Beta reading. You can’t go without it.
Actually, you can, but you probably shouldn’t. See, despite my talking about how writers need to be self-sufficient and self-reliant, beta readers can do a lot for us before we get to agent query. And if you want to be a beta, congratulations – you can help your writer friends a lot.
Okay, credentials time: I am not a pro. I’ve been a beta for friends and I’ve had them return the favour. I’ve beta-ed for strangers as well. I don’t have the secrets to the universe, but I’ve given criticism enough times at uni or online to know what might be a good idea and what wouldn’t. If you’re interested, keep on reading. There’s a section for betas and authors.
FIRSTLY, FOR BOTH
When I say beta-reading, I mean a general overview of a project where the beta tells the author what they think. It’s not copy-editing. It’s not line-reading (unless you want it to be.) And it isn’t paid – if you’re looking for a beta reader, I’m assuming you’re looking to exchange favour with somebody. Professional editing is available online and comes with its own set of rules. Beta-reading, as I know it, is not.
So, an author friend or acquaintance has approached you, asking if you want to look at their newest project. Great! Super! What are you supposed to do?
Like I said, the idea is to read through the project and give the author some tips on how to improve it. Now, how you deliver your critique depends a lot on the person and your relationship to them, but a general rule of thumb is: Be constructive. Read the project like you would any other book in this genre, then think about what works and what doesn’t, and how to let your friend know.
I personally adhere to the following guidelines: 3 specific things I really liked, and why, followed by 3 specific things I thought didn’t quite work, and why. Three is a nice number – very magical, but more importantly, very doable. Most likely your author friend will skip over the praise and head straight for the critique, so it’s better to give them only three points to think about as they improve.
Note the first: Just because your friend will skip over the praise the first time around doesn’t mean they won’t come back to it later. Don’t skimp on that.
Note the second: If you found less than 3 things to improve on, great! If there are more than 3 (like, a lot more) focus on the really, really major ones. You may think you’re not being efficient, but in my experience when I tackle big problems with the book, the small ones get fixed as I go along. A beta reader is a new set of eyes, and their perspective helps us see where the work was previously blindsiding us.
DO tell your friend you got the manuscript as soon as you do. Nothing worse than thinking you accidentally sent it to someone else. (Like your boss. Or an author you admire.)
DO read it and get back to them as fast as you can. If you can’t, tell them you’re busy and give them a concrete timeframe. (“By the end of next week” works. “Soon” does not.) If things change and you can’t beta anymore, that’s cool – just let them know. Don’t hold onto the manuscript hoping to finish it at some point and getting guilty when you can’t – really, we don’t want that.
DO use “I” centered language when you finally submit your report. “I think,” and “I like”, and “It seems to me,” and “I had trouble with,” and “I was confused about,” go a long way in getting your point across.
DO encourage them to keep on writing. Even if this particular project doesn’t work, the next just might. A friendly hit on the shoulder can make all the difference.
Okay, you find a beta reader for your work. Great! The manuscript is ready, you literally cannot look at it anymore and you need a second set of eyes. Good. Great. You can just kick back and– nah, sorry, mate. There’s still work to do.
Firstly, here’s a quick checklist to make sure your book is ready for betaing:
- It is NOT a first draft and/or has gone through at least one revision (that includes if you hand-write and then type up your notes, or you read everything you wrote the previous day before you lay down fresh words.)
- You’ve actually read it through at least once.
- You know the story and your characters by heart. (As in, if I kicked you awake in the middle of the night, you’d still be able to list out everything you know about them.)
- You can open your manuscript at any point and say what is going on.
- You look at a page and you know how the sentence is going to go before you finished reading it.
- There are some very obvious typos (he, instead of the; your instead of you’re) etc.
- You really, really need help
Seems pretty straightforward, no? And yet, I’ve been guilty of all of these things. I’ve sent first drafts of my NaNo novels to my betas, and then not known what they mean when they gave me their critiques. I’d get critique on things I already knew were a problem that needed fixing. I’d go on ego trips where I’d discard the entire critique because clearly, the other person did not understand. (Sorry, guys.)
If you know there is something you can fix, don’t send it to your beta. I guarantee, even if the other person doesn’t pick up on it, it’ll nag at you until you fixed it; and if they do pick up on it, it’ll be a waste of time for them – they could have helped you in other ways.
Note: Don’t worry about the typos at this point. You will probably do at least one re-write after your beta gives you their notes, and their job is not to line-edit. If you want to do that, there are programs online who can help. (I use Grammarly.)
Other dos and don’ts:
DO communicate: If you have a timeframe in mind, tell your beta. Also, if you want them to answer specific questions/focus on any specific aspects of the story, ask them before they start reading. That’ll give them an idea what you want and make it easier for them.
DO be patient. Life happens. The sad truth is that your betas are more likely to need time to get back to you. Be honest with them if you can’t wait anymore, but be understanding too.
DO be careful when working with strangers. Do you have anybody who can vouch for them? I’m not saying everyone is out there to get you, but it’s a good idea to think about these things if you haven’t been on a community before.
DON’T be a dick. Seriously. Your friends are doing you a favour. Don’t treat them like they are your employees, or worst, worshippers at your private writer’s temple. Seriously.
DO return the favour. If not to them, then to others. You learn to take criticism a lot better after you’ve given it a few times.
DO keep any follow-up questions to a minimum. Some people have really good memory. Most have things interfering with it. If you really need them to follow-up on anything they’ve written, let them know, and be specific. Use citations, if you must. And if they didn’t mention something in the original critique, and you didn’t ask them to beforehand, just assume it’s okay.
Did I miss anything? What are your tips for successful collaborations?