What’s your beta reading philosophy?

Window in a cave: beta reading and discovery

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.

Cliff: beta reading
See? More spectacular.

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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Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

18 thoughts on “What’s your beta reading philosophy?”

  1. You’re a fab beta! You were certainly right with all your comments on mine. 😀 I hope I was a satisfactory beta-receiver.

    “A person can only do that to me two or three times before I swear off betaing for them forever (true story).”

    Goodness, you’re generous! That’s a one strike offence for me. Even if the author thinks my comments are a steaming pile of crap, I think I’m owed a thank you for my time. I certainly thank everyone who reads my work and takes the time to comment.

    I agree that a beta read shouldn’t be about correcting SPAG. I return manuscripts that are littered with problems. I’m happy to be an alpha reader and comment on raw, unedited chapters, but that needs to be agreed in advance (and the SPAG still needs to be at a certain level). If it’s not polished, it isn’t ready for beta’ing.

    I’m a pretty thorough beta. I use track changes for any typos I see, and I highlight any sentences that read awkwardly or jarred me with word choice or whatever. I add a comment whenever I particularly like a line, if it makes me laugh, if it makes me gasp, if it brings out some other emotional reaction. I do the same for any lines that fall flat, or don’t sound right, or seem out of character. Most MSs I sent back will have a few hundred comments in them; a mix of positive and negative.

    This year I’ve also started running a separate document alongside the manuscript called ‘chapter summaries’. At the end of each chapter I put my overall thoughts there. Sometimes this is one line saying I loved it and wouldn’t change a thing, and sometimes it’s several paragraphs. I think it’s useful for the author to see how my feelings towards the story and character develop throughout the MS.

    Then I send both docs back with an email summarising the lingering emotions I have as a reader–the kind of thing I would write if I went to Goodreads or Amazon to review a book–and picking out the top few things I loved and the top few things I suggest can be improved.

    Sounds like an awful lot of work written out like this! Takes me about 20 hours to beta a 90k-ish word manuscript.

    As I said above, I always expect a thank you. I *don’t* expect the author to agree with everything I said, or to act on it. I’m always very clear that I’m only one reader with particular preferences and biases, and my feedback is theirs to discard or use as they wish.

    I think the most gratifying experiences for me are when my comments spark a discussion. I’m fine with a ‘thank you and goodbye’ but it’s sooo fun when an author also wants to talk about my feedback and brainstorm changes with me. It’s so very satisfying when you can see your feedback has inspired and energised them to keep working on that manuscript until they’re as happy as they can be with it. 🙂

    So apparently this is a topic I have to lot to say on! Thank you for the thought-provoking blog. 😀

    1. You certainly were an excellent beta-receiver, and you sound like an amazing beta reader. 🙂 If I can only finish editing my book…

      I’m not sure I’ve ever had my comments spark a discussion, but I’d be thrilled if they did. Actually a great experience I forgot to mention was a book I beta read and then read again in its published version. I kept noticing changes and thinking, “Ah! That fixes issue X I had with the draft.” It was thrilling to see all my comments that the author had taken on board and addressed in her editing.

  2. I haven’t done any beta reading yet, but I used to be pretty active in a website where people shared their stories. I can agree that silence is the second-worst thing you can get. I would get into outright arguments, though, with people who thought my comments and opinions were wrong. They would spend pages telling me about all the nuances of their story that I just don’t understand and blah blah blah.

    Most people were cool, though. I tried to give people suggestions for improvement as well as highlight something I liked about a piece. A lot of people would reply with, “I’m glad you like X about this story, and I see what you mean about Y,” and occasionally they’d even ask for further clarification or some suggestion of how exactly to improve a piece.

    Still, some would completely ignore the complimentary part of my response and totally fixate on the negative. Ugh.

    1. I used to be pretty active on one of those sites too – maybe the same one. 😉 You’re right, sometimes the arguments drove you nuts. Don’t argue with your betas or the people who give you critiques! You don’t have to agree with them and asking for clarification is fine, but arguing? Geez, people!

  3. Excessive mechanical problems are so distracting! I can get through it if the rest of the story is good enough, but it takes like three times longer to beta between pointing out everything, screaming, and trying to read around it. I have sent stories back unfinished three times because of excessive issues. One time due to the fact that the problems were just too excessive, and that was not a good use of my time. The second time was because she was on a strict deadline, and it was just taking me too long because there were a lot of issues. She sent it out way too early! I would never send a first draft to a beta, and I write pretty clean to begin with. It’s so rude. The third time I didn’t finish was because she decided to shelve the story, so there wasn’t a point in continuing.

    At the very least, I think it’s just common curtesy to edit the story to the best of your ability before sending it off to betas. It’s also common curtesy to say thank you, even if the receiver is super upset about the feedback. If for no other reason, than out of respect for the beta’s time. Probably the worst reaction I’ve gotten was a nasty email that was the virtual equivalent of the person spitting in my face. Obviously, they needed to grow up, and more obviously, never again. The best response is what one of my writing buddies does – she mails me a present! Which is just so crazy and unnecessary and sweet. Especially since I’m prone to digging my claws into her stories. I think I’m pretty nice about ripping stuff to shreds though. 🙂

    1. I totally agree on the mechanical problems front.

      I can’t believe someone got mad at you for giving them feedback. Actually, I can, but it’s dreadful. I’m sorry you went through that! Your friend who sends gifts sounds delightful, though. What a lovely idea. 🙂

  4. I can’t say this often enough: you’re an excellent beta reader! 😀 I loved your comments, they were a big help. I’m sorry to hear you got radio silence from some writers, that’s awful. :/

    Hmm, how I beta read…I’ve beta read science fiction, fantasy, various types of erotic romance, and memoirs. Those are pretty much my favorite genres. If the author wants specific type of feedback, I try to stick to that and answer their questions. If there’s no guideline, I’ll just read the book as if I was a real reader, and give my thoughts accordingly.

    I haven’t yet had any bad experiences as a beta reader (fingers crossed that it stays that way!), but it might be because I’m picky about what I read and for whom. If I suspect the author can’t handle critique, I don’t beta for them. Also, if I’m not genuinely interested in the book, I’ll skip. Or if it’s not my genre. Poetry, clean romance, or YA I read extremely seldom, so I probably wouldn’t be a good beta reader for those. Anything with action in it is good though.

    1. Aw, thank you!

      That’s an interesting point about genres. I’m happy to beta read any genre, but I’m probably more helpful when I beta fantasy because I’m more familiar with the genre expectations. Still, a limp plot is a limp plot, whether it’s a thriller or a romance or a space opera. Having said that, I couldn’t beta poetry because I can’t read poetry. It goes straight over my head. 🙂

  5. This is a great recap of beta reading and one to which I subscribe. I agree on all your points and I pretty much do the exact same thing. When the writing needs some work, I’ll do a fairly thorough critique of the first three chapters, but after that it’s mostly the broader aspects of the story. I’m an honest beta reader and I imagine I hurt some feelings at times even though I’m trying to be as nice about the criticisms as I can. I feel bad about it, but I also think that an honest opinion is my way of showing respect for someone’s hard work and demonstrates that I want them to put the best possible work out there. I want the book to be successful! Your beta read was very helpful to me, Alecia, and as a writer I want to hear what’s not working. That’s the whole point, after all! To make the book better. I figure if someone actually took the time to write down a concern, it’s worth a good look, and I’ll make a change 90% of the time. I’m always more than happy to reciprocate 🙂

    1. I totally agree, an honest opinion might sting, but nothing else does the writer any favours. I’m so glad my beta read was helpful for you. You write so beautifully – your book was a pleasure to read.

  6. Three cheers for beta readers like you, who do the job every writer needs. I only use two test readers, who I know can tell me if my books ‘work’ even if they are not their personal taste – that’s very important. I think that far, far too many so-called beta readers are just cheerleaders. A while back I read a bit of a friend’s book, and stopped after about 10K words because she just hadn’t done her historical research, it was ludicrous. I thought she needed to go back to the drawing board. I told her exactly what was wrong (well, I missed some bits out because I didn’t want to make her too depressed!), and she thanked me – she said ‘this is what I need to hear. Everyone else just told me it was great’. Which makes me wonder if they’d actually read it!

    I’m so impressed by this article that it makes me want you to beta read for me. Except that I don’t have any cats and dragons in my books!! And I’m sure that, after writing this, you will have more on your plate than you can handle.

    1. Hi Terry! Thanks so much for stopping by. I’ve never run into a cheerleader beta reader… because I’ve never had a beta reader (I’m nearly ready, I promise!), but I believe you that they’re out there in droves. I wonder if part of the problem is that we’re raised in a society where it’s considered good to be nice, and being critical is just mean. In any case, it’s definitely not helpful. I’m glad to hear you have your two test readers who give you honest opinions, but if you would like me to beta read for you please do flick me an email. I don’t have anything lined up right now, and I’m happy to read books that don’t have cats or dragons (though I also enjoy books with both :)).

  7. This is all excellent advice! I haven’t beta-read much (maybe five books and a couple screenplays), but I try to put myself in the author’s shoes and how I’d want the story to be the best it can be. This gives me subconscious permission to be critical or “mean” because I’m helping it get where it needs to be. (I’m one of those people who *hates* being mean irl.)

    1. Thanks! I think you have a great way of looking at it. We really do need to give ourselves permission to be critical, which is unnatural for most of us. I’m sure the writers you beta for appreciate it!

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