Who wouldn’t love a chance to read new books from a favorite author before they come out? Most people would jump at such a chance; however, the reality is that beta reading is much more intense and time consuming than regular reading. Over the last three years, I’ve been fortunate enough to beta read/critique for multiple authors, and I have had wonderful readers and writers serve as beta readers for me.
Whether you are already a beta reader or critique partner for an author, would like to be, or are just curious about the process, I have tips to make your beta reading experience more pleasurable and productive.
What is a Beta Reader?
First, the terms “beta reader,” “first-reader,” “critique partner ,” and “CP” are sometimes use interchangeably. The main difference is that critique partners usually trade off reading each other’s manuscripts while a beta reader or first reader usually reads without the expectation of reciprocation—indeed, many beta readers and first readers are not themselves writers. They are simply avid readers who have volunteered to help a writer advance his or her craft.
A beta reader usually reads an early draft of a book before it is submitted to editors or agents or formatted for publication. A beta reader or critique partner is not a substitute for an editor or proofreader—although many are very good at finding errors and typos, it’s not their primary job. Also, a beta reader is different from a reviewer—the ARC (advanced reader copy) that a reviewer gets is a final draft. While early reviews are awesome, feedback to the writer on an ARC usually isn’t helpful because often the writer is not in a position to make last minute changes. A beta reader reads during the early part of the editing cycle while the writer still has ample time to tinker with the story.
If you have been asked to do a beta read for an author, the first step is to communicate before you start reading. Make sure that you have discussed:
- Timetable for the read. Ask the author for a deadline. Unexpected events and emergencies happen, but it is always good form to let the writer know if you won’t be able to make the deadline you discussed. As a writer, if you have a deadline for submittal, it is helpful to communicate that to your reader.
- Genre and target audience. While not essential, it is very helpful to be widely read in the genre you are beta reading. If you are not familiar with the particular subgenre, you might spent a few minutes browsing the best-sellers in that genre so you can get a feel for what is selling and what is common in that genre. The more familiar you are with the genre, the more easily you can discuss how readers may react to the book.
- What sort of feedback the author is seeking. Some writers simply want a very top-level, general impression of the book, while others may want more specific feedback. As a writer, it can be very helpful to give your beta readers a list of questions or concerns. Further, it can be helpful to communicate what is not a concern—i.e. some writers already know what things they won’t be changing and that can be helpful information for the beta to know.
- What format feedback should take. For writers looking for general feedback, an email may be sufficient to provide impressions of the book and answer any questions the writer has. Other writers may prefer Word’s track changes & comment box features. Other possibilities include feedback via mobile device app (like iPad’s or Quick Docs for Android), Google documents, or using skype/messenger to discuss the book. If you plan to read the book on your e-reader or mobile device or lack Microsoft word, tell the writer so that she or he can get you an appropriate format.
When you are ready to give feedback, keep in mind:
- Always open with what you liked about a book or what you think the author did well. It doesn’t matter how many books someone has written, hearing what’s working is always nice and it makes any critique go down easier. If you are doing comment boxes, drop an occasional comment on something that really works well.
- Conversely, don’t ONLY focus on the positive. Remember, the point of a beta reader is to help the author make this the best book possible. Think about what it would take for this to be a keeper shelf book for you. What things could improve to make this a surefire keeper? Don’t be afraid to toss out some suggestions.
- Don’t rewrite. If you are using MS Word, feel free to point out misspellings and grammar mistakes if that is something the author wants. But don’t rewrite entire sentences or passages. Some authors may prefer you to not touch grammar or typos at all and just focus on the story as a whole.
- Focus on what is fixable. For example, if you would love the story more if it were not set in France, that sort of change is probably not going to happen. But if you would love the story more if only you could understand why they were in France, that sort of change is totally feasible.
- Be specific. Instead of talking in generics like “This character isn’t likable,” try to be specific about what isn’t working for you. “Rudolph isn’t likeable because he never tries to stand up for himself.”
- Be flexible. Keep in mind that even if the author doesn’t take all of your suggestions, you have still done an awesome job by giving him or her a lot to think about. A writer may go his or her own route to fix the problem or may decide to leave things as they are. Don’t take it personally—your feedback is always valuable!
In the comments, tell me about your experiences with beta readers. If you are a writer, what do your beta readers do that you love? If you are a beta reader or critique partner, what helps you the most to give good feedback?
Annabeth Albert grew up sneaking romance novels under the bed covers. Now, she devours all subgenres of romance out in the open—no flashlights required! When she’s not adding to her keeper shelf, she’s a multi-published Pacific Northwest romance writer. Please join her on Twitter, Facebook, and her website to learn what she’s working on and to join the pursuit of the perfect date-night movie, self-knitting yarn, and guilt-free chocolate.