Has someone asked you to be their beta reader? If so congratulations — it’s a huge honor to be the first to read someone’s creative work. Of course, with that role comes a great deal of responsibility. The author is entrusting you to provide honest feedback, and to make that feedback as helpful and easy to understand as possible.
I was a beta reader for one of my college friends this weekend, and thought it could be useful to provide some tips on how to be a great beta reader.
1. Understand the author’s goals of this round of feedback
Sometimes authors send beta readers pretty polished manuscripts in which they’re looking for feedback on lingering plot holes, typos, or grammatical errors. Other times authors send beta readers a first or second draft and want feedback on plot or character inconsistencies, redundant scenes, or overarching theme problems.
It’s important to understand what kind of feedback the author is looking for so you don’t waste her time — or yours. It doesn’t make sense for you to keep a running list of every typo in the book if the author is going to have to rewrite entire scenes or chapters anyway.
2. Let the author know if you’re not in her target audience
The book I read over the weekend was paranormal with multiple mythological species, and that’s just not my thing. I like to think I have a pretty good eye for character development flaws and plot holes, so I was still eager to be a beta reader. But since feedback is always so subjective, and in my case I’m already biased against the genre, I wanted the author to understand where I was coming from to begin with.
3. Keep a notebook next to you at all times
The least helpful beta reader is one who reads (or skims) an entire novel, cover to cover, says, “That was good,” and gives some vague anecdotal feedback.
When I beta read, I take pages and pages of notes in a spiral notebook. If you’re not willing to do this, don’t agree to be someone’s beta reader. If something doesn’t make sense, or if I have a question, I jot it down immediately, along with the page number so the author can easily refer to what I’m talking about. I also note observations or thoughts that run through my head, like “Where’s Bob? Haven’t seen him in a while.” or “I found myself skimming the last few pages — there’s too much info dump here.”
4. Provide macro and micro feedback
Macro feedback: overarching problems that affect the entire novel. For example, a character doesn’t have a consistent voice either throughout the novel or between their dialogue and internal monologues.
Micro feedback: sentences or minor plot points that could be improved. For example, a European says, “crapola” or “eat my shorts,” and you think to yourself, “a native European would never say that.”
In your notes or conversation with your author, start with the macro feedback and work your way down to the micro feedback. Reference page numbers wherever possible.
5. Try to understand character’s motivations
Once you finish the book, take a while to mull it over. Sometimes there are things that stick out that aren’t on the page. How did the characters meet before the story began? Why would this character act the way she did? Did it make sense for the bad guy to want vengeance in the first place? If something doesn’t makes sense to you, write it down. If the author can then explain to you why a character acted a certain way, encourage her to work that background or explanation into the story.
6. Make sure the main character changes
Once important lesson I’ve learned, both as an author and a reader, is that the best books have protagonists that change throughout the story. There must be an inciting incident at the beginning that throws the protagonist for a loop, and they need to spend the book figuring out how to resolve their situation. And throughout, they need to grow in some way, to change, to become a more complete person by the end. So take a closer look at the author’s main character. Can you pinpoint how the character evolved throughout the book? If not, it’s important to let the author know. If you’re afraid you missed something — don’t be. If you didn’t catch it, it’s likely an agent/editor/reader wouldn’t see the character’s evolution either.
7. Point out what the author did well
Nobody likes receiving an editorial letter or notes entirely full of criticism. Boost the author’s self-esteem by pointing out the things you liked about the story. Ideally, open up with the positive feedback. They’ll likely read your notes or get on a call with you filled with trepidation, and saying good things first will put them at ease.
8. Be brutally honest
At the same time, you’re not doing your author any favors by hiding negative criticism. You are involved in this process to make sure YOU catch flaws with the novel — not the agents/editors. Authors usually don’t get second chances with agents, editors, or if self-publishing, the end reader. It’s on you to make sure the author knows what to fix prior to sending their manuscript to a less forgiving audience. When I sent my manuscript off to my beta readers, I asked them to be honest and not hold anything back. I’d MUCH rather hear negative criticism from them than from an Amazon reviewer.
Did I miss anything big? What would you add to the list? Let me know in the comments below!
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