Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Lessons from a Beta Reader

Everyone has a different Beta style
( Image Credit: onetwo )
I love betaing. First of all, it's just really exciting to see what all these fingers-crossed, soon-to-be published authors are up to ... to peek at the gardens of little baby books waiting to be picked. Sure, some of the books are a little on the green side, and some have perhaps gone a bit squashy and pungent. But with a little bit of help from their betas, they get ripe and shiny and are soon on their way to the agents' picnic baskets! I've only beta'd a handful of manuscripts, but already I've learned a lot of important lessons.

Things I've Learned While Betaing

What the heck is betaing?
There are many definitions out there, this one from FanFiction is quite common, and you can explore further discussions on AW. Simply put, beta reading means critiquing (or as some like to put it "critting") another author's yet-to-be published work, and providing the author with feedback. Sounds simple, but guess what ...

News Flash! Not everyone betas the same way! 
Amazing revelation huh? Well it's true, and its important to realize up front, especially if you or the person you're betaing for wants things done a certain way. After several betaing experiences, I learned some key things about the way I beta. I tend to focus on big picture issues, not grammar and punctuation, I am nit-picky about logic and science, and I am very, very picky about romantic subplots. Most romantic relationships will simply annoy me, and there's nothing worse than an annoyed beta reader in the middle of a manuscript. It's right up there with an annoyed elephant in a watermelon patch.
So after my betaing experiences, I've come up with a handy-dandy list of questions to ask myself and my beta partner before swapping (there is also a nice thread over at AW on what writers want from their beta-readers.).

So, How Do You Beta?

Style: Line-by-line edits, or summarized commentary? Or both?
Some people use Microsoft Word's' "Track Changes" and "Comments" features to do detailed line-by-line edits. Some simply email their general reactions at the end of each chapter. Others (like me) prefer a hybrid of the two.

Focus: What do you tend to hone in on when critiquing someone else's work? What do you feel comfortable commenting on? Plot? Characterization? Pacing? Voice? Punctuation? Spelling? Grammar/Sentence structure? The whole she-bang? Are you stronger or weaker in any of these areas? Do you have any pet-peeves?

Preferred Genres: Which genres do you prefer to read and critique? Adult? YA? Fiction? Non-fiction? Contemporary? Literary? Fantasy? Sci-Fi? Historical? Dystopian? Steampunk? Romance? Mystery? Horror? Religious? Are there genres don't want to read?

Timeframe: How long is your typical turn around time for a manuscript you're reading? Obviously this is approximate, but it will give your potential beta-swappee a general idea of whether you're talking a chapter a month, or three chapters a day.

Swap Process: How do you want people to contact you? Email? PM? How will you decide whether or not to continue with the beta-swap? Will you swap a writing sample first? What length?

Feedback Process: How do you want to receive feedback? In the text using MS Word's review features? Summarized in an email? How often do you want to receive feedback? One time - at the end of the manuscript? Often - at the end of each chapter?

Deadlines: If someone is reading your manuscript, and you are on a deadline to finish edits, tell them! Be very clear about this. I learned this the hard way when I was not aware that someone I was betaing for was on a deadline. They started sending harried emails wondering where their manuscript feedback was, meanwhile I was out of town, oblivious to their panic!

Expectations: What do you expect from those who read your manuscript? What type of beta do you want them to be? What do you want them to keep an eye out for? What do you expect from those you beta read for? A beta swap? A simple thank you?

Some of these things might seem obvious: "Well of course doesn't everybody do/want XYZ?" The answer is no, my friend. So take a few minutes and have yourself and your beta partner answer these questions. Pin down how you tend to beta and what you expect from your beta readers. Better yet, post your responses on your "Willing Beta Readers" profile on AW! If you haven't beta'd before, do it! It is a great experience, not only as a way to give back to the writing community but to learn about what makes  or breaks a manuscript. Try it!


  1. What a fantastic breakdown of the Beta-read! Effectively communicating expectations seems to be the best way to ensure a good Beta relationship. So far I've only had great experiences Beta-ing and having my work beta-ed. I always swap a chapter first to make sure my potential Beta partner and I are a good fit and talk about expectations/timelines before we agree to swap.

  2. I've never done it being new to all of this so your post gives me quite a bit to think about.

  3. I tend to be stronger in grammar and plot when beta reading. I almost always request to beta based off samples I read of the story that have been posted online. What I really hate is when someone *offers* to beta read for you and then immediately suggests that you beta for them too. It's one thing if I'm asking for a read. It's another if they're offering.

  4. I focus on:

    Pacing - does the author use appropriate pacing when and where needed?

    Tension - Is there conflict, whether physical or emotional? If this is lacking, I won't be able to finish it.

    Plot - Is it believable? If there are fantastical elements, does the author convince me that they are genuine? That means they have to hit some truth points to make me connect and agree to the possibilities.

    Great post! I'm glad I had an opportunity to reflect upon the way I critique.

  5. Thanks all for your thoughtful comments and insights!

    I completely agree A.K./Sage -- always extremely important to see a writing sample, and preferably an entire chapter before betaing a full. That way you have a better idea of what you're getting yourself into timewise and you get a sense for each others' feedback style!



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