Beta reading. A story’s first step into the big wide world and onwards on its journey to publication. This post is for authors who are thinking about letting their precious work fly free into the world for the first time, and for the readers who have been asked to beta read. I’ve decided to aim this post at both audiences because my experience as a beta reader, and a writer who has had their work beta read, leads me to believe that the two are so intertwined that it’s good to get both perspectives, whichever side of the fence you sit on.
Finding or becoming a beta reader
Beta reading is a relatively informal activity, unlike the editors who will dissect and reconstruct a book with professional precision, a beta read will focus on the big picture. The ideal beta read is like a pulse check for the author to work out if their story has life yet. If writing a novel was like Michelangelo sculpting David from a block of marble, then the author’s first unedited final draft would be the roughly humanoid shape chipped out of the cuboid and the beta reader would be the sculpture enthusiast going, ‘Ok, looks kind of human! Might be better if he was taller though’. The Author should take the feedback and redraft with the suggestions they found useful.
This will give the author a fresh set of eyes for the big changes that need to be made to make it look like a story, and hence to maximise the cost benefit of the expensive editorial steps later.
Unlike an editor, the beta reader does not have to be skilled in the art of writing. In fact, sometimes it’s better if they’re not at all! To stretch my sculpting analogy, Michelangelo’s beta looker would just need to know what a human looks like, and similarly, the reader has to know what a good book feels like. If the beta reader chosen doesn’t enjoy reading (or more likely, doesn’t like reading the genre of the subject book) then the whole exercise will be a waste of everyone’s time.
So, writers, how do you find a beta reader? Again, this tends to be quite an informal process. Family or friends who you trust and who like your genre are a good first point of call. Otherwise, your best bet is to join either a writing group on Facebook or a writing circle. Meet-Up can be great for finding a community in your local area too. You can also turn to freelance beta readers in places like Fivver. Paying for a beta read does have advantages over volunteers, not least in that you’re guaranteed to get a result!
However you find your beta readers, make sure that you are returning the favour in kind. Yes, they might love reading but beta reading takes time and effort, and you should be under no illusions that your manuscript is perfect. So, buy your beta reader a cup of coffee, or send them a gift. If they’re a writer as well then offer to read their work when it’s ready, and at the very least acknowledge them in your book. This person has given you hours of their life – respect it.
And readers, how can you become a beta reader? The easiest way is to let any writers in your life know that you’d be happy to read their work. The majority of writers will bite your hand off at the offer. Otherwise, you could join a Facebook group. If you join a writing Facebook group, you’ll often find a pinned post dedicated to people looking for willing beta readers. If you want to make your beta reading professional, then it’s best if you build up a portfolio of satisfied customers first. People will pay for beta reading, but unlike editors, you won’t get away with charging thousands as the free options, or the choice just to jump straight to an editor, will become more advantageous.
Setting up a beta read
For the writers. Once you’ve identified a willing reader, you need to communicate what you want. There’re loads of resources online for the kind of constructive questions you could ask especially if you’re particularly worried about something, like the consistency of the clue path towards a mystery being solved, or maybe you just want an overview of how they felt about the story.
Sometimes you’ll have asked a beta reader for something specific, like a specialist reader who will do a sensitivity check on a particular character or an expert who will ensure that your story has some level of accuracy. In those cases, highlight what you want them to look at, like ‘follow Katy’s character’, or ‘chapters 10, 11 and 12 are in the science lab, can you make sure it’s realistic.
When it comes to handing over your manuscript, you may want to have some added levels of protection – especially if you don’t know the person. It is extremely rare for a beta reader to steal work and pass it off as their own, but it has been known to happen. So, using something like Google docs and limiting the ability to download or copy and paste is a tried and tested routine. Otherwise, send it in PDF with a watermark. In all cases, write the year and a copyright logo at the bottom of every page. This will give you the most basic level of legal protection (I’m not a lawyer though and you may want to validate that for your own country!).
After you’ve handed it over, it’s a waiting game. No matter how desperate you are to see the results, try to restrain yourself from nagging. Also asking very specific questions like ‘did you like the bit where Bob ate the pineapple?’ gets really annoying for the reader. Let them read at their own time and own pace. They won’t enjoy the story if they feel under pressure.
Accepting a beta read
This section is predominantly for the beta readers out there.
You’ve just agreed to be a beta reader. Yay! First up is expectation management. This is an agreement between you and the author. It protects everyone from the drama of disappointment. It’s so easy to want to try to please people, especially if you know them, and say things like ‘yes of course I’ll beta read your 150K word story that’s never seen the light of day’. But that is a good 10 hours of your life plus reporting time, without even knowing if you like the story.
So, for the sake of everyone’s sanity, here are my top tips for accepting a beta reading request whilst remaining a realist.
- Agree to read the first 5000 to 10000 words to see if you like the story first. Whether or not you decide to carry on with it, make sure you still write up a report when you stop reading. That way both your time and the author’s time have been worthwhile.
- Establish a realistic timeline for yourself. You know your life and how crazy it can get. Give yourself the gift of prioritisation. Make sure that you know when you’re going to read this story. Maybe you have a long commute so can dedicate an hour a day of reading whilst you’re on the train, maybe you have some dead time that you’d usually spend reading whilst your kids are at ballet. Whatever you do, make sure your timing expectations are realistic and that the author understands that.
- The get out of jail free card. You are completely within your rights to not finish a book, and in fact you not being able to finish the story is as useful to the author too. Make sure that the author understands this, don’t just keep saying ‘yeah I will finish it…’ and then ghost them. Again, even if you don’t finish it, make sure that you write up a report.
- Can you be empathetic? A beta reader is usually the first set of eyes on a story. The author has laboured for months over this manuscript. Neither of you should be under any illusions that the writing is perfect, but that doesn’t mean you can tear it to shreds for the sake of it. You need to be able to give constructive feedback as a reader to help the author improve. It’s hard, especially when you’re also a writer as well, to separate your own ego from their writing. Sometimes you just want to scream and rewrite the entire piece, but you can’t do that. If the writing is terrible, offer constructive criticism, refer to point 3, DNF and move on.
- Ask yourself, is it worth it? You, as a beta reader, should at the very least be getting good entertainment in exchange for your time. But Beta reading does take a more focussed level of energy than normal reading, and it requires a report at the end. This can even be quite emotional. Constructive criticism is a difficult conversation and not all authors are ready to hear it. One of the best ways in which beta reading works is when you’re reading each other’s writing. This builds trust and confidence in each other’s opinions. If you’re not a writer and you’re doing this as a favour to someone, make sure that they respect you and your time, whether that be doing you a favour, or just being a good friend. Alternatively, charge for the service you are providing through actual money or compensation in kind.
Beta reading can be a really positive experience. Some of my favourite stories have been beta reads and I have the kind of analytical mind that thrives off of the book report (hence all my book reviews!). Volunteering is one of the few things known to boost your happiness levels and there is something epic about being a part of the development of a book – especially if you’re lucky enough to see it on the shelf one day! It’s also a great way to deepen a bond of friendship or make new friends. If you are a writer too, it is also an immensely powerful self-development tool. But you need to establish expectations first.
Doing a beta read report
In my experience, you’ll find that different stories lend themselves to different kinds of reporting. The type that you choose to do will often depend on the level of maturity of the manuscript and what the author wants.
You may have been employed as a beta reader for a very specific reason. A sensitivity beta reader, for example, will be required to give a report on fair representation and accuracy. For example, if a character is wheelchair-bound then a sensitivity beta reader who is also wheelchair-bound will make sure that the character is true to reality and doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes. Alternatively, you might be an avatar beta reader, in that you simply represent the author’s target audience, and they want to understand if they’ve hit the mark.
With that in mind, here are some reporting options which can be applied to any beta reader type:
- Comments and track changes – this is good for a relatively mature manuscript where the author wants a fly on the wall view of what a reader’s thought processes are as they read. This method generally doesn’t require a detailed summary report at the end, you’ve done most of the hard work in the commentary. Maybe just a paragraph to sum it all up and to tell the author how you felt about the story overall.
- Book report style – this is good for either immature manuscripts where the problems are so huge that you can’t read beyond them, or really mature manuscripts where there is no useful commentary left to be made at a sentence level.
- Author specific reports – an author may give you a set of questions to answer or a worksheet to fill in. If this is what they’ve asked for then do exactly that. If you can’t answer a question then say so, that’s also valuable feedback – remember it’s not a test of you, it’s all about the book!
Whichever style you choose, the aims of your beta read and the messages in your review should be fairly consistent:
- Did the story, and the writing style, make you want to keep reading?
- Could you engage with the characters and the plot?
- Was it a good story FOR YOU? Why or why not?
- Were there any major inconsistencies or plot holes?
- What genre, sub-genre, and comparison titles would you say represent this story?
Whatever you write and how you choose to write it there is only one golden rule – Don’t make the criticism a personal attack. Make it about the book and if something in the story really offends you, DNF and cite that as the reason, in all likelihood the author didn’t mean to be offensive or if it was a trigger (like a rape scene or violence) then the author will know to put in a trigger warning.
Receiving a beta report
Writers, this one is for you. When you get a beta reader report back, accept that they’re going to tell you things you don’t want to hear, and if they say that the manuscript is perfect, they’re probably lying. Remember this is the first time anyone has seen your story, it hasn’t even been to the editors yet, so you weren’t expecting perfection!
But all the criticism you are about to read is about the book, not you – even if the beta reader has slipped up and made it sound personal. Also, remember that ultimately you are in control. If you don’t like their criticism, or if you think they are wrong, then dismiss it.
Try to emotionally separate yourself from the comments and the manuscript. This work of art isn’t your baby, you don’t need to coddle it. It’s your underperforming employee, and it is on a development and improvement plan to make it pull its socks up.
This is an important point on your journey and if you need to put the manuscript to one side and get some breathing space, that’s fine too.
Phew, that was a long post! But as someone who’s been in this world for a while, I wanted to share some important lessons that I have learned along the way and help you both get the best experience you can. One of my first beta reads was a story that my cousin wrote and quite frankly I’m amazed she’s still talking to me! But so long as you both reader and author go into a beta read arrangement with good intentions, established expectations, and empathy then you can’t go far wrong.
Stick a pin in it