Basic Tips for Beta Readers

A while back, I wrote a thread on Twitter with some quick tips on beta reading. I’m going to expand on this a little bit here.

First off, let’s get some terminology straightened out.

Beta reader – Your job as a beta reader is to tell the writer overall thoughts, point out areas where you didn’t follow the story or understand the characters’ motivations, and express opinions on style (for example, alternating POVs making it difficult to keep track of characters, certain chunks of the story being written as text messages made plot hard to follow, dialects and slang being confusing). As a beta reader, you don’t have to be a writer yourself, you just have to enjoy reading (and be familiar with the genre the writer is asking you to beta).

CP/Critique partner – Usually another writer of similar or higher skill. As a critique partner, you may want to trade your writing for theirs and ask for a critique in return. A CP should be able to give more in-depth feedback than just general impressions, and should be able to give advice on how to fix issues. Being a CP implies a more lengthy relationship than just a simple “read this when I’m done with it.” As a CP, you may engage in back-and-forth discussion and brainstorming about each others’ works.

Editor – Editors are the ones who polish up your manuscript after you’re pretty much done with it. They’ll check grammar, punctuation, and style. Where a beta reader and a CP will do what they do for free (or in exchange for critiques on their own work), an editor should be a professional who gets paid.

How does one become a beta reader? You can either advertise yourself, or keep an eye on authors’ social media to see when they ask for betas. Before you agree to beta, you should be aware of the manuscript’s genre, length, and the writer’s hoped-for turnaround time. If you’re going to advertise yourself, list what genres you’re willing to beta read (they should be genres you’ve read a lot of already, so you’re familiar with styles and tropes) and an estimate on how long it would take you to complete a book of average length for that genre (i.e., “I’m willing to beta romance novels. My turnaround for an average length romance is 2-3 weeks”). Keep in mind, beta readers are volunteers. Don’t overwhelm yourself.

So now that we have that cleared up, a general tip: use the comments feature in MS Word or Google Docs to insert thoughts and opinions as you go, if anything jumps out at you. Then, also write a summarizing few sentences or paragraph at the end with your overall impressions after finishing the manuscript.

Now, without further ado, here’s a list of do’s and do not’s for beginning beta readers.:

  1. DO pay attention to what the writer specifically asks you to pay attention to. If the writer says “Let me know if you think John’s breakdown in chapter 4 is over the top,” pay particular attention to John and his breakdown in chapter 4. Write your thoughts on it as soon as you get to it, so you don’t forget to tell the writer what you thought.
  2. DO NOT make changes to anything, especially to stylistic things, especially if the novel is in first person. I had a beta reader who put my document in track changes and deleted every ellipses in the story with no explanation. That was neither helpful nor what I asked them to do, and all it did was annoy me. Those ellipses were a decision, not a mistake. If you notice that the writer uses a distracting amount of ellipses or frequently uses the wrong “too” or some other grammatical/stylistic thing bugs you or pulls you out of the story, definitely comment on that, but actually changing things like that is an editor’s job.
  3. DO give feedback on what you like and what does work just as much as you give feedback on anything you don’t like or doesn’t work. “No news is good news” is not how a writer’s brain works. They aren’t going to zero in on the 5 pages with negative comments and assume that the other 195 pages are good. If all they see are negatives, they’re going to assume it’s all bad. A general rule of thumb for feedback is to try to offer a positive for every negative. If you found my ellipses abuse distracting, balance that out by saying that my main character’s pop culture references were spot-on and made you laugh. As you read, use that comments function—even if it’s something as simple as “aww!” or “oh no!” it lets the writer know that their writing is evoking emotion, which is ultimately the goal of writing.
  4. DO NOT say “I don’t like this” or “I don’t think this works” and leave it at that. Why don’t you like it? Is the sentence confusing? Does the action seem to go against the character’s moral code? Similarly, if you read the whole manuscript and all you can say at the end is “I like it, good job,” you just wasted everyone’s time. I’m glad you liked it, but… what was the best part about it? What did you like most, so I can do more of that? And I know it’s not perfect. It can’t be. You mean there wasn’t a single point you didn’t like that I could improve upon?
  5. DO look for consistency issues and disappearing characters. If Aunt Sue seemed like she was going to be an important character back in chapter 2, but then we never see her again, that’s worth mentioning. If it’s the middle of winter and then two days pass and it’s suddenly summer, that’s worth mentioning. Writers tend to have brilliant ideas when they start writing, and then change time frames, delete characters, and forget about pets halfway through their writing process, but threads of those ideas might remain by accident. If you notice it, it’s worth mentioning.
  6. DO NOT be sarcastic or make jokes in your comments. This manuscript is a piece of the writer’s soul. Handle with care. There is no sarcasm font, and even the most well-meaning, lighthearted joke can damage the writer’s self-esteem and motivation. Reading feedback on a manuscript is one of the most difficult parts of the writing process. The writer is likely hyped up, nervous, cringing at every critique you provided. Don’t make a joke at the story’s expense. It’s not helpful.
  7. DO be nice, but don’t be too nice. No manuscript is perfect, and a writer can’t improve themselves if they’re only provided with positive feedback. You’re not doing anyone any favors by trying to spare the writer’s feelings. However, in the same vein…
  8. DO NOT be a dick. Don’t nit-pick, don’t decide you hate the manuscript and tear it down at every opportunity. If you start reading and realize that you don’t even want to finish the book, you may be better off reaching out to the writer, providing feedback on what you’ve read so far, and politely telling them why it’s not your cup of tea. Even that kind of feedback can be valuable.

Ultimately, your overall thoughts and feedback should include whether the characters felt real, whether the plot made sense, if there were any gaps or places you felt rushed, and anything else major you noticed. It’s also important to note that different writers may expect different things from their beta readers, and you should always ask if the writer has anything in particular they want you to do.

Another thing worth note is that you are working for free, just for the love of reading books. It is possible for the writer to expect more from you than you’re willing to provide. A beta reader is not a CP or an editor. A CP is usually a tit-for-tat kind of relationship, and an editor is usually paid. If the writer wants to call you a beta reader but expects you to edit their manuscript and you’re not okay with doing that for free, you’re allowed to step back. Beta readers are wonderful and amazing people and writers should appreciate them. As a writer, I’d like to say all writers are wonderful people who will treat you like gold, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. Beta reading for a person once doesn’t obligate you to read for them ever again.

I think that about covers it! I hope this helps some new beta readers, and maybe even some writers, to know what should go down during the beta reading process! Comment below if you have anything to add!

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Trust Your Broccoli

If you are a writer and you’ve never read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, GO DO IT NOW. I read that book in college and it literally changed my life. I’ll wait.

2000 years later

All right, so there’s a chapter in Bird by Bird called Broccoli. In it, Lamott cites a quote from a Mel Brooks skit: “Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.

What does this mean? Well, in the context of writing, it means “Listen to your story, and your story will tell you how to write it.” In other words, listen to your intuition. Listen to your gut. Writing is a very heart-and-soul driven process, and if you try to over-think it, analyze it, make it a science, it’s not going to work.

That’s the gist of the piece, but I highly recommend you read it for yourself. That one and “Shitty First Drafts.”  “Shitty First Drafts” is the reason I finished my first novel instead of letting it waste away half-finished somewhere on my hard drive.

ANYWAY.

I had my own “listen to your broccoli” moment this past week which kind of blew my mind. I’ve written before about how music ties into my writing process. For my current WIP, I’d been listening to Saul’s music — dark, sultry, heavy on piano and violin and angst. I was writing from Saul’s point of view, so listening to his music made sense.

I hit a turning point in the story and I started slowing down. I was getting stuck. I slogged through it with help from a friend, and then I got stuck again. My brain suddenly decided that I MUST LISTEN TO FOLK MUSIC. Folk music? Okay, I thought, this is Alex’s music. He’s a small rural town kinda guy, bluegrass and folk and country-esque music is prevalent there. So, we’re listening to Alex’s music now, like the flip of a switch. Saul’s is absolutely not acceptable anymore. Alex was reaching a turning point in his character arc, so that made sense I guess.

But I was still stuck. For days. I was fighting my way through, feeling that the writing was slow and boring. I couldn’t figure out how to make it interesting. I kept thinking, “It’s really hard to show this from Saul’s point of view.” and “I have no idea where this is going.”

And one night I just hit a wall. I couldn’t write. Nothing. It wasn’t happening. I didn’t know what was supposed to happen next. I had ideas in mind, but none of it seemed right. The pacing was off if I executed the vague plotline I had in mind. It just didn’t work. I was so, so stuck.

Of course, I took to Twitter, because Twitter is my people.

I had a bit of conversation, and then an epiphany.

And something tumbled loose in my brain, like there’d been a rock stuck in the gears and that idea knocked it loose, and I starting thinking “Yeah… this might work. This would solve a lot of problems. This would solve so many problems. THIS WOULD SOLVE LIKE ALL THE PROBLEMS.”

And the gears started turning again. Slowly. It takes a little while for the machinery to go from total standstill to functional again. I went to sleep that night with a thought. The gears clearly kept turning while I slept, because the next day, I woke up with ideas. I tossed them out on Twitter so I wouldn’t forget, and then I kept simmering on it during the first half of my work day. On my lunch break I sat down with a notebook, and the flood gates opened. The clouds parted and sunlight broke through. I put pen to paper and the entire ending of the book spilled out over my brain with drunken enthusiasm. The pieces clicked together easily and logically.

Here’s where I get to the point. Remember up there where I said my brain randomly decided that Saul’s music wasn’t working anymore and it was time to start listening to Alex’s music?

DAYS before I got stuck, DAYS before I thought of switching POVs, my broccoli knew.

It knew.

broccoli

Writing is hard. There’s all kinds of advice out there. Not all of it will work for you. Maybe your broccoli is a lying little shit… but I doubt it. Your broccoli is your heart, your muse, your innermost self. Trust yourself. When you’re writing and things get rough, try to get quiet. Tell the doubts to shut the fuck up. Ain’t no one got time for doubts and fears. Cuss and swear and scream and throw things if that helps, and then get quiet. Sit. Focus. Stop trying to force words, and listen. Somewhere in the back of your mind, there’s a little green sprout saying “Do this thing. This is the thing to do. Trust me.”

Trust the broccoli.

(if you hate broccoli, feel free to think of that little voice as something else. Muse. Subconscious. Tiny person standing in your brain cavity shouting at you. Whatever form it takes, let it exist and listen to it.)