Earlier this month, I was asked to be a beta reader for a friend. The novel was a YA romance with what she described as a rather controversial backbone. It’s rare I take on beta reads. For one, I cannot retain information I read from a screen to save my life - my poor Kindle has been sitting beside my bed untouched by all book related things since I left university – and two, the writer in me cannot stop rewriting things that are still in manuscript format. But I agreed to this one, deciding that it would at least save me from lugging around a six-hundred-page hardback on the train every day that week.
The manuscript itself had me giggling and tearing up and screaming for joy, and I’ll definitely be posting a review when it’s finally published, but it took a lot for me to let go of the editor and writer in me and only be the beta reader. It’s a common misconception, I realised, that beta readers think they need to be editors – perfectly picking out grammar and punctuation mistakes as they read – and that it’s that which puts a lot of new betas off agreeing to give critiques.
So, I thought I would put together my top five tips on being a brilliant beta reader.
- You are not the writer!
As a Brit, reading a piece of work written by an American is torture! Non-existent words such as ‘irregardless’ and ‘burglarized’ (I had to just Google how to spell those) and all those missing vowels… my heart is breaking just as the thought of it. But I am not the writer, and I cannot sit there correcting every misspelt or out-right wrong word! I am there only to read the manuscript and give my feedback on it. Guess what, readers! So are you! (I’m working on the assumption that there are a people reading this that believe a burglar burglarizes a home instead of burgles it, by the way.) Every writer has their own style, their own language rules. You cannot and should not change them because they don’t fit with yours.
- Only read what you like!
If you’re not into sci-fi books or have a limited knowledge about them, you shouldn’t be beta reading one. Not only are you going to get bored during the reading process, but you’re not going to be able to give the feedback that the writer needs because you’re not the intended audience. It’s okay to say ‘no’ when someone asks you to be one of their beta readers. Just don’t say ‘no’ out of fear that you’re going to suck at being a beta reader!
- Give constructive, honest criticism!
And DON’T sugar coat it! I once had a beta reader one of my novels, tell me that it’s practically perfect and ready for publishing, only to send it on to another editor after I made some changes to discover that I was mixing colloquialisms, had rushed the ending and really needed to cut out one character that seemed important even though she wasn’t. Criticism, when valid, is more than helpful, but you need to be brave enough to give it. A writer wouldn’t ask your opinion if they didn’t want it. If you don’t like something, tell them why. Religion suddenly played an extremely important role in the beta read I took on earlier this month, and it came in so suddenly that it took over the plot and changed the tone. This is the kind of stuff writers need to know!
- Don’t be afraid to have a conversation with the author!
I hate sending those ‘here’s what’s good, here’s what’s bad’ emails, so I don’t. I get the writer onto some sort of messaging platform and I tell them my thoughts, giving them the option to ask more questions. There are a lot of times when writers think of a possible way to fix a problem then and there, and it gives them the option to pitch it to you. Okay, so this character’s personality switches very quickly and it’s jarring – what if I move the switch to here? Yes! That works!
- Remember you’re not the only one on a deadline!
Sometimes a writer will give you a week, sometimes a month, sometimes an ASAP. Whatever the deadline, you need to remember that the longer you take, the longer the writer takes and you’re only one rung on that nerve-wracking, nail-biting ladder they’re being forced to climb with each draft. So, once you agree to take on the beta reading job, make sure you observe those deadlines and do anything to reach it.
While you’re keeping these top five tips in mind, remember also to enjoy the process! You’re one of the first people to get their hands on a manuscript that may make millions worldwide. That, right there, is a privilege!