I’ve beta read a lot lately. Here’s how I beta read, and what writers I beta read for do that makes me love them or never want to talk to them again.
I’ve done enough beta reading recently that I think I should have a beta reading philosophy.
My life philosophies tend not to be complicated. For example “I like cats and dragons” covers the important bases, and my husband tells me it’s a perfectly adequate philosophy.
There might be more to my beta reading philosophy, because otherwise this won’t be a very long post.
What is beta reading?
To establish my beta reading philosophy it seems logical to first ask what I mean by beta reading. You can find definitions on half the blogs on the web (at least, half the blogs in the parts of the web I frequent).
Here’s my definition:
Reading a book written by another writer, which has already been edited by the writer, before it is published, with an eye to providing feedback on at least some big-picture aspects (such as character, plot, and unicorn mating habit descriptions) in order to help the author make the book more spectacular.
Beta reading is not:
- Cheerleading. If all I’m saying is “I loved it”, I’m not beta reading. Encouragement is wonderful, and sometimes what you need is someone to say “your writing is brilliant”, but it fails on the “make the book more spectacular” front. So, not beta reading.
- Correcting grammar. Not everyone agrees with me, but I think beta reading should happen when the grammar is already good if not excellent. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe a writer should largely be able to correct her own grammar, and should do so before she calls on her beta readers. It makes the beta reading more helpful–I can’t dig down to tell whether the characters are made of cardboard or multi-layered tiramisu if I’m falling over mis-constructed sentences at every turn.
How do I beta read?
I start at the start and, when I get to the end, I stop.
More detail than that?
It depends on the book, though I do always start at the start.
If I think the writing itself needs some work, I usually spend the first few pages suggesting some edits and, if I’m feeling especially energetic, explaining why I’m making the suggestions.
If the required edits are too many, I’ll refer the author to one of my favourite writing books of all times, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King. Read it. It’s pure gold.
I can’t keep this intensity of commenting up for too long because I’m ridiculously slow at it, so I usually tail off after a couple of pages.
After that I mostly read.
At the end of each chapter I make some notes for myself. Did anything not make sense? How do I feel about the characters? Was there anything I didn’t believe? Anything I absolutely loved? How interested in the story am I? And anything else that comes to mind. If the author has given me a set of questions I might answer some of those too.
After some time, usually two to four weeks, I reach the end. Then I sit back and have a glass of tequila on ice and mull over the meaning of existence.
That is, I think about the big issues in the story. Did the plot hang together and have a pleasing shape? Were there any extraneous parts or aspects that didn’t work or didn’t make sense? Was the climax satisfying and did it answer the main story question? Did I understand what on earth happened? (Sometimes the answer is no, and it’s not necessarily the writer’s fault.)
How did I feel about the characters? Did I understand what they wanted and why? Did they feel like real people or like pencil sketches done in the dark? In the former case, why, in the latter, what was missing?
Did the story say more to me than just the plot? If the author has a theme she doesn’t know about, I figure she might like to know so she can strengthen or excise it.
I also read back over my chapter notes to see if the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It’s hard to see the colony when I’m focussing on the individual ants.
At this stage I think carefully over all the aspects of the story and make sure I’ve thought of several things I loved about it or thought were skilfully done. There are always some. These go in my comments to the author. I don’t think anyone sends a book to a beta reader without hoping they’ll love at least aspects of it.
Beta readers can inspire as well as critique.
How honest are my comments when I beta read?
I tend to only beta read for people I know at least a little–usually from Twitter or their blogs.
Why does this matter?
I want to know you’re not a psycho who’s going to come after me with a poleaxe.
I want to know you’re not so fragile that a few less than complimentary comments will send you spiralling into despair, put you off writing forever, or make you so angry that you’re mean to a cat. Being mean to a cat is never okay.
So, given the writer is unlikely to combust at what I say, I give it to her straight. I say what I liked and why. I say what I didn’t like and why. I’m not mean (I don’t think–correct if me if I’ve beta read for you and you disagree), but I don’t coddle. If I think something can be better I tell you.
And every single time this terrifies me.
I like the people I beta read for. I don’t want to crush their spirits and grind them up for turkey feed. What if I’m wrong, I ask myself. What if they are fragile and I’ve just pushed them off the mantlepiece? What if they never talk to me again?
Then I think, meh, they’re probably fine. (But sometimes I check, just in case.)
What do I want and not want to hear back from the author?
I’ve got the best and worst you can hope to get back from the writer.
Okay, not quite the worst. The worst is a knife impaling a dead ferret to your front door, or to your pillow.
I’ve got the next worst: utter silence. I might have spent five, ten, or even twenty hours reading this book and formulating my thoughts about it, and to not even get a “thank you” is, well, it’s just rude.
A person can only do that to me two or three times before I swear off betaing for them forever (true story).
I hope at least for a thank you. A thank you with glitter–thank you so much for beta reading my book, your comments were really helpful–is even better.
But you know what’s best? Being told I’m right. Yes, I like to be right. So shoot me.
I also like people to bow down and worship me, and bring His Royal Fluffiness cat treats. Or raw chicken.
That may never happen (at least, not before I achieve world domination), but sometimes I can be right. “That was an excellent point that Arthur couldn’t kill his uncle because his uncle was already a ghost. Thanks to your great catch, I’ve given Arthur a magic sword than can kill even ghosts.”
Who doesn’t like to hear that?
Will I beta read for you?
I might. I read any genre.
I do have a few requirements, though.
First, you have to convince me that you genuinely want a critique and aren’t just looking for cheerleading (which I can also give), and can take my honest opinion without falling apart.
Second, the writing has to not be terrible. I’m sorry, I can’t ignore grammatical errors and awkward constructions. If your writing is full of them all I’ll be able to see is the errors. Not sure? Ask if I’ll look at the first few pages. My email’s on the contact page.
Oh yea, and I have to have time.
How do you beta read, and who would you beta read for? Any good or bad experiences you’d like to share?
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