It’s scary, I get it.
You’re asking someone who is potentially a stranger to put their grubby paws all over your creation. To dirty it’s walls with comments on the plot. Smear mud on character development. Wee on info dumps. Put a massive turd in that unforeseen plot hole.
And the way you think about a betareader and their feed back is wrong.
You’ve asked them to read it as they would a novel, but you’ve also given them a much harder task, to find the mistakes. To do so, they have to look for them, they have to assess and point out its flaws. It makes the process intimidating.
So you take it to someone you trust.
To be kind enough to say the right things, not be too cruel, not pick on your work or show you how much it needs more put into it.
Because you already feel like you’ve birthed this idea, a monumental effort that left you gasping with tears and laughter and probably too much wine. I’ve been there, many times.
But you aren’t helping yourself if you give it to someone who will be kinder to your darling.
Give it to a stranger.
The hard part is picking the right stranger.
A lot of different people will offer different levels, but here is how I tackle scripts given to me. It comes across as more of a developmental edit, however I feel this is what beta readers need to do, as getting an editor who will also cover development can be very tricky. I’ve read many stories that were well edited but didn’t appear to have had any developmental editing at all. This can really put a reader off, and it needs to be more openly addressed.
I always want the scripts in Word so I can add comments and read it with ease, and this is also why I only ever accept shorter sections of a body of work, I don’t want anyone to think I’m nicking ideas. Don’t give your full book to a random stranger, it shouldn’t need to be said, but for novices this can be a harsh lesson. People do steal books, they will take your general premise and run with it. Research your beta before you give them the script.
After I’ve added all my notes, I will email the word doc back to the writer, and give a short summary of what I thought, probably emphasizing key points that I talk about in my comments, but especially anything I believe needs a lot of focus.
This is what I feel a beta reader should do, but its more complicated than that because how you critique someone matters. For writers just starting out, and its their first script, the easiest way to hurt someone is to say something negative in an insensitive manner. It’s also hard to tell people their writing needs serious work.
The points below aren’t just for betareaders, they are for writers too, because more often than not they are the same, and you should understand what goes into a good beta read.
- Always point out the good stuff
Every story has something going for it. Every story I’ve ever read had that original spark. Whether it was clearly evident in well written prose or deeply hidden under layers of badly constructed sentences, it was still there. A lot of beta readers wont necessarily do this, they point out the books flaws, its what they were asked to do.
I point out bits I like because as a struggling writer there is nothing quite like hearing that someone liked a very specific thing.
This is a fundamental part of the beta reading process because you aren’t just complimenting the writer, you are building up their confidence. So when they get that great review they don’t doubt it.
We look at a lot of our reviews and either don’t believe good ones or get completely bummed about bad ones, and this is not the right attitude. You need to have confidence, but you also need to learn where you can improve. Accepting both is a long and hard lesson. Beta reading really helps with that.
Plus, when you’re dropping a lot of truth bombs that can get them down. A nice comment is like finding the cookies to cheer them on.
- Don’t be useless
Yes, I know it’s a lot of effort to read someone else’s work thoroughly, however if you’re going to tell them something is wrong don’t just say that you don’t like something. There is nothing more useless than getting a message from a beta stating: I didn’t like this.
Didn’t like what? What the character said? Did? Reacted? WHAT?!
This was a weird thing for the character to say.
Okay great, but why? What’s the reasoning? When I leave these sorts of comments, I try to phrase it as per the below;
I thought the characters reaction was odd, because earlier on he said X, and this isn’t in keeping with that kind of philosophy. Perhaps amend to say Y, or try having him not respond at all since he disagrees.
This has the dual purpose of pointing out errors, but also offering a reason, and subsequent solution. It also allows not only for the writer to examine that one instance, but also gain a better understand of their characters as people, rather than puppets pushing along the plot.
- You are not the Grammar Police, but you are an informant
YOU. ARE. NOT. THERE. TO. EDIT.
Unless the writer has specifically said, hey, can you check the editing for me, leave it alone. I know it might be tempting, and I might point out a couple of serious flaws, but after the first couple I let it slide. This isn’t just about you not being there to edit, its to save you time too.
If I’m working with a draft I may say something really obvious if I see a few really bad mistakes. For the most part I stick to the following section;
- Repetition: similar/same words too close together
- Info dumping: too much description
- Terminology: for words that are actually other words ie. Their/they’re
There are other things you can do as time affords, but these are the ones I focus on because it interrupts the flow of the story, which is what I’m interested in. You could do more as a beta reader, but ultimately, if the editing is poor, its worth stating so at the end or in your summary.
- Never rip the script
This shouldn’t need to be said, but part of what prompted this post was a tearful tweet I saw about a so called friend who tore their story to shreds.
You goal here should be to point out flaws, absolutely, but in a constructive manner that helps, and getting frustrated at what you might see as an inferior piece of work is the last thing a writer needs to hear. They are asking for your help. They are trusting you with a sliver of their soul. Don’t be an ass.
There are gentler ways of suggesting to them that the script essentially needs to be rewritten and these are ultimately about overarching plot points.
I’m going to tear myself apart for your example today.
When my editor told me one of my novellas needed to have the ending completely rewritten, he phrased it roughly (and more simplified) like this;
This ending is part of different story, one that should come perhaps later in the series. The focus should be on character X, and why she’s doing Y. The ending doesn’t serve either of these purposes, and ends up becoming less about her journey and more about Z. I also believe this other character is not coming across as you intend, and his character needs fleshing out to convey your intention in these ways. It would also be great to reduce the amount of time the MC spends on thinking, and give her more interactions with the rest of the alphabet, as these side characters are rich and have a lot of potential.
Believe it or not, he was far more eloquent than this, and I knew as soon as he said it, that he was right, and I pretty much rewrote the entire book.
Remember you are trying to help the writer not make them quit writing.
Finally, this isn’t a point, and shouldn’t need to be said, but it is for the writers waiting on betareading.
If someone beta reads for you, it doesn’t matter if they told you things you didn’t want to hear, THANK THEM.
I’ve done a lot of beta reading over the last 3 years, and I am amazed at how often I barely get a thank you back, or any response at all.
This is gutting. I have spent hours I could have been using on my own work, and having someone not bothering to respond to that work is awful. You never ask what it costs the beta reader to help you instead of themselves, or worrying about damaging your relationship when they do give their honest feedback. Being truthful to people whose writing journey you care about is fucking hard.
You are NOT going to like everything that they say, and this is why I always advise writers to get a second opinion. A third, fourth, however many it takes to help sort it out and be the best story it can be.
If you are a writer querying agents you NEED their feedback. You need that honesty if you are going to improve, and if you are seeking a betareader you want to improve.
Remember that when they tell you something you didn’t want to hear.
They are there to help you.