When you read for an author, what do you offer? These eight considerations form a kind of code of conduct that can help a writer and beta reader get the most from one another.
When you are asked to read someone’s book draft, how do you respond? Do you shy away? Do you find excuses and say no? Do you skim and say, “Nice!” to politely get the author off your back? Perhaps being a beta reader is not for you.
On the other hand, if given the chance to read a work in progress, do you grab it as an opportunity and read it as quickly as you can and give feedback that reflects the critical thinking you did? If so, perhaps you are an editor. Certainly, you are like gold dust to an author.
As a writer, critical feedback forces you to think. It can inspire you to improve and offer a way forward to progress your evolution as an author. It’s a reflection worth viewing, in tune with the path you are trying to carve out of your imagination, and has your best interests at heart.
The worst kind of feedback is irrelevant, misguided, or lacks substance. It is surprising there are people who will read an entire book and only return the comment, “I liked it”. Did they really read it? Are they afraid to tell the truth?
Perhaps even more frustrating are those who return a draft with the message, “I made lots of notes,” but upon inspection, have only managed to surface a few typos.
Many writers abide by the thinking that only an editor’s opinion should be heeded and that critiques from friends and family are useless as they will always be sugar-coated and biased towards pleasing our egos and not risk damage to personal bonds.
Serious writers want substantive feedback. How did the writing make you feel? Was there a point where you wanted to put down the book? Which parts were most gripping? Did you have questions? Were there holes in the story? Would you change anything? How did it compare to other books you’ve read?
The trick to making the best use of feedback from a beta reader is to get a lot of it and not be overwhelmed by any one comment. It is best to look for themes that arise. Everyone will have an opinion, but if two or more people have the same critical comment, it is something to take seriously.
The very best feedback is interactive. Readers who will make an initial round of comments and follow it up with a discussion are wonderful. The beta reader who will try to draw the story further out of a writer is invaluable.
What authors crave from readers is a litmus test of how their words are heard and interpreted. The best readers help to harmonize what the author intends and what is received. This is an invaluable role of a critique: to explore and resolve any dissonance between a writer’s intentions and a reader’s experiences.
I once read the first draft of a story and thought the protagonist was a man. The author was surprised as she had written the character as a woman. She revisited her text and realized there were no details making the gender explicit. It is sometimes the blindingly obvious that writers miss as they focus on the finer details of a story.
Giving good feedback is an art. It takes effort and knowing what a writer wants and needs most. Here are eight things to consider when taking on the role of beta reader.
Only read what you like
Reading takes time and effort. You may feel obliged to read if a friend asks, but you should strive to give quality feedback. Some types of writing just don’t appeal to our personal tastes, and you might do a writer a disservice to attempt a critique of something you would be hard pressed to read by choice. In other words, do not dig in if you are not enthusiastic.
Ask the author what type of feedback they would like most
Before you take on the task of beta reader, ask what stage of the writing process the author is in and what type of feedback they want. If the author is still in the first-draft stage, grammar checks and misspellings will be less important than feedback on story holes or inconsistent characters. If the author is about to submit and wants a final sanity check for typos, just do that and don’t dissect the work or suggest major changes.
Remember, the author is writing the book, not you
Every writer will have a style, purpose, and ability. There is a major difference between helping a writer achieve her personal best versus reworking the text into your own style. Don’t do the latter. Picking synonyms for words a writer has chosen and otherwise changing style, but not substance, is the last kind of feedback a writer will want.
Give feedback in the form of a conversation
Often the best feedback is posed in the form of a question. What did you mean here? Did you expect me to guess the killer is the butler at this point? In this way, you are pushing the writer along his own path instead of laying down a path of your own.
Present your feedback in a constructive way, but don’t sugar coat it
It is always easy to say you liked something and leave it at that. No one wants to disappoint someone with criticism, but you aren’t helping the writer by saying you liked something when you didn’t. Such feedback won’t help improve the work.
Take your time, or say you didn’t!
An author looking to improve his work wants substantive commentary from a beta reader. This includes accepting the feedback that you just couldn’t finish the book. If you had to put it down, this is valuable information. It could expose a major fail in pace or content to the writer, and while not positive, it will give the author a lot to think about – which is the point of your reading the manuscript in the first place.
Learn to skim
Can you quickly course over a document and get the gist? If an author just wants your impressions, can you quickly digest a longer piece just enough to give useful feedback? There is an art to this, and if you can master it, you’ll be an invaluable aide to the writer.
You can give feedback verbally, or in the form of an email, or as edits directly on the manuscript. All can be useful, but the best types of feedback include all three. An overview is given in the email. Questions and interactive discussion can be done verbally. Edits and comments on specific pieces of text are done best within the manuscript. Such annotations can be as detailed as you like and are often the most helpful when it comes to improving a draft.
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