I was delighted last week to have an opportunity to be a beta reader for a fairly successful author of middle-grade adventure books. In my opinion, this is one of the best parts of being a novelist – being asked to enter into other people’s worlds, make comments, identify things that can be done better, ask questions about their plot and world-building and characters (and hopefully get answers), and have those suggestions be listened to and used to make the story better.
Being a beta reader is an exchange: an author lets you into their world before it’s quite polished, before it’s set in stone and unchangeable, before Readers – that great nameless crowd of critics – is allowed to see what the author’s mind has created. As a beta reader, you are one of a few lucky ones chosen to be the first to read a new story, and more than that, one of the very few given permission to meddle with the words on the page. You are given permission to make suggestions for wording changes, character changes, even large future changes in plot development – with the guarantee that an author will actually listen to what you suggest. Wow.
In exchange for this honor, of course, a beta reader has some responsibilities. The beta reader is supposed to engage with the text. To note errors or clunky wording or situations that don’t make sense. To raise questions that the author may not have thought about – because other readers will, and it’s better for an author to know now (and prepare or fix things) than to find out later in negative Amazon reviews.
At least, this has always been my understanding. Until, that is, I received a glowing and surprised email from the author of said middle-grade adventure book in response to my comments. “I certainly didn’t mean for you to invest this much time and thought into the story,” it said. “I didn’t expect it, but I’m grateful.”
I was just as shocked as she was. It’s not like I wrote a novel in response to her novel. I just followed the steps for being a Good Beta Reader. (I think I learned these in college…if not, they should be taught there!)
- Specific notes. As you read, identify places where you stumble over wording choices. If you’re working in a Microsoft Word document, leave a comment. If not, use a “notes” document. Note the page/sentence, and state why it was confusing or suggest an alternate wording.
- Similarly, mark/note all typos that you find. These slip by even the best authors.
- If something seems odd, out of character, or brings you up sharply, note that too. Basically, you want to flag anything for the author that kept you from “living” the story as it’s being told.
- Write comments as you progress, noting things you like and things you would improve.
- General notes. After you’ve finished the story, think about a few good things overall from the book, and a question or two that lingers in your mind after you’ve finished. Authors want to know how their books impact readers – tell them! If you have concerns or questions about where the book/series is going, you should also include these.
- If you have more general notes on writing style, plot, character development, etc. after reading the book, include these as well.
Writing these notes doesn’t take very long if you’re making them as you go through the novel. The end result isn’t horribly lengthy either. I ended up making about a page and a half of general notes, questions, and fangirling about the book. (As a side note, this last term, if you’re unfamiliar, consists of putting on paper the things I really liked about the work and that I thought the author did a good job with – whether it’s good descriptions, excellent true-to-life characters, deep relationship portrayal, exciting action, or all of the above. I like doing this when I can in good faith. As an author, I know how powerful specific compliments can be. And as a reader, I like being able to acknowledge authors for the things they really are talented at!). In addition, I also noted about 15 instances (in an entire full-length novel, so pretty good!) in which I suggested that the author change wording, either because of typos or confusing structure.
It was fun for me, and part of the job of being a responsible beta reader.
So why was this author so surprised?
Whatever answer I give isn’t going to make writers as a whole look good. Do writers not know how to critique others’ work? They must, because as writers, they have to rewrite their own work – and noting mistakes and places of confusion in someone else’s is far easier. Do writers not want to take the time to critique others’ work? If so, it’s an abuse of the system: one should not agree to be a beta reader unless one is willing to give the author something in exchange for letting you read the book before everyone else. Are the criteria for being a good beta reader something other than what I was taught? This is, I think, closest to the truth – and if so, then the truth is a sad one.
If this is the truth, then I have not had a normal experience in my writing situation; I have had an absurdly blessed one. In college, I found two separate small groups of fantastic writer-friends who would give me significant, thoughtful beta-reading feedback on my works in progress, and I would do the same for theirs. I learned how to beta-read and critique along with them, and now, years after college, we’ve continued doing it for each other.
Just this past week, one of these friends pointed out that I should entirely remove one of the secondary characters from a short story I had written – he didn’t do anything to move the story forward, he wasn’t a strong character, and his removal would increase the story’s tension by a large amount. I would never have considered doing that on my own, but she was right. I revised the story, and it is significantly improved.
As an author, I treasure my beta-readers, and I take the beta-reading process seriously. Let me urge you to do the same. You don’t have to have a degree in English or even think that you have “the right answers” when you make comments on a story. Authors value your thoughts – because you’re a lover of words who hasn’t seen their story before. That fact alone makes your opinions uniquely valuable. Will you share those opinions with authors, while they still have a chance to take your insights into consideration? I hope you will.
Final question for authors: what has been your experience with beta-readers? Would you be surprised to receive feedback from a beta-reader that follows the steps listed above? Would you be frustrated if you DIDN’T receive feedback from a beta-reader that addressed all these points?
Final question for readers: How much feedback do you think is reasonable or normal for beta-readers to give to authors? Why?