I really love beta reading.
Yes, it’s work. Yes, it’s time consuming. Yes, it can be stressful. Telling your friend, family member, or acquaintance that they’ve made mistakes is tough. The thing is, it’s all worth it. Why? Because beta readers are better writers.
I’m currently beta reading my eighth book. These eight have come from three different authors, each with their own unique style, in disparate genres, and I have learned from them all. I am better for having done the work and the reason for that is distance.
The Benefit of Distance
“Practice makes perfect,” but we all know how blinded we can become to our own work. The proper phrase should be, “accurate practice makes perfect,” and it’s hard to be accurate after the umpteenth pass through your own manuscript. “We’re too close Goose, we’re switching to guns,” or rather, someone else’s work.
Reading your buddy’s stuff is beneficial because there’s a distance there. When we flex our critique muscles on someone else’s work, it separates our abilities as writers and our abilities as analysts. We can practice these skills, accurately, with out all of the baggage we bring with us into our own writing. With each successive book I’ve beta read, I’ve honed my skills and after each book, I’m able to slice through my own work with more precision.
How to Beta Read
The first rule of beta reading is that you are not proofreading. The second rule of beta reading is that you are not proof reading. While the entire world should be a no Nazi zone, beta reading is, with out a doubt, a no Grammar Nazi zone. Beta reading is about concepts. It’s about tone. It’s about characterization and setting. It’s about consistency, flow, and believability. It is not, absolutely not, about commas or whether it’s i before e or e before i. Any feedback will be appreciated by the author but don’t waste your opportunity to make a positive impact on both their story and your skills by fixating on the minutiae. That comes far later in the process and you’ll have nothing to do with it.
Also, remember that the draft you are beta reading is far from the final draft. It’s supposed to be a good draft, a fairly well polished draft, but not a perfect draft. Keep that in mind as you pick it apart.
Along these lines, it’s important to understand just what the author wants out of the beta experience. I always request complete brutality from all who beta read for me. It’s the only way to ensure they perform thorough, deep dives. Some authors just can’t handle that emotionally and that’s fine. Give the author what they need. Hopefully they will let you be hard on their work so that you can become better at being hard on your own.
How I Beta Read
The key to a successful run as a beta reader is to develop a system for collecting your thoughts and the problems you catch. The following is a description of what I do as a beta reader. Try it out, or don’t, or tweak it ad nauseam. It’s up to you. I’m posting it here as a starting point. I’ve developed this system over these last eight novels and it works for me. Your milage may vary.
Firstly, I like to beta read using a Kindle. Something about reading the manuscript as if it’s a published book helps me get into the right headspace. This is completely necessary for me but might not work for you. Do what works for you.
I alway take notes by hand in a notebook. For me. Being able to scribble notes (see my exceptional chicken scratch below) and quickly dive back into the story makes for a better, cleaner, faster workflow. When I take notes I run a two tiered system. The first portion consists of chapter by chapter notes in bullet point. This is done as issues arise so that there is, in a sense, a chronological order for the author to follow and more easily locate the issues I point out. Anything specific to the chapters themselves is written this way. When I’ve determined that there is a broader, more book-wide issue, I write it down in the margins at the side or on top. This separation helps immensely with the next step.
Once I’ve finished reading I transfer my notes to a document. I prefer Google Docs but I always use whatever format the author requests. Always remember that you’re doing this to help them, not make more work for them. The structure I use for this document is the “Shit Sandwich” model.
This is a format I borrowed from my days writing report cards as a teacher. The first section is a brief paragraph or two about what I felt about the book. I’m careful to always include positive aspects here. That said, my praise is never false. I just make sure that it stands out loud and clear. It’s meant to get the author in a receptive headspace before the next section. I follow this up with a table detailing the book-wide issues I’ve found. This is broken down into sections for plot, characters, world building, and other.
After that, I transfer my chapter by chapter notes into another table in the same order as I’ve written them. I look carefully at these notes and remove any that were fixed within the flow of the story.
Finally, I end with more detailed positive feedback. It not only helps soften the blow from the “shit” in the middle, but it also reassures the author that you read their work carefully, looking for both the good and the bad. As an author who uses beta readers myself, it’s hard to take feedback at face value when it’s all bad. It can come across as a case of the wrong audience rather than real problems.
Once the form is completed, I go over it once or twice to make sure it conveys what I need it to, then it’s off the the author and into my files just in case it ever needs to be revisited or the author loses it.
At this point, there is one prime lesson to take to heart. YOU ARE DONE. That’s it, finito, the end. You should not expect anything but a sincere thank you. Often authors add you to acknowledgments or pass along a nice signed copy of the book which is great but that’s not why you helped in the first place. You helped to be helpful. Besides, you got a huge reward out of the deal. You got some prime, accurate practice. The next time you dive into your own work, you’ll be doing so with better skills than you had before and all thanks to the opportunity to brutalize someone else’s work.
For information about showing your work to others, including how to utilize beta readers as an author, check out my three part series in the links below.