Have you ever been asked to beta read a manuscript for a fellow writer? Maybe you’re in a writers’ group or perhaps you’re looking to set up an exchange with someone willing to read your manuscript too?
A beta reader is simply one of the ‘first’ readers – not the person who writes the manuscript, but that fresh pair of eyes entrusted to read the manuscript and provide feedback on the reading experience.
There’s a big difference between providing a helpful beta read and going back to someone with ‘it’s lovely’ or ‘I really liked it’ or ‘I don’t think it’s ready’. A helpful beta reader focuses on the story and is not afraid to let a writer know when parts of that story are not working – but equally happy to applaud when they are.
When you’re an aspiring writer, chances are that a fellow writer will ask you to beta read their manuscript. This is not only helpful to them, you can also learn a lot from the process because it forces you to think about what works and what doesn’t. Developing these critiquing skills is great for your own writing.
That said, I’ve put together five tips for providing a helpful beta read.
1. Read like a reader
Even if you’re a writer yourself, your job here is to be the reader. So focus on the story, not the punctuation. A beta read should be something that happens early in a writer’s drafting process, so you’re not providing a proofread. You’re commenting on the reading experience. Having said that, if you notice that the writer uses the word ‘frown’ so often that it interrupts your reading experience, let them know.
2. Ask for guidance
What does the writer want to know about this manuscript? The best beta reads are those that have some guidance around them – and this goes double if the writer has asked your 10-year-old to beta read a middle-grade manuscript for them. Get the writer to provide you with a list of 10 questions they’d like you to consider as you read.
3. Don’t be afraid to mention the plot holes
If it doesn’t make sense, say so. As writers, we want readers to suspend disbelief when they read our stories and enter a world of our creation – but inconsistencies and hyper-leaps in logic are jarring. If you see something, say something. Because if you don’t mention it now, the writer will assume it’s okay – but you can bet a publisher or editor won’t miss it.
4. Look at the details
Sometimes it can be difficult to articulate why a scene isn’t working within a manuscript. If you’re finding your attention wandering or you’re frustrated by the main character, it’s time to drill down a bit into the details to find out why.
This is the point where you read the dialogue out loud – does it sound natural? Or look to the continuity – is the character doing something in this scene that doesn’t make sense given what you know about them so far? Does the ending feel rushed, like the writer lost interest and just wanted to get it over? The details will help you to find the flaws in the overall picture.
5. Give your feedback like a professional
When you’re providing your feedback, start by listing what you love about the story. Show the writer that you’ve read all the way to the end and give them a sense of what’s working really well.
Then move on to the areas that need work and make sure you offer constructive detail. Rather than ‘there’s too much description in this book’, perhaps you could say ‘I feel like the focus on the setting on pages x, y and z is slowing the story down’.
Wrap it up with one last reiteration of how much you loved the main character/voice/dialogue setting and then wish them luck.
Your aim is to provide a balanced view and leave them with a sense of hope.
You’ll benefit from the experience
Being a beta reader is a responsibility, but it’s also an invaluable tool for your own writing. Once you’ve provided feedback to your writer in a timely manner, think about the notes you’ve made and how they might apply to your own manuscript.
It’s often a lot easier to see places for improvement in someone else’s writing, but the lessons learned probably apply to your work as well!
Getting beta readers to provide feedback on your manuscript is invaluable. You’ll have a chance to give – and receive – feedback in a structured format in our Write Your Novel program.
This program provides you with group workshopping and motivation to help you complete your manuscript the smart way!
Allison Tait is the author of three epic middle-grade adventure series for kids: The Mapmaker Chronicles, The Ateban Cipher and the Maven & Reeve Mysteries. A presenter at AWC and former co-host of the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, Al is currently editing her latest middle-grade novel THE FIRST SUMMER OF CALLIE McGEE. Find out more about her at allisontait.com.