Beta Reading Part 2: Being a Better Beta Reader
How to be the Best Beta Reader You Can Be
In my post last week, on the beta reader phenomenon from the point of view of the author. Now we’re doing it from the reader’s perspective.
My first suggestion is to stick with what you know. Ideally, you wouldn’t want to do a piece that you wouldn’t normally read, unless you are particularly vested in the writer or want to broaden your horizons. If you don’t like well written, edited, published novels in that genre, then I doubt you’re really going to enjoy the raw form of the manuscript which is not as well written.
What to Look for in a Manuscript
Character: are the characters well-written? Are they complex? Are they necessary?
Start with the main character. If they are problematic, etc then this is absolutely important. The first question is if you like the main character, especially if they are made to be likeable.
For backup characters, especially women in a male-MC novel, (though important for all characters) consider checking if these characters have arcs and development of their own. Maybe look at something like the Bechdel test, or the “woman in the refrigerator trope.”
Also for the love interest, here are some questions to consider. Do you ship the relationship? Is the relationship healthy? Are the characters matched well?
Plot: obviously, this is something that will change from book to book, and genre to genre, but I’ll offer my opinions as a fantasy beta reader. What is it that the character wants, and could it have been solved earlier? Honestly, the best service you could do for plot is checking if there was a plot hole. How could this matter have been resolved easily? If it’s a romance issue between some characters, could the problem have been resolved by clear communication? If so, what prevented them from doing so?
Setting: My focus is mainly worldbuilding, and how that could be believable. Worldbuilding is something I’d love to get into a lot more, which I might do in later times. But great settings can strengthen the plot, and it is something to consider.
Even the most polite author doesn’t like criticism, so the best thing you can do is offer your opinion. Because at its core, that’s what a beta reader is. Sure, a lot of us are writers and authors, but we aren’t the ones writing the book.
So when giving it, I recommend using “I statements.” It’s like trying to work out relationship problems. Blame is not the solution, as your partner could get defensive. For example, say you’ve spotted an egregious issue with the main character, and he seems really rude to his so-called friends, but it never was addressed. Sure, you could say “your MC is pretty rude, I don’t like him.” Or, you could say something like “I struggled with the relationship your MC has with his friends, and I related to him less because of it.”
Realistically, if you have done your best to present your thoughts and suggestions in a constructive and helpful way, and the writer gets defensive, then you’ve done all you can. Thank you for your service!
When to Walk Away
It’s never particularly fun, but sometimes you just can’t continue with the piece. There could be many reasons. Sometimes the spelling and grammar is atrocious, and you just can’t work through with it. The responsibility lies on the owner to ensure they have a manuscript that has gone through at least one round of editing.
Life also gets busy, beta reading can be a time-consuming and draining task. And sometimes you need to focus on real life at the expense of the beta read.
Losing a beta reader is always a blow to a writer. However, though you can drop the manuscript if you absolutely need to. If you do, and you are currently doing a swap with the author, then they are also under no obligation to finish your read either, so please don’t expect them to.
The most important thing when quitting a beta read is to tell the author. Losing a beta reader sucks, but being ghosted by a beta reader is even worse. So please don’t do that.
My Beta Reading Process
I usually request to read in Word Document, but I can completely understand if writers are wary of intellectual property theft, and Word is definitely less secure. If they are worried about that, then PDF non-editable works pretty well. I do my suggestions in comments and turn on track changes to maybe do some more grammar suggestions if need be. I leave reactions and thoughts as I go through the manuscript.
Finally, at the end I try to do a 1-page summary of my thoughts, covering Characters, Plot, Setting/Worldbuilding, Style/Craft, and Magic System (if required). I direct writers to read this first, then they can see my reactions in the comments of the manuscript.
Hope you got something out of this! If you want to see more of this, hit Log In at the bottom to subscribe and stay up-to-date with my content! As always, if you want to chat writing or anything at all, you can tweet me at @sr_thiele. Bye!