Beta reading is when an author asks you to read their work in progress, and give feedback on what’s working and what could be improved. It is an extremely valuable way to help the author see their work from a new perspective, and learn what aspects to focus on during revision. Some of the most insightful comments I’ve received have come from teen (my target readership) beta readers. Here are some things those beta readers did (and luckily for me, didn’t do!) that helped me the most.
Honor the Intention of the Work – Whether the author has simply asked you to read and comment, or has provided a list of questions to focus your read-through, the foremost principle is that the work itself has value. The author has selected you to glimpse into an unfinished work – meaning they know it is not at its best yet – and help it reach its highest potential. There will be certain fundamentals that should be honored and accepted as you read the story. If it is a dystopian romance novel, for example, embrace that core concept. Don’t send the manuscript back with hundreds of comments about how it should really be a historical thriller, because that’s the kind of story you prefer. It is a dystopian romance novel, now how can it be a better one? Focus your big-picture notes on whether you connected with the characters, empathized with their situations, or recognized the moments they found themselves in as the story unfolded.
Give Your Honest Opinion – All authors, but perhaps YA authors in particular, are keenly aware that no reader is going to be forced to keep reading their book. We have to find a way to make the reader want to keep turning pages. So noting moments where your attention dropped out of the story, or where you would have stopped reading, are especially useful. It does not help an author to get a vague, “It was great,” as feedback. Yes, be sure to point out everything you did love about the story, and places where you could relate to the characters, but be equally generous in sharing places that concerned you. Be genuine, with an eye toward not crossing the line into unnecessary brutality. For example, saying, “There’s nothing I can say to make this better, because I hated every line of it,” wouldn’t be helpful feedback because it gives the author no inroad to understand how to improve the work. On the other hand, noting, “I can tell this was supposed to be a twist, but I wasn’t surprised by it because I’d already guessed it was coming,” tells the author a specific problem, and why it fell flat for you.
Note Where the Story Doesn’t Line Up with Real Life Experience – This is especially helpful with dialogue or plot situations that rankle you. If the characters are teenagers, but they don’t sound like it – they either sound too young, or extremely mature, without a story reason that would support that character trait – that is extremely valuable feedback for the author. Likewise, if the characters are doing something, or find themselves in a situation that bumps you, consider the context, and then note it if things don’t match up for you. For example, if the character is roller skating and the novel is set in the 1970’s, it likely fits. If the character is roller skating in a contemporary novel, it might be a problem. If it’s a contemporary novel, but the character is a member of an elite roller derby team . . . you get the idea.
Err on the Side of Including It – If you’re not sure about whether to note something, err on the side of jotting it down. Misspellings, wrong word choice, grammar mistakes, incorrect use of their, there or they’re – perhaps the author already knows, but why not mark it? It’s just as likely that they don’t, and we all want our work to be as polished as possible before an agent or editor sees it. When in doubt, note it.
Be Willing to Meet In Person – Once the author has had a chance to read through your notes, they may ask to meet in person to follow up on something. If you are up for it, say yes! Something you’ve brought up has struck a note with the author, and they want to know more about your thoughts on it. Being able to go back to a beta reader and ask questions about why a moment bothered them, has given me great insight into some deeper problems in my work.
Have you been a beta reader? If so, share your experience! What would you do differently? What did you do that worked well? Was there something you wished the author had done in asking you to beta read, or in giving you guidance before you started? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.