Sometimes it takes another person to tell you that your story… is simply wonderful.
Sometimes it takes another person to tell you that your story… is bloody awful.
But what is it that a Beta Reader does, how do they do it, and what really is the difference between them and the host of other people who can read your script?
After you’ve written a book, the first thing to do is for someone else to go over it – these are normally critic partners. They’re sometimes called alpha readers, as a reader before beta readers. They will go over the script in minute detail for you, to help with specific character goals and arcs, the plot to assist with any holes. They can break down the stories elements as far as developmental editors in order to assist getting it right.
A beta readers duties can be similar, can come later or earlier, but generally its later, after the majority of the work on the story itself has been done. They are there to immerse themselves as readers, and point out where they may fall out of the story to help eliminate any small errors.
The best value I’ve both given and received as a beta reader is to let my instincts guide me. I’ve worked on developing my skills as a beta reader in order to become a good critique partner. But if you haven’t tried it before then you can start with the following, and know that this is a learning process, it takes time, and can be instrumental in helping with your own writing.
- Use Comments
First impressions matter and its not just the opening sentence of the novel. Its how you tackle what is wrong. The best way to do that is to use the comments section in word as a preferred method. Or the same function in Google docs. Whatever program your text file is in, adding comments is the best way to put in feedback.
Picture: Snapshot of Word Ribbon Menu with a red box around “Review” & “New Comment”
Go to the review section of Word, and find the comments function. You can also find track changes here, but I don’t generally make changes to the text, I’m not there to edit. Some people will edit it for you, just be sure they know to track the changes so you can agree to them or not.
You may not know how to fix what is tripping up that particular problem in the script but you can present what the problem is using this function with the most amount of ease. It also gives the opportunity for the original writer to look objectively at your note alongside the exact sentence you’ve highlighted with the comment section. Form there you’re better able to display why the section might not be quite right.
2. What to Say
Most people don’t want to hear the BAD stuff. Learning to phrase the comments so they can add to the writer’s experience is important. You’re helping them fix it, not just pointing out where their script may be flawed.
But how to do that?
I take what triggered me to stop being emersed in the story and remember that I’m here to help the writer reach out to the reader.
Asking these questions both of yourself and the writer is integral to helping in fixing these errors.
Should the character have this reaction? When previously they’ve acted like X. Perhaps have them say something more in the vein of Y, to better suit their previous persona. For example, they can pull this face, or say instead this sentence…
I thought before that the plot was doing Z? If we add this here then it needs to be amended before to make sure to include the new facets of Z’s information. Or maybe you could Y, because Y ties in nicely with the other part of character’s development.
Have you thought about the consequences of A’s actions to B’s character? A was pretty awful to them, I don’t know if I was B if I’d let A say something like that, or get away with it. If B just accepts what A’s done then they’re pretty much a doormat and I didn’t get that from their personality before.
A way to present the critique isn’t just about being harsh or complimentary, its about phrasing it I such a way that gives the write a chance to build from there. To find the answer that suits their goals for the story.
3. How to get Beta Readers
I’ve found quite a few people willing to read my work through Twitter, but its by no means the only source. You can go to writing forums, facebook groups, writing groups, discord channels. It’s a scary thing to reach out to someone, but being willing to reciprocate by offering up your work for critique is a good way to start.
Most people will start by talking about what genre they are writing, what age group, and the general themes of their story. They will move on to maybe a one line pitch, or short blurb about what the story is about to gauge both your interest in their work, and then you’ll need to reciprocate to ensure they want to read yours.
After that you can look at swapping one or two chapters, and its important at this point that a friendly dialogue has been built upon to be sure that you aren’t giving away your ideas or thoughts to someone who may try to steal your work.
Please be aware that some people will want disclaimers or have precursors to sharing. Swapping just the first chapter demonstrates what they will offer your script, and the chance to show them how you can help them too. But above all you need to be sure you trust the person you are giving your work to, which is why its good to become friends with them first.
4. When it’s too much
Giving detailed feedback is hard, especially when books are so long.
A good way in order to lessen the expectation on someone to read your work is to offer to read the first few chapters. Both of you make comments, and then give them back. This can become difficult based on where you are working at different stages of your learning how to be a good beta reader. If you’re with a veteran writer you can learn a lot. If you are a beginner yourself, you can try and emulate them.
But as new writers, regardless of where you are at in your journey, sometimes it may not be a great use of your time. I often found if I was adding more than ten comments a page that I couldn’t do it to the whole script, what they needed was closer to a developmental edit, or critic partner. I’d just offer my feedback on the first 5k words or so and show them some of the tones they could apply to the whole script to help them. Some writers can learn a lot from just that and apply it.
It’s when you are presented or expected to read a whole book when the writer is not only new to the craft, but either thinks their work doesn’t need any improving, or is unwilling to do the work you need to ask yourself if moving forward with the beta reading relationship will be worth your investment. It can be unpleasant when this happens, both to you and by you, and the best thing to do is be kind, polite, but above all professional.
Don’t forget, you are probably spending time you could use on your own work, and if the relationship isn’t mutual and working well together you may want to reconsider whether you keep moving forward.
5. The MOST important thing
Find where a writer does well and POINT IT OUT.
We all live with such soul crushing doubt of our abilities, its never more critical to add genuine reactions in the comments section. To squeal with excitement at first kisses, to cuss in the sidelines when the nemesis comes along. To swoon over beautiful settings and turns of phrases.
There is something incredible about walking through a beta readers feedback and finding these comments. I like to think of them as cookies, and explain that to people I am beta reading for.
This also helps them take on the more negative or critical aspects of your commentary, allowing you both to move forward with the story and to see it to its end. I remember the first time I started working with a developmental editor, counting how many developmental comments he made in total. It was a complete bummer when it was hundreds of things that needed improving.
Once I started tackling it, finding times he was completely wrapt up in the text and loving it was the motivation I needed to move forward.
Remember that you are reviewing someone’s love. A piece of themselves they have fought to have time to spend on, only to get stuck, retry, come back, delete, rewrite, and antagonize over. They have poured parts of themselves into these pages and they are trusting you to take care of them.
Be gentle, be kind, be helpful, but know that the most important thing you can do is be honest. No one develops or grows from feedback that is nothing but compliments. As hard as it may be that’s the trust they are giving you, that you will be honest, and help them make their story the bet it can be.