Beta Reading Guide: How to be an Awesome Beta Reader

If you are reading this you are either… interested in beta reading and want to know what it’s all about, have committed to beta reading and want to know how to be the best little beta you can be, or are a seasoned beta reader and just looking to discover even more. 

Let’s start simple…

What is a beta reader?

A beta reader is part of the writer’s test audience. The writer is relying on beta readers for open and honest feedback regarding how they can improve their story. A beta reader is someone who has committed to reading within a designated timeline and will communicate openly with the writer.

What isn’t a beta reader?

While a beta reader does provide criticism, a beta reader is not a critic. A beta reader is not an editor. And a beta reader is not the author.

When supplying feedback beta readers should do so in the lens of a reader. Unless specifically asked, do not comb through the text and give the author line edits. Stay away from nitpicking things such as grammar, punctuation, writing style, and narrative structure.

Benefits of Beta reading:

If you are a reader, beta reading is a great way to explore different authors and genres. It’s a way to read a story prior to publication; so it’s basically a free sneak peek. Plus, it is super rewarding to know you’re helping a story and a writer improve.

If you are a writer, beta reading can be super beneficial as well. It allows you to examine another author’s writing style up close. It allows you to think of questions that you can then turn on your own writing. And it is a way to interact and engage with another writer. Plus, many writers will be willing to return the favor when the time comes to look for your own beta readers.

How to be an awesome beta reader

Be open minded and respectful while reading

  • Writing a novel is a journey. Understand the time, energy, heart, and soul that the writer has injected into their story. Authors are protective of their work and so please treat it with care.
  • Writers approach stories with mindsets and backgrounds different than your own, and that’s half the fun of reading! Hopefully the book you are reading does match your preferred style and genre, but even if it doesn’t, be respectful of the book that an author has entrusted in your care.

Listen to what the author has asked of their readers

  • Pay attention to specific requests of the author, including a timeline and where/how to send feedback, as well as what type of feedback they are looking for.
  • Often, writers are seeking general feedback regarding the plot, story, themes, characters, etc.
  • From time to time an author might ask you to read their work because you match a certain demographic. For example, they might be writing a Young Adult book and wants to make sure the dialogue sounds authentic from the perspective of an adolescent character.
  • You might be asked to read because you are of a specific cultural demographic and they want to ensure it is being represented appropriately, which is referred to as a “sensitivity reader”.
  • What is less common is author’s asking you to comment on grammar and spelling. Many writers have editors to fix those errors. Or they are waiting until the story is polished to dive into grammar. Unless specifically asked, don’t spend your time nitpicking through spelling errors.

Openly communicate with the author

  • Sure, anyone who has decided to torture themselves by writing a novel is a little crazy… but on the whole, writers aren’t scary people (usually). If you have an issue reach out and communicate with the writer.
  • Whether you have a time conflict and won’t meet their deadline or the story wasn’t quite what you were expecting and you no longer wish to offer your feedback, let the author know. 
  • Most authors understand that not everyone they send their manuscript will finish it. Do them a service by being upfront if you don’t intend to continue to read.
  • They will appreciate the open and honest communication instead of having to hunt you down.

Trust your gut

  • If you’re reading and are concerned that you don’t “know what you’re talking about” or that your comments aren’t be helpful, relax. As long as you have previously read a book, you have related experience to this task.
  • Trust the thoughts that are top of mind about the story, write them down without too much internal battle of whether or not the information is helpful. If it is related to their story, it’s probably useful.

Don’t forget to tell the writer what you liked!

  • Most people sign onto being a beta reader because they enjoy reading, so share what you enjoy!
  • This is super important for two reasons
    • Writers have pretty much handed you their soul on a piece of paper (or select your favorite digital medium). Don’t crush their soul by giving them back only negatives. Just don’t do it.
    • When you identify things you like, writers can better identify their strengths. This will help them when strengthening the rest of the areas of the story.

Provide constructive feedback

  • Giving a writer a laundry list of things you would do differently isn’t helpful.
  • DO provide feedback that matches what the writer has asked for.
  • If they haven’t specified what type of feedback or have just asked for “general” criticism, comment on things that stick out to you.
  • If you find issues in the story, comment on them in a constructive manner and the writer can decide how they wish to fix it.

Tips for providing constructive feedback

  • Explain why something sticks out to you instead of leaving a negative remark without further context.
  • Make suggestions! A little riffing can be helpful for writers to gain a fresh perspective or to generate new ideas. Do NOT tell a writer how they should make their changes.
  • Write comments in the form of a question. For example: what was the purpose of the scene? Why did you kill this character? Why are there so many penguins?
  • Leave comments as something actionable. The writer can either decide to take that action or not.  For Example: Have you considered giving this villain a more dramatic backstory?

There you have it! Keep in mind that the beta process, much like the writing process, looks a little different to every author. When in doubt, talk to the writer you are reading for to get clarification. Remember, you are doing them a huge favor by reading their work.

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