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.
Really interesting essay, Annabeth. I’ve only beta read once, and found it somewhat challenging on what to express to the author. (Is this too much opinion? etc.)
For you, what have been some of the most challenging things when you have served as a beta reader for others?
Great post, Annabeth! Beta readers and beta reading are near and dear to my heart too. I would never submit a manuscript to a publisher before several good beta readers have gone over it.
On my website, I also give advice for beta readers and authors.
Beta reading is a special skill–good beta readers can take their emotional reaction and analyze it, so they can tell you only if something doesn’t work but also why. After writing a story possibly for months, the author is too close to it to be objective. Often times I have suspicions about parts but not sure till my beta reader comments on them too.
I have three fantastic betas that review my work and all of them have different styles of beta reading and I find all of them very useful as a writer and consider myself lucky to have such a varied “first audience” for my work. Most of the things you suggested doing as a writer I am already doing. Before we even got started with our arrangement I sent each of them an email clearly stating what type of feedback I was looking for, what type of turnaround I was looking for and what genres I wrote in so that there was no deception or confusion there. A few people who had initially been interested walked away at that first email and I thought it was a great way to “thin the herd” of responses I got to find the right set of betas for me. I’m also a big fan of sending specific questions. I have a template saved on my computer with very general questions that should be answered about every story like “was any part boring or drag?” or “did you dislike any of the characters? Why?” that kind of thing. Then I add any specific to this manuscript questions I have to the end and ask them to answer all of them. I also encourage any additional comments on specific scenes that aren’t addressed by the questions.
I have one beta that simply answers my questions, but gives very thorough and very thoughtful responses. I have one beta that answers the questions and then gives me lots of other general impressions about the story. And then I have one beta that only gives me one or two word answers to my questions, but comments every so often throughout the manuscript to let me know what she’s thinking as a reader and what questions she’s asking herself. Honestly I LOVE all three approaches and find them all incredibly useful for making changes and edits.
Thank you for such an informative post. I think readers and writers alike have much to learn from it.
What a fantastic summary of the work entailed in beta reading!
A concept I remind myself when I read for friends is that I need to put extra effort into not making their story into my story. It’s all about supporting them and their vision. This explanation of how to convey why a character is unlikeable, by specific example, is right on the money.
One thing I’ve seen recommended (not here) is that early readers should make suggestions of how to fix problems, and I always think that’s bound to fail. Because the story is a product of the author’s mind, if you tell them something is coming off in a way they didn’t intend, THEY are the ones who will generate the fix in a way that’s consistent with the entire storyverse. If ever I need to make an example, I go as general as I can so as not to overwrite the author’s story or suggest anything too specific.
In particular, overwriting an author’s wording can be super demoralizing to the author. I seldom comment on line edit type things anyway unless I see something that I worry a copy editor might gloss over and it looks really wrong. I’m more likely to say, “Sentence needs a subject” than rewrite the sentence myself. Let the author figure out how they want to tweak it, or even if they’re okay with that.
I try to balance my negative comments with commentary on what works for me. It’s not just ego-stroking. I had one friend say he was considering cutting something that I thought was a strength of his story.
I have the BEST Beta team. Tara is amazing and has done such a wonderful job with overall story reads and light editing plus plot stuff. Emma is my typo/grammar Nazi which is super valuable and RL gives amazing character development feedback and finds story line holes! My girls seriously rock my world!
I do tons of beta reading and I have been fortunate enough to work with authors who really want too hear what I think and are open to hearing feedback.. I am always honest and start with the good, then talk about the things that didn’t work for me and then end with good. I love being part of the process. 🙂
I currently beta read for 3 authors. I have a certain way of doing things and luckily for me they don’t mind. 🙂 I cannot read a book without editing (this is my fault 20+ years of work experience). So even if it’s a published book I find myself editing. It can be a curse sometimes LOL.
I like to work in a Word doc. Something where we can track changes. I work with some authors who don’t have an editor. I also leave feedback and suggestions in comment boxes. If I like something, I tell you. If I don’t, I tell you. But whether I like it or don’t like it, I tell you why. I also like to leave remarks on things that I think work or don’t work with characters, scenes, plots, etc…I feel that it’s important for an author, any author, to know what I’m thinking. Because if I’m thinking it, then so is the reader. It may just be one reader or it may be 100. It doesn’t matter in my opinion. With that said, I’m not the author, and I don’t expect the author to change anything I’ve recommended. It’s their work and I’m just here to lend a helping hand. In the end I hope to be proud of the work put forth and I hope the author is too.
I’ve had some really good feedback as well. I have one author who takes my questions or comments and explains in great detail her process. Sometimes I change my mind and sometimes she does. We work very well together and no feelings ever get hurt. The same is true for the other authors I work with. They are very open-minded and appreciative.
The key is to have respect for the work and the author and hopefully vice versa. Be honest and above all else do not criticize to be hurtful. My hope is to see these authors succeed and grow.
Thanks for so many great replies! I really think of beta reading for me as the part where a book really becomes something special–it’s an absolutely essential part of the process.
I think the most important thing is trust. If you trust your beta reader, then you can discuss wide sweeping changes or simply gut check a particular scene. I also think it’s important to have multiple readers if possible. I had to cut & rewrite a ton with a recent project and it was helpful when both of my early beta readers agreed with a proposed cut–it gave me the courage to cut a 10k+ section.
I’m so glad many of you have great beta readers and critique partners!
That’s a great breakdown of the job of a beta reader. It’s important for authors to find betas who won’t just pat them on the back. I know sometimes the story I think I put down isn’t what the reader sees so I need my beta to tell me when I left out parts of the plot. Either that or my audience need to be better mind readers. LOL!
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I would say that just as authors have styles, beta readers have styles too (Adrienne touched on this as well). I am all for the author asking for what they want from me, but I know from experience that what I am going to give back will have a ton of comments – places I was confused, things that bothered me, where I laughed, where I feel the tension building up, when I thought an action was out of character, etc. I could go back at the end and take most of the comments out, but that would feel like a huge waste of time and make the process a lot less fun and interesting for me. An author who just wants an overview of how the beta reader felt about the story probably should not ask me to beta for them!
Can anyone give advice on where they found their wonderful beta readers or crit partners? I’m still looking for one. I would love to find one and I’m more than happy to read and critique in return. Your advice would be appreciated.