Be a Better Beta Reader

So, your friend wants you to beta read his book. It’s a masterpiece, a baby carved right out of his soul. You tell him he’s smart not to send that baby out into the heartbreaking world of “Dear Agent X” without someone else taking a look at it first.

The manuscript arrives in your inbox, and you soon discover that your friend’s baby weighs 300 pounds. It’s not really that fun to play with and screams a lot. It vomits on you occasionally. And the diapers...ugh...you’re knee deep in them.    

So when you hand that 300-pound baby back to him two months later, the poor thing has a single comment on every chapter, right at the end. They read something like this:

“Great opening chapter!”

“Hmm...Something wrong with this scene, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

“Well...I’m not sure about this...I no longer like this character. Check motivations.”

“Meh.”

“Great chapter! You’re back!”

Most writers have to deal with critiques that are less than helpful, but a bad beta read is just depressing. The writer is left with a vague feeling of unease, because it’s obvious this baby needs some work. Vague unease does not lend itself to an enthusiastic and targeted revision.

So the next time you say “yes” to that desperate writer friend, think about the following tips:

1. Stay in your comfort zone: If you hate police procedurals, don’t beta read your friend’s cop mystery. If you’ve never read a romance novel, you’re absolutely the worst person to beta read your buddy’s Scottish highland erotic adventure. Pick your beta reads carefully, and learn to say no.

2. Stay on your toes when you’re reading: Your writer friend is most likely lost in his or her own revision. Take the time to mark specific locations in the manuscript. When the story made you laugh, make a note on the paragraph.  If you were moved to tears, mark it. When the narrative slows and drags, find the spot where that began and make a note. The comments don’t have to be long, but this approach to beta reading can help shave dozens of hours off of your friend’s revision.

3. Be specific:  Good critiques pinpoint dropped plot threads, weird character motivations, and ugly dialogue tags. Your comments should also suggest revision ideas, although it’s best that you include fleshed out examples in a comment bubble rather than inside the text of the manuscript (writer friends can be sensitive about their babies).  

4. Don’t forget to praise: It’s not all about telling your friend what’s wrong with the book. More than anything, your writer friend needs to know what’s right. A beta read that constantly focuses on the negative can hobble a writer during the revision process. Positive reinforcement encourages the writer to reproduce that excellence again.   

5. Tell the writer when to cut: So here’s the truth. It’s not a baby. That means that cutting a chapter is not like cutting off your kid’s arm. Help the author realize that and let go. Sometimes it’s better to ditch an entire chapter than spend six months revising something that will never, never work.

Beta reading is part of any thriving writing community, but it’s also part of being a good friend. Learn to do it right, and you’ll get the same treatment on your own 300-pound baby novel when you really need it. 


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