“A beta reader (or betareader, or beta) is a person who reads a work of fiction with a critical eye, with the aim of improving grammar, spelling, characterization, and general style of a story prior to its release to the general public.”  (Source: http://www.fanfiction.net/betareaders)

Your first foray into beta reading can be an uncomfortable process as you step into unchartered territory. Armed with the knowledge that writers can be thin-skinned and defensive about their work, you may be loathe to offer criticism. And then there is the little devil sitting on your shoulder asking you, “Who do you think you are to offer criticism to another writer? Like your writing is so perfect!” In fact, you may have volunteered only to return the favor of someone who has offered to do a beta exchange with you. Regardless of your reason, you can learn a lot about your writing when you beta. You learn to see your mistakes in the works you are critiquing, which somehow makes them less invisible in your works.

Here are ten tips to a valuable beta read.

  1. Before you even open the document, you need to squash that devil sitting on your shoulder. Many newbie betas apologize in advance for the quality of their critiques, sure they will have no value to the writer. Not true. First and foremost, betas are readers, and writers are usually voracious readers. One of the greatest things a beta can offer is their honest reaction to the work. You know when you like or dislike something. Have confidence in your opinion. That’s where a good beta begins.
  2. Read the work twice. On the first pass, allow yourself to get lost in the work – be a reader. On the second pass, offer your critique. Why read twice? Often, a lot of questions are answered as you delve further into a work – a writer doesn’t generally give everything away in the first chapter. Also, if you know where the road ends, you will be better prepared to put up hazard signs when the writer strayed from their path.
    1. Example: Say you are beta reading a mystery and the writer reveals who the killer is in the final chapter. Maybe you guessed who the killer is in chapter three. Armed with this knowledge, you can  point out places throughout the work where the writer gave too many clues too early on. Without that first read, your comments may not have been relevant or useful to the writer.
  3. Most of us remember terms like tone or POV from high school English. Perhaps the authority with which writers bandy them about can be intimidating to newbie betas. The solution? Get a glossary or a writer’s guide. If you’re going to beta, you need to learn what the terms mean. Better yet, if you’re going to write, you sure as hell need to learn what the terms mean. I’m not saying you need to bandy the terms about like you’re waving a flag to say, “See what I know?” I’m saying that you should know the building blocks of a good story. Tone, characterization, POV, dialogue, pacing, imagery, symbolism – if you don’t know what they are, how will you ever use them properly? I’ll admit that when it’s obvious my beta reader knows the basics, their stock goes up.
  4. Understanding your own reaction is key to knowing how to critique. Did you hate a character? Were you confused about why they did something? Ask yourself why. The answer often points to a problem at play in the work. Pay attention to your reactions – they will guide you.
    1. Example: If you were just dumped and find yourself hating the male MC who happens to be a manwhore, that may be telling you more about yourself than the work. BUT if you’re not understanding why said manwhore has a sudden newfound desire to be celibate, the writer may have not done the work to lay in the foundation for their character’s metamorphosis.
  5. Line Edits vs. Overall Commentary – A line edit is just what it says – you go through the work line by line and offer critiques where you think they are needed. Some writers will ask for this to check for grammar or continuity mistakes. Other writers ask for your take on the whole work in a brief commentary – say a page of typed notes. The writer will tell you what they’re looking for, and if they don’t, you should ask. I believe in doing both, but I recognize time doesn’t always allow for this. My compromise? I do line edits as time allows and include a few quick summary notes at the end of each chapter to give my overall reaction.
  6. Ask Questions. Sometimes your comments will come in the form of questions. If you don’t understand something, throw the question out there. Sometimes a theme will develop in the questions, and this will help you – and the writer – to identify a problem with the work.
    1. Example: Say the manwhore from above is acting like a saint, and my gut tells me it doesn’t fit with his character as the writer described him. I might ask “Why is the character reacting this way?” or “What happened to make the MC act like this?” A series of these questions appear, and I know the MC’s motivation hasn’t been explained.
  7. Don’t give false praise. Smart writers see through this, and you’re not doing anyone any favors. The worst workshop comment you can make is, “I liked it.” Unless you can describe in detail, what you liked and why, it will be obvious that you are lying. This may come from a place of discomfort because you are struggling to find something, anything to like. You don’t want to rip the story apart, and so you fall back on faint praise. Don’t. The point of a beta read is to help make the work better. Take the time to find a way to tell the writer what you thought could be better.
  8. On the flip  side, too many betas focus on all the negative. This isn’t that helpful, either. Find the things you admire, and point them out. A writer needs to know what they do well, in addition to areas they can improve. A beta is about balancing these two things – the good with the bad. It’s really rough to get back a beta that’s full of criticism. I’ve been left wondering if there was anything they liked about the story only to find out later that they actually loved it. I think this is where that general commentary is important.
    1. Example: Going back to our manwhore, if you love his voice and it makes you laugh – say so. Point out the passages that you particularly enjoyed. A simple LOL in the margins can go a long way with the writer.
  9. A Note on Writers Directing the Beta – Some writers will ask you to read for a particular issue they’ve identified. I’ve done this, and I’ve found it’s not particularly helpful. Say the writer is worried that the pacing is off, and they ask you to focus on this during your reading. The problem is that this kind of direction is prescriptive. You basically agree or disagree, but that may not get at the root of the problem.
    1. Example: The pacing may not be the issue at all, but the writer may be too close to the work to zero in on the problem. Maybe the problem is that they are writing in third person when the story is begging to be told in first. They make the POV shift and the narrative comes alive with the MC’s voice. Suddenly pacing is a non-issue. I find that regardless of what the writer asks, I treat the beta like any other. The writer doesn’t always know best.
  10. Watch the tone of your comments. Most betas are done digitally – many writers never even have a phone conversation with their readers. It’s easy to misinterpret a comment. Remember, sarcasm and self-deprecation don’t always come across in writing. Treat the work as you would hope to have your work treated – professionally and with respect.

Go forth and beta!