One of the things I’ve learned in the past year from working with editors and beta readers is how important a role these folks play in the creative success of any published product. Now there are good editors and bad editors, good beta readers and bad beta readers. I’ve been lucky with my editors so far but had a few beta readers who left things to be desired. (Actually my current crop are fantastic but took a while to find them.)
What you need to understand as a beta reader is that the author needs your focus and honesty to make a good book or story. In fact, without you, the story can’t be all it can be, so you’re actually participating in the creative process and can have huge influence over the final product. If it’s good–and even better because of your thoughtful attention–you can proudly brag about that, and I’m sure the author will credit you in the Acknowledgements as well.
So what does it take to be a good beta reader? Here’s Seven Tips:
1. Pay Attention. You need to read with focused care. Note everything that engenders a response in you. You don’t necessarily have to report them all in your notes, but pay attention, nonetheless, and analyze how that works as you assess the story. Because the author needs to know what works, what doesn’t, etc. This requires you to read with more effort and thought than you might be used to. So it may challenge you. But it will also enrich your reading life in later efforts by teaching you to look at things more deeply in ways you hadn’t imagined.
2. Ask Questions And Seek Answers. If you have unanswered questions or are confused, those are the first notes the author needs. Often we’re so wrapped up in our story with all its details, we don’t realize we’ve underexplained things or done so in a convoluted way. We desperately need you to point it out to us. And we’re thankful when you do. Sometimes what seems perfectly clear to us won’t be to you. This has happened many times editing my novel, and I’m always grateful for those chances to make it better.
3. If You Get Annoyed, Let Me Know. If I over explain or over foreshadow and ruin the surprise, I need to know. I need to know what bores or annoys you. You’re smart enough to realize when it was unintentional, so tell me, because I need to know.
4. Offer Me A Little Praise Too. I’m nervous and excited to put my work out into the world. I need to know the bad stuff, yes. But it’s also helpful to know what you liked. What made you laugh or smile? What surprised you in a good way? What made you want to shout and read it to someone else? Those things matter, and hey, the process is so long, I need the encouragement to keep going. Please let me know.
5. Don’t Be Afraid Of Hurting My Feelings. If I ask you to beta, I am giving you carte blanche to be honest. I need it to make my work all it can be. If I asked, you’re probably someone I trust or at least whose opinion I value enough to believe you can help. And although some of your notes may frustrate me, I won’t take it personally or hold it against you because I need your help. And in the long run, my writing will be better for it not just with this project, but every project to follow.
6. Take good notes. Either on the manuscript itself or via comments in Microsoft Word or on paper. Whatever the case note page and paragraph numbers and be as detailed as you can. The more you give the author, the more helpful your notes will be and the more impressed and grateful the author will be for your time and effort.
7. Check your political, religious and other opinions at the door. You should do this any time you read if you want to actually be informed by the experience. If you are only reading to reinforce existing opinions, your goal is not to grow. Being a beta reader is a challenge, growth is inherent for both you and the writer. It is liberating to set aside preconceived ideas and look at things in a new light, through someone else’s eyes. Reading it fairly doesn’t mean you have to agree or change your mind. But if you intend to help the author, you cannot operate under your own prejudices. Writers are human, our own biases do shape how we see the world and how we project it in our writing, no matter how hard we try to avoid it or how often some deny it. But it’s not your book. The beta reader’s responsibility is fair feedback, untouched by bias, to help the author make his or her book the best of theirs that it can be.
Well those are my seven. No list is perfect. But if you take my advice, you’ll have good success as a beta reader and probably get lots of chances to read stuff before anyone else. How cool is that?
For what it’s worth…