Over the last two weeks we’ve covered an introduction to beta reading and what the writer and beta reader need to understand before beginning the work. Today, we get down to the nuts and bolts of what the beta reader should (and shouldn’t) do and how he should present his critique. We’ll also look at what the writer should expect from the review. Instead of beginning with the writer, this post starts with the beta reader.
What the Beta Reader Should Do
Read the manuscript at least twice. On the first read, note general feelings or problems with the manuscript. For example, does the opening scene leave you struggling to figure out who and where the characters are? Are too many characters presented in the first chapter? Did a character suddenly appear with the protagonist at noon while two pages ago she was across the country two hours earlier? Your questions might be answered as you read more. After all, a writer shouldn’t reveal everything in Chapter 1. But if you’re repeatedly taken out of the story by incomplete or confusing descriptions, the writer probably hasn’t provided enough information.
With the second and later reads, focus on the areas the writer asked you to check. If she’s concerned about mixed point of view (POV), read carefully and note where you encounter it. If she’s worried that her characters are flat, see if she’s right. If you think they are, be specific as to why they’re dull. Are they too perfect? Are they risking nothing by their actions? Is the antagonist too evil and gives everything away?
If you notice a problem the writer didn’t ask you to address, do point it out—tactfully and diplomatically. (We’ll come back to tact and diplomacy soon.) Maybe she didn’t ask for help with POV. But you notice she’s not only switching POV within a scene but also within a paragraph. It’s best to stick with one POV per scene, although some writers successfully break this rule. However, if her shifts mean you can’t follow the story, or you don’t think they have the desired effect, let her know. (And changing POV within a paragraph is never good).
Do tell the writer when you think a scene is good or a character resonates with you. The critique will be stressful on her. She needs some positive reinforcement. (You will, too, when someone critiques your manuscript.) Otherwise, the writer can easily think her work is garbage. So, did a character make a joke and you thought it was funny? Say so! Did a scene make you tear up in empathy with the characters? Let the writer know this. Begin and end your comments with some of these positive points.
It’s okay to let the writer know your emotional responses to a character or scene. But don’t confuse this with your personal views on the subject or your personal preferences for writing style or content. You aren’t writing the book—she is. As a writer, I want to know what emotional response the reader had and if it matched my intentions. Did a character’s action leave you angry? Let the writer know. If that’s her desired reaction, she’ll know she got it right. But if she wanted you to feel sorry for him, she needs to think about her word choices—and consider the possibility that you simply misunderstood the scene. That happens.
It’s okay to make a few personal observations, such as your experiences with something in the book. But don’t form your critique around them, and do let the writer know these are “personal asides.”
Be specific with comments so the writer understands what you mean. “This character bores me” doesn’t give her much to go on. Tell her why he bores you. It will help her fix the problems. Something like this is more helpful. “Tom doesn’t seem to have any flaws. He never has a bad thought about anyone, even the man who killed Tom’s father before his eyes and stole his horse. He doesn’t come across as a real person in his situation should.”
If a passage confuses you, explain why. “Tom has helped his friends throughout the first 15 chapters. There was no good reason for them to abandon him when he passed out at the bar after his very first taste of alcohol, and yet they did. Why? If there’s a reason, the reader needs to know it. If there isn’t one, you might want to reconsider the friends’ reactions.”
Be tactful and diplomatic with your comments and recommendations for rewrite/revision. I can’t emphasize this enough. This is an area where we shouldn’t be too direct or “action-oriented” in our word choices. Phrase your comments as suggestions rather than instructions or complaints. Comments like, “you keep dumping too much backstory at the beginning of every chapter” or “stop changing POV in every scene” may be accurate. But they generate intense feelings of negativity and depression in the writer. Take a softer tone. For example, “Readers might skim over the first part of your chapters to get to the action. You might want to rework some of the backstory elements into a character’s internal thoughts or a dialogue exchange and spread them through the story.”
Wait a day or two after writing your comments before you send them to the author. Then reread them. How would you feel if you received the comments phrased as they are? Could they be more tactful? Are they clear? Have you provided enough encouragement and pointed out areas that are working well?
What the Beta Reader SHOULD NOT Do
Never make insensitive or inflammatory comments. Beta reading and critiques should never be personal attacks on the work or the writer. If this happened to you, I’m sorry. But it’s not how things should be done. Personal or mean-spirited attacks are not a rite of passage into the writing world.
Don’t limit your comments to those of the “here’s what needs work” category. Begin and end your comments with things you enjoyed and thought the writer did well. You would need to hear it. So does she.
Don’t take it personally if the writer doesn’t incorporate all of your suggestions. Maybe five other people loved something you hated. She has to make the final call on what works.
What the Writer Should Expect
You should receive both positive and “areas for improvement” comments. Remember, you have asked for an honest critique of your draft. Don’t ask for a beta read if you think your work is perfect as is. There is always room for improvement. Well-phrased and carefully thought out suggestions for improvement are not personal attacks on you or your writing. Your beta reader is trying to help you write the best story you can.
You will feel some “negative” emotions when you read the comments—anger, hurt, depression. That’s normal. That’s why I said make sure you’re ready for this in Part 1. It gets easier as you gain more experience, but it always stings. Go ahead and console yourself with chocolate or a glass of your favorite alcoholic beverage. But remember—you wanted an honest critique, and that’s what you should get.
Put the comments aside for a few days after you’ve read them. Don’t reply to the reader at this point except for a polite “thank you I got your comments, and I’m going through them.” You’ll stew over them. You’ll think the reader missed the point completely. You’ll feel defensive about your writing, your story, and why you told it the way you did. Under no circumstances should you dash off a knee-jerk email to the beta reader or a blog post about the terrible beta reader.
You’ll soon catch yourself thinking about ways to address the beta reader’s points. You’ll realize that there is something to his comments. Now you can look at the manuscript and his comments again. And, with a calmer eye, you’ll see the validity of most of the comments. Most—not all. It’s unlikely that everything he said will apply. Maybe he misread a paragraph and the resulting comment really doesn’t matter. If he doesn’t read your genre, a point that confuses him may be clear to regular readers.
But a good beta reader will make many good points. And you need to think about them. They’ll help you make the story better. And if your goal is publication, whether traditional or independent, your story should be as good as you can make it. That’s the only way to build an audience who will read your future publications.
Finally, don’t expect the beta reader to “fix” the problems for you. He might offer suggestions, but he’s not a ghost writer. You have to do the hard work of rewrites for the next draft. Remember, it’s your book, not his.
In the final post we’ll go over what happens after your beta reading experience—because the end of the critique should not be the end of the relationship. I’ll also summarize the main points for the writer and beta reader to remember. If I’m really organized and have the time, I’ll include some links to helpful posts and websites.
If you have any suggestions for those links or points to hit in the final post, please feel free to add them in the comments!