Beta Reading—Part 3

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.

Next Time

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!

37 thoughts on “Beta Reading—Part 3

  1. Well said, JM! Tact by the critique partner and thoughtful considerations of critiques (writer) show professionalism. The story about Tom is a great example and made me laugh! 🙂

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  2. jm, I am so impressed with your review of the beta reading process! These are significant insights for all of us to remember in case we are asked to read for someone. Being honest and specific tactfully is no small job! I hope you are proud of yourself for the work you are doing here…this article came across to me as very professional. You are an awesome writer my friend. xoxox

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    • Thanks, Jeannie! I suspect my normal work writing began creeping into the post—presenting data and interpretations and such. 😉

      You are also an awesome writer, and I hope we’ll be seeing new posts from you soon! You’re making some major lifestyle changes, and that’s never easy to do. So please be sure you’re taking pride in your efforts, too! 🙂 You can do this!

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  3. This is extremely detailed, sound advice for both parties. Definitely a great post for me to refer to again. Thank you for outlining these tips. 🙂

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    • Thanks, Katy! I’ll be setting up a page with links to them once the series is done, so they should be easily accessible for future reference. How did you survive a week without internet?! 🙂

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      • That’s fantastic! It’ll be very useful for your readers and I’m sure it will be greatly appreciated! 🙂

        It was weird not having net… in some ways, sort of nice because it meant I could do other stuff. It’s too easy to spend far too much time online – even if it is lots of fun! 🙂

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  4. Excellent post, as always, JM. I like the suggestion of at least two reads, one for the general reactions, another for a more careful, focused reading. Also, love the reminder that this isn’t about how you would write it. I think that it’s hard sometimes to find that line between giving sufficiently specific feedback and offering a rewrite of sections that’s really more your own personal style as a writer.

    I think for the writer, interpreting that feedback is almost an art. I had someone once tell me that something that didn’t make sense to my character should have because he just had a fight with his father on the subject. I realized that the problem was that I’d forgotten to include that the argument with his father had been going on for 5 years, where the thing that didn’t make sense had only been going on that day. One wouldn’t have caused the other. The trick is figuring out how they got off the path you were leading them down. Only sometimes is it for the reasons they mention.

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    • Thanks, Julie! I think you’re right that interpreting feedback is an art. When we get it from multiple readers, sometimes it feels like the comments are “all over the board.” And even a single comment from a single reader can leave us wondering where it came from. But I think it’s important for us to review what we’ve written to see if we can find the trigger for the comment. Sometimes a reader just misses something. But other times, we have to realize we didn’t provide enough information for him to make the “right” interpretation.

      It’s a fine line between giving enough details for the reader to keep up with the story and holding back enough to keep them interested while not giving everything away by Chapter 3!

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      • I swear, the longer I do this, the more I think balance is the key to all aspects of writing and storytelling, even in the weight you give different feedback. To me it’s also key in how much editing and revising you do. It can go on forever if you let it. You have to balance enough to make it better against letting it go on so long it holds you back from moving forward in your work in general. I suppose part of why it comes to mind here is that you can exhaust your beta readers on a manuscript if you do this too long or too often :p

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  5. Another wonderfully informative post! As you point out, feedback, no matter what the circumstances, needs to be delivered sensitively. The “sandwich” techique is so important, as you mentioned. Start with positive feedback, then the parts where changes may need to occur, and then conclude with positive again. And I couldn’t agree with you more that specificity is needed. “The characters are great” although nice, is not specific enough. What makes such and such a great character? Or what might help to improve the character?

    Nice job. You’ve obviously put a lot of thought into these posts, and it shows. What a great resource for the rest of us. 🙂

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    • Thanks, Carrie! It never hurts for even “seasoned” writers to get some refreshers now and again. I’m banging my head on the table as I read Robin Coyle’s “Strong vs. Weak” posts. How did so many weak words get into my stories??!! Edit, edit, edit!

      One of my friends was in a writers’ group and had one of her short stories savaged by the first “critter.” And it started a chain reaction of similar comments from the rest of the group. He should never have critiqued the work because he couldn’t put aside his personal views. That should never, never happen. Even if he’d provided objective comments, he should have started and ended with positive points. What happened to her should never happen to anyone.

      She did get the last laugh. The story was published. 🙂

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      • I found many “weak” words in my manuscript as well, although given my novel is about a pandemic, it might be difficult not to overdue the word “people.” 🙂

        That’s too bad about your friend. But you’re right–she did get the last laugh!

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  6. This is SOOOOOOOO timely for me. Waiting in my in-box for me this morning were lengthy comments from my Beta Reader. She sent them after midnight. What dedication! It was almost as tho she had read this post before reading my book and writing up her feedback. She was positive but also gave specific feedback where she thought improvement could be made. I thanked her immediately and told her I need time to drink in her thoughts. I found a treasure in my Beta Reader . . . that is for sure. She gave me a detailed and critical review that was kind, but to the point.

    Great post JM.

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    • Thanks, Robin! That is a beta reader you want to keep! That’s how 4amWriter was with my novel, and while the rewrites are a ton of work, I know her comments will help me make the book better and stronger. When I first read her comments, I knew they were dead on. But I knew I still needed time to absorb them fully. So I didn’t jump into revisions. I thought about her comments and potential fixes for nearly a week before I started some of the simpler changes. And I’m still working on the larger issues!

      I’m glad your experience went well. That’s the way it should be for everyone. 🙂

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    • Maybe you should—it might cut off someone who would go at it like the guy who tore into my friend like I described above in my reply to Carrie’s comment! 🙂

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  7. I am more afraid of them just giving me the generic, “It was good. I liked it.”

    PS – just saw that my Strong vs Weak Word posts are making you bang you head. That’s exactly what I wanted to hear! The posts are improving ALL of our writing.

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    • Argh, 2 of your comments ended up in spam again! Even though you’d already successfully gotten comments to this post! One of them (your thank you above), got here where it should be when I approved it. One that’s the single word, “Yeah,” is again supposedly attached to my awards page, but there’s nothing there! Somewhere, something got messed up, and WordPress/Akismet is periodically flagging you as a spammer.

      Being there in person with them will let you “gently” encourage people to be more specific if needed. 🙂

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  8. JM, Your posts about beta reading are so well thought out… this one is especially good. I don’t think there’s enough out there about being a beta reader. Thank you for your thoughtful suggestions!

    I would also add (I know it’s about only one part of the manuscript) that the beta reader should think quite a bit about the first few chapters… they are the ones agents and editors see first. If they are having issues with something right away, this area is an especially important one for the writer. At least a hint of the “problem” for the main character is key, and if the beta reader has reservations about continuing to read (boredom, major questions in a negative way, etc.), the writer needs the most specifics about these first chapters (not that the rest isn’t important, too).

    Thank you for your posts–I enjoy reading them every time.

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    • Thanks, Anne! These seem to be getting more views than most of my other posts, so I hope that means people find them helpful.

      That is an excellent point about the first few chapters being “the make or break” point for agents and editors. They have to draw in the reader and give a good sense of the main characters and the “problem” or “quest” to be tackled. Some authors can write them after the rest of the book is completed. I’m not one of them. So for me, it’s write them followed by a number of rewrites to hopefully make them pop.

      It’s been an interesting series of posts to write. I’m not quite sure what to follow up with after next week’s conclusion!

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  9. Great stuff, JM. You really have outdone yourself with these posts. Coming in so late, I decided I should scroll through the comments first before I say anything so as not to be repetitive. It looks like all bases are covered! Anne especially made an important point regarding the opening chapters; I find those the most difficult to reconcile in my mind.

    You don’t want to jump the gun assuming the writer hasn’t answered the right questions, and you don’t want to disreagard any holes, either. Most threads will have begun in the opening chapter and left dangling through page 50 so as to continue plot. What the beta reader needs to think about is whether that dangling thread is interesting enough for the reader to want to read on. If the beta reader is bored or disinterested, then that would be a red flag for the writer that the plot isn’t compelling enough in the front part of the novel.

    I love this series, JM. I’m so glad you put it together!

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    • Thanks, Kate! You and Anne are right—those opening chapters are critical and should get extra attention from the beta reader and the writer. I’ve read some interviews where agents say if they aren’t hooked in the first 5 PAGES, they’ll pass on a manuscript. That doesn’t give a writer much room for error—especially if we’re talking double-spaced manuscript pages….

      That’s why I think the first read is good for jotting down those initial impressions of confusion or unanswered questions. Does the reader feel like enough progress is made at a good pace through the book in drawing him towards the final resoluation? Or are they as you say, bored or disinterested before they even get to page 50?

      If writing a good book was easy, everyone would do it, right? 😉 But getting thorough feedback from a beta reader gives us a better shot at pulling it off. 🙂

      It’s been an intensive series of posts to write. I might have to lighten up things after it’s done….

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    • Thanks, Lisa! I’d love to help people avoid any problems, confusion, or bad experiences with the process. It can be so helpful for improving our work. But it is hard to critique tactfully. And it’s often harder to accept a critique. These posts should let people know what they’re getting into!

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  10. What a great post. My first writers group was a total lesson in ‘sucking it up’. After being told I needed to quit writing all together, I left the group. I now belong to a wonderful group, where we are honest and supportive with each other.

    Good beta readers is essential in our writing path.

    Once more, great post.

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    • Thanks, Leila! Experiences like yours should never happen. But there will always be some people who can only destroy, not build. I’m glad you didn’t let that group stop you from writing! My experiences have all been positive, and I hope these posts can help others have the same.

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  11. Very informative and thoughtful, JM. I still find critiquing other people’s work one of the harder things about being part of the writing community. I trained as a scientist and I tend to feel that the first goal of any writing is to be CLEAR. If I’m reading a manuscript and things are not clear, I have trouble getting past that to see the good things. I’m also afraid that what I think is just being honest with people can come off as not very tactful. I’ll try to take this too heart.

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    • It’s tough not to come across too harshly. And it’s interesting that your experience with scientific writing is that it be clear. Archaeologists often are not! Of course, an archaeological dissertation is expected to be at least 300 pages and many run over 600. There’s no good reason for it. But “that’s the way it’s done.”

      A writer will face tough words if he takes his work public. But there’s no excuse for the mean-spirited and nasty comments that some writers have faced. Of course, the writer has to remember that well-worded criticism is not a personal attack. Sometimes that’s hard for people to do. But most advice I’ve seen does stress the importance of sandwiching the tough comments with positive feedback.

      And certainly, a manuscript should be at least in the second draft before going for a beta read!

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  12. Excellent, professional advice that I know I’ll come back to time and again. It’s never easy taking criticism – my experience suggests it’s a whole lot easier to give it out! Your wise words will be extremely helpful for both sides of the relationship – thank you for for posting this series.:-)

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    • Thank you! I hoped these posts would be helpful when I started writing them. I’m glad they’ve turned out that way.

      Humans are good at dishing out advice and criticism. But most of us have a hard time taking them. But they can make us much better writers. And that should be worth the sting of a good critique. 🙂

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