beta reading - how to be a beta reader

Beta reading 101: How to be a (better) beta reader

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Table of Contents

Earlier this week, I talked about working with beta readers from an author’s perspective. In this post, I’d like to explore the beta reader’s side of the relationship and give you some ideas on how to be a (better) beta reader.

Being a beta reader can be a wonderful way to give back to the community and help out an author while having a chance to read a book for free and before it’s published.

If you’re an avid reader and have been thinking about offering your help as a beta reader or you’ve been beta reading for a while and would like to make sure you’re providing the most valuable feedback possible, check out these do’s and don’ts of beta reading.

I listed these tips in chronological order, starting with advice on how to make sure you pick the right story to beta read.

Only beta read books in a genre you love

Every genre has its own conventions, so if you’re a thriller reader and give feedback on a romance novel, your suggestions might not be very helpful. The same is true if it’s an age-gap romance, and that’s a trope you passionately hate.

Don’t volunteer to beta read a story unless you’re an avid reader of its genre and generally like its trope or theme. Ideally, it should be a book that you would have considered buying. Before you make a commitment to beta read, ask the author about a description of the story so you can decide if it’s something you’d like to read.

Be honest about how much experience you have

Let the author know how much experience as a beta reader you have. If you have beta read for other authors, you could ask these authors if you could give their names as a reference.

Understand what kind of feedback the author is looking for

Different authors look for different things, so if the person you’re beta reading for hasn’t explicitly stated it, ask them what kind of feedback they are looking for. Do they want you to focus only on big-picture things such as characters and plot? Or do they want you to point out typos, grammar mistakes, and awkward sentences too?

If they asked only for feedback on the macro level, don’t send them a list of spelling mistake. That might not be helpful to the author at that stage of the revision process. If you’re not sure, ask before you start beta reading.

Find out what medium of feedback the author prefers

Before you start beta reading, it’s essential to find out what type of communication the author prefers and how you’re supposed to mark your suggested changes. Are they working in Microsoft Word, Google docs, or some other software? Do you need to be familiar with the “track changes” and comments feature to leave suggestions and observations in the manuscript? Will there be a questionnaire with questions for you to answer, helping to guide your feedback?

You should also ask whether you’ll be receiving the entire manuscript or will work with the author chapter-by-chapter, beta reading each one as soon as the author finishes writing it.

Meet deadlines

Be aware that beta reading is a time commitment. It will take longer than just reading for pleasure, and that’s something to keep in mind because sending feedback in a timely manner is important.

All authors have deadlines to meet. If they miss a deadline, that might mean their publisher will postpone the publication of the book by months or even a year, which severely affects the ability of the author to make a living or pay their bills. Even indie authors have to meet deadlines because they need to book editors and proofreaders.

So if the author you beta read for gives you a deadline, it’s important for you to send back the manuscript within that timeframe. If the author doesn’t mention a deadline, ask what their preferred turnaround time is. If you’re not sure you can meet the deadline, communicate that honestly and, if necessary, don’t take on the project.

Should something come up that delays your feedback, let the author know as soon as possible.

Don’t expect a polished book

If you’re beta reading for the first time, you only have the experience of reading a published book to compare it to. But please be aware that what the author will send you is a work-in-progress, not the final, polished version of the book that will later be published.

Some authors might send you a very clean manuscript, while others focus on getting the story down first. Depending on the author and the stage of the revision process the manuscript is in, it might have a lot of typos when you get it, or the descriptions might be sparser than you’re used to, etc.

This goes back to my previous advice about knowing what feedback is helpful at this stage and what you can safely ignore.

Be specific

Avoid absolutes and general statements. Just saying “I liked the story” isn’t very helpful, and neither is “I hated the main character.” Instead, be as specific as you can and try to figure out the reason for your reaction, e.g., “I couldn’t connect with the main characters in the first few chapters because I didn’t understand why she would keep working for such a harsh boss.”

Be honest but kind

You have probably heard the expression “being brutally honest,” and frankly, I’m not a fan of that practice when it comes to beta reading. Of course, honesty is one of the pillars of a good beta reader/writer relationship, but you can be honest without being brutal.

Please be aware that many authors struggle with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. Many suffer from imposter syndrome, even authors with several books under their belt. The last thing you want to do is to undermine an author’s trust in their writing skills and make them give up writing forever. I’ve seen that happen more than once, and you don’t want to be that kind of toxic beta reader.

That doesn’t mean you have to sugar-coat things. Be clear but respectful and constructive in your feedback. For example, instead of saying “The first chapter was boring as hell,” you could say “I found myself skipping some of the first chapter.”

You want to leave the author with the feeling “yes, there’s a lot of stuff to fix, but I can do this,” rather than “it’s hopeless.”

Point out what works too

Instead of flooding the author with criticism and negative comments, give balanced feedback.

Point out not only what isn’t working but also what is. It can be very demotivating to read comment after comment, each one pointing out mistakes and things that need to be fixed. Especially new writers might get overwhelmed and assume they have no talent for writing at all.

A little bit of praise really helps to reassure the author you didn’t hate their story. If a line of dialogue made you laugh, tell the author. If a heartfelt moment between the characters made you go “awww,” comment on it.

The other reason why pointing out what you liked is so important is to ensure the author doesn’t accidentally change your favorite things about the story because they assume they weren’t working.

Make suggestions, not demands

Avoid phrasing your feedback as demands such as “You have to,” “You should,” or “I need you to…” It’s not a beta reader’s job to tell the author what to do. Instead, phrase your feedback as suggestions, e.g., “You might want to consider,” “I wonder if…,” or “Have you thought about…?”

Then let the author decide whether they agree with your opinion and want to take your advice or not, depending on whether it fits their vision of the story. Which brings us to the next point.

Respect the author’s vision

Beta reading isn’t about turning the book into exactly the kind of story you prefer; it’s about helping the author make the best out of the story they want to tell. For example, if you prefer steamy romances but the author prefers to write fade-to-black love scenes (or the other way around), please respect that and don’t try to impose your own personal tastes onto the story.

If you’re a writer too, avoid telling the author how you would have written it.

Share your emotional reactions as you read

One of the most important things you can do for an author as a beta reader is to show them what reading their book is like from a reader’s perspective. What made you laugh? What made you cry? What made you scratch your head? What were the “aww” moments that touched you deeply? Where did you get bored?

Make sure you share your emotional reactions as you read so authors know if a scene evoked the emotions they were going for.

Be careful with humorous or teasing comments

If you’re working with an author for the first time, exercise caution when using humor. Written communication lacks the opportunity to observe facial expressions, body language, and tone, so teasing comments can easily be mistaken for making fun of the book or its author.

Before you introduce humorous or teasing comments into your interaction, develop a good rapport and get a feel for an author’s personality, confidence level, and sense of humor first.

Don’t expect the author to follow all your advice

Authors might not agree with 100% of your suggestions, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean they don’t value you as a beta reader. Please don’t take it personally, and don’t badger the author about the same perceived issue repeatedly. Point it out once, but if the author clearly doesn’t agree, let it go.

See the point about respecting an author’s vision.

Maintain confidentiality

If an author sends you their unpublished, unedited manuscript, that shows a profound level of trust in you. Please prove yourself worthy of that trust by not sharing the manuscript, excerpts of it, or your discussions with anyone else.

In particular, you shouldn’t discuss the manuscript’s weaknesses with anyone but the author. Authors are entrusting you with their manuscript before publication, when it’s still a work-in-progress. You are not a reviewer publicly pointing out flaws in a published book.

Of course, if you honestly loved the book, feel free to help promote it once it’s out and shout it from the rooftops how great it is.

Questions or comments?

If you have any comments or questions about becoming a (better) beta reader, please let me know in the comments!

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