Right now I’m beta reading a book for one of the other authors in my critique group. I’ve paused all my other usual reading so I can focus fully on this.
Beta reading, for those not familiar with the term, is when an author asks you to read their book before it sees publication. Some authors do it before getting an agent, some before seeking a traditional publisher, some before self-publishing. A beta-reader is a tester of a novel. They read the book and hopefully give feedback on strengths and weaknesses in the text.
Beta readers can be as simple as your mum, or a friend who likes the genre you write in, or they could be someone more critical, like another writer or critique partner.
If you’ve been asked to beta read by a writer in your life feel good about it – that person has just told you that your opinion matters to them. Your feedback can shape the book.
As Uncle Ben said, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Now you’re a beta reader you aren’t just reading for the sheer joy of it (though hopefully you’ll still enjoy it), you’re reading to help your writer friend. They need you to tell them if a character is behaving inconsistently, or if they changed the timeline, or if they generally just confused the heck out of you.
Now don’t crush your author buddy either. They want to know what didn’t work, but they also LOVE to hear what did. If you fell in 2D love with one of the characters, fess up – as long as you don’t go too crazy fan-girl(or boy) over it then the author will feel chuffed that they created a character so realistic and likeable. If you couldn’t put the book down because it had you in a literary stranglehold they might be so happy to hear that they suffer a mild heart attack.
If you’re a beta reader it is a good idea to keep a notepad near-by (or if the writer said you could, write directly on the manuscript) so you can write down thoughts and comments immediately.
Some things you want to keep in mind are:
- Plot, both the pacing and whether the events are interesting and believable,
- Characterisation, are the characters interesting and consistent?
- Do you feel compelled to continue on?
If the author asked you to look at something specific definitely keep that in the forefront of your mind.
If you’re a writer yourself and asked to beta-read chances are your author friend is expecting a more thorough run-down from you than what they expect from their sister and mum. Feel free to ask them more questions, like ‘would you like me to look closely at adverb over-use?’ or ‘do you want me to keep an eye on your speech tags?’. They will let you know what they want and hopefully you can help them polish their work to a glorious shine that makes you so envious you spring back into working on your own novel.
The most important thing to do as a beta-reader is tell the truth. Yes you might hurt your writer’s feelings a bit by saying that their protagonist just acts like an idiot in that scene in the middle of the book, but if you thought that you need to say so. You will not be the only one to notice and question the problem and the last thing you want is for your writer to publish the story with that flaw and receive flak for it from all and sundry on the internet. You can soften the blow by sandwiching it between compliments, but give your honest opinion.
So if the writer in your life asks you to beta read be glad that this person considers you special enough to see and help with the uncut gemstone they’ve been toiling on for years.