For those not in the writer-life, a beta reader is someone you trust to be honest who’s agreed to read your manuscript prior to sending out queries. The book usually goes through another round of edits after a beta reads the work, so any changes or comments or found errors can be fixed.
Betas proofread, sure, but they also tell you things like, “I didn’t really like this character in the beginning. You need to make him more likable.” (My good buddy Haggis told me this and it helped me realize that I needed to show other characters liking my main character and to show them why.) Or they tell you, “I didn’t understand this paragraph” and “what the hell were you trying to say in this sentence anyway?” (My Bug did this for me!)
Lately, I’ve wanted betas to tell me about the voice of it. Is it consistent? Is the narration effective?Did you want to turn the page? Was it believable? Was that scene over the top? Are my characters “real” enough? (Yes. Even the ghost ones have to be real. Did the switches in points of view jar you at all? That kind of thing. A big bad thing for a beta to say is, “there’s a problem with your premise. I had a review of my query letter, and the reaction of some of them said, “Ernest Hemingway was a womanizing jerk. Why would you want him being a ghostly mentor to your character?” Well…he’s not a jerk in the story. 🙂 And it’s his mistakes and shortcomings that make him real and makes my character relate to him.
Betas are also really good at telling you that a pronoun should be “I” instead of “he”, and when a sentence is missing a word, and that I forgot end quotes on dialog. (Yep. We do that kind of thing and even after reading the story twenty times, I still miss some of those things.)
I love when a beta talks about the story and the characters and mentions the “I loved this character” or “this was a great line”. I love when a beta tells me, “oh so-and-so was my favorite character.” I like when they say, “you didn’t tie up this loose end.” I like when they point out that little inconsistency such as “Ok, he was putting his shoes on to go out then one paragraph later he’s lying in bed.” (Yes. That happened.)
And I especially love it when they read this book I’m querying now and tell me it makes them want to go read a bit of Hemingway’s work because they’ve never read any. I like it when a beta tells me the book made their day happier.
Some people have started my novel and not finished it. I think that speaks loud and clear that it wasn’t for them – and is possibly the harshest criticism I could receive. One friend is an avid reader and is afraid to read the book because she’s afraid if she doesn’t like it my feelings will be hurt.
Everyone betas differently. Some will read it and only say, “I really liked it!” or they’ll say, “that part where he falls through the wicker chair is funny.”
Others will put comments – good and bad – in the margins and track changes on punctuation and grammar page by page.
I try to be a thorough beta reader and have done plenty of it. I want to be useful to the writers, and be honest, but also encouraging and gentle. I think the people I’ve read for have found the way I beta useful. At least I very much hope so. I’ve learned a great deal about writing by beta reading too. Different styles, what works and doesn’t, the flow of words and the flow of plots. Beta reading is a fantastic education for a writer.
So I’m still learning what’s the best way to beta, and that every story is different and that every author wants a different kind of beta read done. I’m still learning what works for me when others read my work, too.
I do go for the variation though. Someone doing a good proofread, someone different talking mechanics of the story, someone who just gives a review of how the story “feels”, someone who lists out each character and re-hashes plot points. Someone who offers specific suggestions and someone who just says, “this part is a little wrong”. It’s all useful.
A mix of writer-betas and strictly reader-betas works well, I’ve found. The ones who write are more specific about the craft. The ones who just read are specific about the story.
The biggest question I think, if you are going to beta for someone is: “is this book ready to go out into the world and if not, what will get it there?”
If you’re a beta for someone, or someone is about to be a beta for you, be sure they keep that last question in mind. You won’t hurt my feelings if you’re helping me see what I’ve missed and are helping me get the book ready to go out into the world.
Happy beta reading!!