kind of a pet peeve of mine, arguing with the feedback you receive, because to me, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity for learning and growth, and that makes me sad. I have no problem with asking for clarification or further detail about the problem identified, but that’s not the same as telling the reader they were wrong in any case.

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  3. As usual, great post!

    Yes, I would second Julie’s comment about including both positive and negative feedback. I at times forget to do this myself, even when the writing is very good. I get focused on what isn’t working to try to help the (excellent) writer but forget to encourage.

    I agree with you about how a good writer/editor can appreciate good writing in any genre. However, I would caution potential beta readers (as you did in your post) that if you don’t have at least a glancing interest/experience in reading sci fi, for example, you may not be the best reader for a heavily sci fi work. I know that when an agent at a conference read the first three chapters of my novel a couple of years ago, her very first question when we met was, “What is this ‘stay-at-home mom’ thing? I’ve never heard of that. Would a woman really call herself that?” I knew immediately that this was not an agent who would champion my book.

    And the beta readers I’ve had (only a couple) who do not ever read women’s fiction struggle a bit with a couple of the concepts that someone who reads women’s fiction quite a bit would understand easily. It’s nice to know that this could be a sticking point, but it’s even more helpful to have someone who may be in your target audience review your writing. They will be comparing it to other writers in your genre, which is incredibly helpful.

    Another thing to note: in our critique group, we each have specific issues that we need to work on. One person strays from POV, one forgets commas all over the place, and one needs to get deeper into the character’s emotions to help us feel for her. If you have experience with what your biggest flaws are, telling your beta reader very specifically to go through those with a fine-toothed comb will only help you in the end.

    Thank you for these excellent posts!

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    • You and Julie are giving folks a sneak peek into next Saturday!

      I have multiple readers (not all betas) for my manuscripts who work in different genres, but some in mine. And you’re right, it helps to have someone familiar with the writer’s genre who won’t get tripped up but can also point out where the writer might be getting too far from the “typical” style or format.

      And your last note is an excellent addition—asking the reader to help with the writer’s known weak points. With the early works, the writer may not realize what they are. But as we hear that feedback from critique groups or other readers, we should be learning where we need to be especially diligent in our future writing and self-editing.

      Thank you for the great insights!

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    • This slipped my mind in my original reply—what kind of agent isn’t familiar with the “stay at home mom” concept!? I know they have their own specialties and interest just like everyone else, but how could anyone not have heard the term throughout the years? Yikes! Good call on crossing that one of the potential list!

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  4. JM, this is AMAZING. All beta readers and writers should read this post–actually this series of posts. I really appreciated your point about not rewriting the writer’s book. I’ve had that experience and it was rather frustrating as a writer. Thanks for reminding betas about that!

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    • Thanks, Kourtney! Next week the beta readers will get an in depth discussion of do’s and don’ts. The writer will also get some pointers about how NOT to react, too. It’s okay to be hurt/bummed/down for a while, but the writer can’t “go off” on the reader for finding areas for improvement! Julie raised some excellent points about that in her comment.

      I really want new writers to understand how important and helpful a beta read can be. But I also want new (and experienced) beta readers to remember the goal of the work and how much of an impact their critiques will have on the writer.

      Thanks for commenting! (And fingers crossed for the Amazon contest! 🙂 )

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  5. This was very helpful as a beta reader and a writer who has asked a reader to be a “beta.” You point about setting or expecting realistic timeframe is excellent. When I hand my work to someone, I can’t expect them to drop everything and read!

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    • Thanks, Robin! I know firsthand how hard it is to wait for those comments. We want to know what the reader thinks—except when self-doubt creeps in and we think we wrote a piece of worthless garbage and why did we give it to someone to read, let alone critique….. 😉

      Hopefully next weeks detailed pointers will be helpful to people new to the game and a useful refresher to seasoned readers.

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  6. Great post, JM. I think you’re covering each area of beta-reading very well. I love that you stressed the importance of keeping personal views out of a beta read. It is so difficult, yet so crucial. I also think that it’s a matter of finesse, and we all have to go through our fair share of a learning curve.

    When I first started giving feedback for my high school writing classes, I was less than helpful because I was only focusing on the points that mattered to me, as a reader. Of course, that meant I was commenting from a personal perspective. I later learned a better and more productive tactic: to comment from the perspective of a writer. That way, my comments are subjective, honest, focused on what works in the story, and above all, helpful to the writer.

    That’s not to say I don’t stick in a comment that matters to me personally (either negatively or positively) but I don’t center my overall feedback around those comments. Those are sidelights, if you will, and have no bearing on whether the story works in general. Those comments are just pointing out an isolated moment that spoke to me on a personal level.

    As long as we’re not letting our opinions drive our feedback, then an opinion here or there won’t topple everything over. But it is important to notate to the writer (either in the sidebar or in the end comments) when you did express an opinion, and give a reason to back it up. Then the writer can make changes or not, as she sees fit.

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  7. Ah, like Julie and Anne above, you’re getting into some of next Saturday’s coverage! I will be saying that a reader can certainly express their personal/emotional reaction to the story and characters—but s/he should note that it is a personal opinion.

    As I writer, I want to know if my story and characters are eliciting the responses I intended. Is the reader angry with a character when I want them to sympathize instead? Hmm, maybe my words aren’t getting the right image across. Is the reader laughing at something I meant to be funny? Yes? Great! I got it right!

    You phrased it very well—comment from the perspective of a writer. Even if we’re beta reading and evaluating the manuscript from a reader’s perspective on one level, the most helpful comments will be those written as a writer to a writer.

    A “reader’s” comment like “This character bores me,” tells the writer something’s falling flat. But a “writer’s” comment like “This character has no flaws that could derail him from the journey to Enlightenment or cause his companions to turn on him like they did at the Inn” gives the writer something substantive to work with.

    We all have that learning curve. But I hope these posts can help some people get over it just a bit quicker!

    Thanks for sharing your insight and experiences! 🙂

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  8. Great post. I was going to do a post about critique on limebirds a couple of weeks ago, but with other bloggers writing such useful stuff I don’t think it’s really necessary! You should ask Beth to reblog this series. I do think writers need to be very clear what their expectations are from their beta reader and like I mentioned that week, I really think writers need to toughen up and accept that they’re going to receive constructive criticism and recognise the difference between a genuinely bad critique (rude, subjective, judgemental etc.) and one where their beta reader has clearly taken a lot of time and care to give them constructive feedback. Call me unsympathetic, but I get very annoyed when writers whine about having had a bad critique when all that’s happened is their beta reader hasn’t told them this is the most amazing thing they’ve ever read and they should publish it immediately! I also get very annoyed when writers get defensive about feedback instead of being mature enough to think about how they can use it to improve.

    It has been said I’d make a tough, but good teacher!

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    • Hey, Sally, I think you should go ahead with that post! I started this series to try to summarize as many key points as I could on the subject. But posts dedicated to a single aspect can provide more in-depth information for readers. Posts like mine are like the introductory text book or journal article. The ones like you’re thinking of are the more advanced texts or the “For more information, see … ” references.

      I will discuss this subject next week as part of what the writer should and shouldn’t expect from the critique and what s/he should take from it. But an in-depth “tough love” post from you would be good for folks, too!

      If you think Limebirds would be interested in reblogging or linking to this series, I’ll contact Limebirdbeth. 🙂

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  9. Another excellent post. This is great advice and I’ll keep it, and the others, by me for future reference.

    I think, when reviewing others’ work it’s important to appreciate that some writers are delicate creatures (!) and not everyone can cope with too much criticism in one hit. That said, I agree with the previous writer that writers need to toughen up. We need to know when our work isn’t up to scratch and a report that only praises the good bits might massage our egos but it won’t help us improve. When I’m asked to read something I always apply the ‘critiquing sandwich’ and try to deliver the bad news between slices of good – not always easy when you’re presented with a piece of work that needs a total rewrite, but tact and diplomacy go a long way.

    Also, choosing the right beta reader is so important. I agree with 4amWriter that you have to keep the personal out of it. I remember someone telling me they didn’t like one of my female characters swearing, because ‘my daughter doesn’t swear’). I bet she does – but she’ll be out of earshot!) Other, similar comments made me realise that this reader couldn’t disassociate herself enough – she wasn’t in my target audience, but at the time I didn’t think that mattered. However, she couldn’t read the piece of work dispassionately and deliver a sensible critique; every comment was based on her own experiences, which were completely outside those of my characters.

    Keep up the good work

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    • That sandwiching approach is key. And I’ll be recommending it next week for the beta reader. No matter how hard it could be to find the good, we have to open and close with it. We shouldn’t give false praise to a writer, but we also shouldn’t crush them.

      I hope new writers will understand the importance of getting small-scale critiques first—to help toughen their skin and to learn where their weak points are. And we all start with a good number of weak points. But by the time we request a beta read, we should be better writers and there should be a number of good points for the reader to note around the areas that still need work.

      When I first read the opening scenes of my WIP to a group, one woman in her 80s said, “Horses sweat, people perspire.” Well, maybe that’s still true in extremely polite company. But in reality, archaeologists in the field sweat! Sometimes, a writer should ignore some comments.

      (I still try not to swear in front of my mom! 🙂 )

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    • Hi, thanks for stopping by! I hope this series will help people when they start thinking about having someone seriously critique their works. (And be a useful reminder for those who have been at it for a while) The next post will have specific guidelines for the beta read, so I hope you’ll take a look at that one, too.

      You’re in good introverted company in this corner of the blogosphere. 🙂

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