I’ve been doing a lot of beta reading this year.
Okay, yeah, I’ve been doing more beta reading this year than ever before, and I’ve learned a lot. I have writer friends now whose work I’m eager and happy to read. Plus, I’ve had more finished projects of my own this year, so I’ve needed more beta readers of my own—and hunting for reliable readers for your work is always a worthy challenge.
There’s more to beta reading than just reading. If you really want to help the author, you need to keep a few things in mind. And authors, if you want to get good critique partners and beta readers, you should help them to help you.
1. Know what kind of feedback the writer wants/needs. If this is draft two of five, line editing isn’t going to help that much. On the other hand, if they’re about to submit this work to a publisher, a suggestion for a huge plot change might cause a meltdown of epic proportions. I’m not telling you not to be honest here: by all means, mention the flaw in the plot if you find one. If you find only one typo in the whole work, be sure to flag it. But I’m telling you not to waste their time or yours by searching for edits they don’t need and won’t incorporate.
2. Read quickly. If it takes you six month to read someone’s work, you’re not helping them. (Unless they say that’s fine.) Plus, if you read that slowly, you’re going to forget details of character and plot, and you’re not going to be able to offer thorough feedback.
3. Read with the author’s voice in mind. It may be tempting to make changes to word choice, imagery, or other stylistic aspects, but that’s not really your job. Unless such an element hits appallingly far from the mark, resist the urge to make suggestions about voice. This is the author’s baby, not yours, and what you think is clever they might fine lame.
4. Read like an editor, but keep a more general audience in mind. Your typical reader of a novel pays attention to four big things: character, motivation, plot, and pace. They want to like the protagonist and her friends, fall in love with her boyfriend, and hate her boss. They want to understand why the protagonist makes the decisions she does, why the antagonist works so hard to thwart her, and root for the choices the protagonist makes. They want an exciting, surprising (but still believable) plot, and they want it to unfold at a pace that keeps them turning pages. Part of your job is to help the writer make all these things happen for their readers.
5. Be honest, but gentle. If the book sucks, don’t say, “YOUR BOOK SUCKS!” That’s like bitch-slapping a puppy. Writers are vulnerable. Be nice. Say what didn’t work for you, and why. Give suggestions for improvement. The flip side of this hot potato (yep, mixing metaphors on purpose!) is that you can’t help an author if you’re not honest, and sometimes that requires a little brutality. If something doesn’t work, they need to know so they can fix it. Just remember to be kind and helpful in your brutality. Like a dentist.
6. Explain your reasoning. Do this for both negative comments and positive. Authors need to know what works as much as they need to know what doesn’t, and telling them why you liked the parts of their book you liked will help them see what is good in their work. Likewise, explaining why things don’t work will help them improve. Plus, you seem like a jerk if you don’t explain. And no one wants to be a jerk.
7. Remember that subjective taste plays a huge role in this business. The character you hate may be some other reader’s dreamboat. This is part of why you need to explain your reasoning—it will help the author sift through feedback and determine what changes she actually needs to make, and how. Ask yourself how much your suggestions hinge on your personal taste, and alter them accordingly.
8. Don’t take it all so personally! This goes for both readers and writers. Readers, this work is the author’s baby, and there’s no way they’re going to perform every piece of plastic surgery on it that you suggest. Their ideal here is more important than yours. And writers, remember that your betas (generally!) are here to help, not to sabotage you. These criticisms aren’t actually insulting the fruit of your loins: they’re critiquing, as a potential consumer, a piece of commercial work. Your work will be better for your readers’ help.
HUGS AND PUPPIES FOR ALL! Critique partners, generally, are friendish (not to be confused with fiendish) sort of folks. Do your work, then have a laugh and get a beer. These relationships are important. You’ll move on to another piece of work, and a good CP will be there to read that one, too.