There is very little that is harder for a writer than letting someone else read their perceived masterpiece. The first person to typically look at a manuscript is a beta reader, or someone who reads it over with the intent of carving out plot holes and inconsistencies, among other big-picture issues.
Earlier this year, I offered my services as a beta reader in a Goodreads group, and have since beta read approximately 10 manuscripts, and multiple drafts of some. I’ve read everything from a memoir-style contemporary to a science fiction fairy tale retelling to an urban fantasy with a touch of mythology. If you’re interested in being a beta reader, take a look at my tips below before you get started.
- Make sure you have the time. Critical reading is more time consuming than regular reading. You’re really going deep into the world and looking for things that the writer might have missed. You’re taking notes, or maybe marking up the manuscript, pausing to think, go back, maybe search for certain references or details. Don’t leave a writer in the lurch. If you’re not going to be able to do it, or if you’re going to take longer than expected, make sure you let them know.
- Offer your services. I went onto the beta reading group on Goodreads, read the rules, perused some other posts, and then dove in. In my “Beta Reader Available” post, I was sure to specify what I was interested in reading (YA of any genre) and what the turn-around time might be. As I got more requests, I updated the post to indicate the extended potential wait time. If I do it again, I’ll make sure to specify a word count max. No more 150,000 word manuscripts for me! I also did not charge. I’m not a professional editor, just a reader looking to help out.
- Ask if there are any specific questions or concerns. Does the author want to know how you felt about a certain character or a certain plot point? I try to find out before beginning so that I can make sure to focus on that when I’m reading.
- Read in the format that works for you. You can read it on the computer screen, export it to your e-reader, or print it out and read it on paper. I did the latter, printing every manuscript out so that I could mark it up and take notes. It took longer, because sometimes I would find myself re-writing sentences that I didn’t like grammatically, but it was worth it for the ability to look back and input information into my final letter.
- Prepare your critique letter. I start with compliments. Then I move on to the big picture items – characters, world building, plot, pacing. What worked and what didn’t work? What made sense and what was confusing? Were there any major issues? Make sure you answer any questions the writer had for you at the beginning. Then I look back at my notes and do a chapter-by-chapter critique in the letter. This may be where my style differs from a lot of beta readers, but it helps me to get my point across and pull out specific examples of the more general critiques from earlier in the letter. Then I end with encouragements and more compliments.
It’s not an easy thing to have an open dialogue with someone else about something they’ve worked so hard on, but I always stress that everything is said with good intentions, that I want them to be successful, and that my opinion is just that – my opinion. Everyone has one. And when they email me back with questions, I answer. I never had anyone respond poorly, and my experience beta reading has been nothing but positive. It’s also connected me to other writers that I still keep in touch with and who have offered to respond in kind, beta reading for me when I need it.
What has your experience been as a beta reader or with beta readers? Let me know in the comments below.