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 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.