How to Beta Read a Novel
If you know anybody who is a writer, chances are that you have been asked to beta read their new book. Whether it is a short story or a 100,000-word novel, feedback is essential for any writer to get a reader's perspective of their manuscript and work on aspects that need improvement.
What is Beta Reading?
Beta reading a book is more than saying "I liked it." A beta reader is asked to give honest, specific, and helpful feedback that helps the writer improve their work before sending it to agents or publishers. High-quality beta reading is especially important if the writer plans on self-publishing.
If you have been asked to be a beta reader, how can you do things properly, ensure that yours and the writer's time is not wasted, and know that the feedback you are giving to them is valued and useful? Here are some essential tips for beta reading as well as things you shouldn't do.
Before You Agree to Beta Read
If you're sure you're going to go through with it, then great! Remember, don't agree to beta read unless:
- You actually want to. You are not obligated to say yes if someone has asked you to beta read their work. For writers, it's actually worse if someone says yes and then never bothers getting round to it. If you don't have the time or the book simply doesn't interest you, politely decline.
- You're willing to do it for free. Although there are paid beta reading services out there, the service is usually done for free as a sort of favour to the writer. The writer might see it as an exciting preview, but let's face it - unless you're a superfan of their work, beta reading is free labour. Don't let them tell you otherwise, but also don't expect payment unless they've actually promised you money.
- You can be honest. This isn't the time to feed the writer's ego. They are relying on you to honestly point out mistakes or things that don't work. If you are just going to email them with "it's very good, I liked it," then don't bother. It'll be a waste of your time and theirs.
- It's a genre you like. If gritty dark fantasy is what you enjoy reading, there's no need to force yourself through 400 pages of chick lit. Hopefully, the writer asked you because they know you'd like their genre, but if not, politely say you wouldn't be able to give valuable feedback if you have no experience with the genre.
- You're doing it because you want to. If you are a writer, never beta read someone's book as a sort of investment for them beta reading yours. This "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" mentality can be toxic. Only beta read if you really want to, not so that they'll owe you.
- You can follow the writer's instructions. If the writer has done their research, they'll know that asking someone to beta read is more than sending you the manuscript and saying "let me know what you think." If you have been given instructions or requests, try to follow through with them, otherwise, you're just wasting everyone's time and energy.
- You can meet the deadline. If the writer has asked you to finish within a month, try to do so (though if it's really impossible to finish in time, asking for an extension is completely OK). Once, someone agreed to beta read a 3000-word short story of mine. It was almost a year before he got back to me (I'd forgotten all about it) and he simply said "it was good." Complete waste of time for everyone involved.
- You know the writer can take criticism. Most writers can take feedback in their stride, but (and it sounds insane but it's true) there are people out there who will act upset or even offended if you dare to criticize their work. If you are worried you'll be shunned or attacked for your comments, don't waste your time.
If you think you can be a good beta reader and you're genuinely interested in their manuscript, then fantastic!
Tips For Beta Reading
You've received the manuscript and the writer is eagerly awaiting your response. Now what? Here are some tips for beta reading that will make the writer love you.
1. Take Notes While Reading
Don't read the entire thing and then start writing feedback (unless the story is very, very short). Take notes constantly: the good, the bad, the things that don't make sense or things that surprised you.
You can do this with:
- Google Documents. Keep it open on another tab on your computer, tablet, or phone. Documents is a good choice because you can simply send a link to the writer when you're done.
- A notebook and pen. If you prefer to hand-write your notes, you're welcome to do so. This is good if you're going to see the writer face-to-face; that way, you can go through your notes with them as you show them.
- Microsoft Word's reviewing feature. If you're reading a manuscript on Word, you can manually add comments to the book for specific parts by clicking "Review" and "Add Comment." This is really handy for the writer because the part of the document is specified.
If you wait until the end to start thinking about feedback, then you'll have likely forgotten almost everything! Start taking notes from the very beginning and continue to do so throughout.
2. Give Feedback on the First Chapter
A good first chapter is essential to any novel because it is used to pull the readers in. Here are some questions to consider to give you ideas.
- Did you feel pulled into the story by the first chapter?
- Were you introduced to the main character and their conflict?
- Did it set the scene? Did you feel like you were introduced to the world?
"Setting the scene" doesn't necessarily mean overloading you with description. By the end of the first chapter, did you understand where you were and what the character was doing?
These are all important things to consider. Chances are that the writer has worked harder on the first chapter than any other part of the book, so they'll want to know how you feel about it.
3. Include the Good as Well as the Bad
It's true that it's the beta reader's job to point out any plot holes, mistakes, or things that don't work. However, don't feel that you can't include things you did like. Saying "this character is great" or "I didn't expect that plot twist" can cushion criticism.
Some writers can lose confidence in their story if all they hear is negative, so feel free to include things you loved about the book. Only if you really mean it, though!
Have You Been Asked to Beta Read a Book?
4. Make Notes on the Characters
Characters are essential to any work of fiction. If you don't care about the characters, then you won't want to follow their story. Keep these questions in mind when beta reading.
- Do you like the main character?
- Do you care about what happens to them?
- Does any of their behavior or things they say not make sense?
- How is the antagonist? Are they interesting? Appropriately motivated to get in our protagonist's way?
- Does each character have their own unique voice?
Feel free to offer improvements, though you should keep in mind the writer might not necessarily agree with you. A character might come across as different to what was intended, and it's your job to spot that.
5. Think About the World Development
Whether the story takes place in an entirely new fantasy land or a real town, the reader has to feel like they are really in the world. It is part of what makes the story breathe. If you think it needs work, let them know.
6. Be Specific
As mentioned before, be sure to let the writer know which parts you are talking about so they know what needs to be looked at. For example, saying "the female character is too selfish" might sound fine, but you need to tell them why.
A better piece of feedback would be "the female character is too selfish. On page 73, she and her friends are staring death in the face and yet she's only worried about herself. You can see this by how she thinks "I have to get out of here. I can escape through the window." You could have her reaching for her friends' hands or shouting to the male character..."
This kind of feedback lets the writer know exactly what made you feel that way and gives them a chance to fix it.
7. Think About Twists
Plot twists shock us, thrill us, and make the story turn in a way we were not expecting. If the writer has included plot twists, it's likely they spent a lot of time thinking about what clues to give, things to take out, and at which moment the main character and the reader realize what's happening. When you come across a twist, think about the following.
- Did you see this twist coming? Was it really obvious what was about to happen?
- Does the plot twist make sense? In hindsight, can I see why it turned out this way?
There's nothing that will kill a book faster than a glaringly obvious twist. The writer deserves to know if the plot twist doesn't work, or if it was easy to guess early on. The ending of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone wouldn't have been nearly as thrilling if it had been obvious Quirrell was the one working with Voldemort.
8. The Ending
The ending of a story is almost as important as the beginning, perhaps even more so. Think about these questions when you reach the end of the writer's story.
- If it's a stand-alone book, was the ending satisfactory?
- Were there any unanswered questions?
- If it's part of a series, are you eager to read the next book?
- Was there anything that didn't make sense?
9. Don't Worry About Typos
Beta reading is not copy editing. The book at this stage isn't ready for polishing and proofreading. The writer is looking for help with the story itself and will most likely change things or fix up their writing later. They don't need you to waste time pointing out grammar issues and typos.
10. Ask the Unanswered Questions
If you come across something that doesn't make sense, ask "why did the character react in this way?" or "why is this item here when it was over there before?" Asking questions sounds less forward and gets the writer thinking about why they have written things a certain way.
Just keep in mind that if you use questions like this, the writer will sometimes get back to you to answer them way after the beta reading is over! Just smile politely if this happens.
By the end of the book, you'll hopefully have a couple of pages of notes on the things you liked and the things you think need improving. Read through your notes to check they make sense and it's clear which part of the story you're referring to. The writer should be extremely grateful for the detailed notes you've given and you haven't wasted yours or their time.
Although there is usually no financial reward for beta reading, doing this favor for writers can strengthen your relationship with them, and they might even like to do something in return for you, whether it be services or a free meal (don't expect this, though; some people won't think to try to repay you).
For avid readers, getting a free book is nice. That being said, never let a writer think that they are doing YOU a favor by "letting" you read their book - beta reading is hard work and they should know it. If you are a writer yourself, beta reading can help you improve your own work by avoiding mistakes you might have spotted in their manuscript. Reading, after all, is essential to being able to write well.
You are very kind to volunteer to beta read a book and with this guide, you should be able to do it effectively and in a way that will really help the writer improve.
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