Today I finished up a beta read, so I thought it would be a good time to summarize my tips for how to be a good beta reader. I’ve done several beta reads, which doesn’t make me an expert by any means. I do things a little differently every time, based on what I’ve learned. I really enjoy beta reading and seeing how a story can change from the draft I read to what gets published. While you are doing an author a favor by being a beta reader, it’s also a role to take seriously. They’ve asked for your feedback because they respect your opinion and want to hear your thoughts. I’m grateful for all of the feedback I’ve gotten from beta readers, and like to reciprocate with the authors in my writing group.
1. Beta read for genres that you actually like reading.
It’s really hard to give good feedback if you don’t normally read books like the one you are beta reading. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, if it’s a genre you don’t like, you probably won’t like their book, whether it’s any good or not. Giving feedback in this situation isn’t fair to the author, and it probably wasn’t very fun for you either. Second, if you lack experience in that genre, you can’t tell what’s normal for that genre and what will completely turn off readers.
Also, this should go without saying, but actually read it! Liking the genre makes this easier.
2. Once you commit, pay attention to deadlines.
Usually authors request feedback within 2-4 weeks, sometimes a little longer. Often authors are on a schedule with an editor or a pre-order and they need the feedback in a timely manner. If you can’t complete the beta read in time, it’s okay to decline the request. While I don’t usually get feedback to the author very early, I also try not to be late. There was one occasion I asked for a few extra days and got them, so if life catches you by surprise (or you don’t plan as well as you should), check in with the author and see if a short delay is okay. If you do miss the deadline, contact the author anyway and let them know your status.
One thing I need to work on is getting started on beta reads earlier. I once spent eleven hours on a Saturday finishing up a beta read for Sunday (that was not this weekend though, I swear). I don’t recommend this approach.
3. Pay attention to what kind of feedback they want.
If someone’s giving you a beta, that means it’s not finished. They most likely want a fresh set of eyes to look for plot holes, flat characters, and unsatisfying loose ends. A lot changes from the beta draft to the final, so your time is better spent looking at the big picture rather than for typos. An author will probably hire a proofreader to check for typos once they’ve worked out all of the story kinks. Sometimes an author will include some specific questions they want answered, or they may ask you to focus on one element or another, like pacing or characters. This can help you when writing up your feedback, but I always find it helpful to do my own write up as well.
4. Take notes while you read.
There are several ways to do this. If you’ve got a paper copy, you can physically write on it. While I enjoy doing this, it’s not the most environmentally friendly. It can also be tedious to physically go through every single page as an author looking for notes. The digital version of this would be “track changes” in Word. You can add in comments page by page.
Another style of feedback is more summary style. Whether you jot down physical notes, or type out these notes in an app or on your computer, they are more general reactions to what you’ve read. It’s still easiest to write these notes as you read so you don’t forget anything. That insightful comment you had about chapter five will be forgotten by chapter ten.
And, as I mentioned before, sometimes authors have their own specific questions they want you to answer. Usually they’ll welcome other feedback you have in addition to answering their questions.
Regardless of the format, whether it’s detailed track-changes-style or overview notes, I’m always grateful for people’s in-depth comments when I get back a beta from someone who’s taken the time to read and critique my work.
5. Tell them what worked alongside what didn’t.
When I beta read, I’m focused on what’s “wrong” or confusing. Sometimes I forget to write down what works. Just like when giving a critique in a writing group, it’s important to identify the bad and the good, and not just for the writer’s ego. Knowing what worked can provide just as much value as what didn’t.
Also, authors are human being with feelings. They can take tough feedback and criticism (or should be able to), but chances are they’ve put a lot of work into their story. They deserve to hear some positive feedback, and I’ve never read a story where I couldn’t find something positive and honest to say.
There it is. Five easy ways to be a better beta reader. When in doubt, ask the author for some guidance about what they’re looking for, because every beta read is different.