How to Be a Good Beta Reader

In which I natter on about beta-ing because why the heck not?

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I see a lot of writing advice, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any beta-ing advice.  So I thought I’d write down my tips for being a good first reader/critiquer/beta reader.  Obviously your mileage may vary on this, as with any advice, but these are the things I try to do when I’m critiquing, and they’re the things I appreciate from a critique.

  1.  Always remember that it’s not your story.  You’re trying to help the author achieve their vision, not yours.  And to that end …
  2. You want to understand what the author’s goals are with the piece.  Don’t be afraid to ask, “What are you trying to do with this?”  Maybe it’s supposed to be a rip-roaring yarn.  Maybe it’s a somber reflection on Art.  Whatever it is, you read with an eye toward it so that your comments contribute to the goal.
  3. If at all possible, get familiar with the author’s work.  Read their stuff, as much as you can.  This helps you to know what sort of things the author does generally, what their strengths are.  (I’ve also found it super helpful, when someone’s trying to do something new for them, to know what it is they’re working away from.)
  4. Ask questions.  Basic questions like whether or not they want to work in Google Docs.  Questions about what’s going to happen next–I, personally, like seeing a question in the middle of a finished piece (“Holy cats, is Jessica really about to kill Elizabeth?!”) because then I can see how the plot is shaping up from the reader’s perspective.  Things you wonder about the worldbuilding, even if they’re not things you necessarily need to know within the story (though label that–I do “This is not a plot hole, just something I wondered about”).
  5. Be enthusiastic and specific about what you like.
  6. When it comes to critical comments, if you can be specific about why something isn’t working, then be specific.  For example:  “I think you need to flesh out this relationship between Jessica and Elizabeth, because Jessica’s motivation to kill Elizabeth is good, but is not quite landing.”  But don’t get so specific with it that you end up writing the “fix” for the author:  “Jessica should have a past affair with Elizabeth’s husband, and he won’t leave her, and Jessica is jealous and angry!”
  7. Suggestions are fine (“Maybe move this paragraph earlier to make the punchline really sing”), but don’t be offended if the author doesn’t use them.
  8. Sometimes there will not be a lot “wrong” with a story.  That’s okay.
  9. Take your time with the story, while adhering to any deadlines the author needs to set.  I try to read everything at least twice–once to just read it, and then the next time more critically.  I’ve found that the first read gives me a sense of what the end goal is.
  10. BE ENTHUSIASTIC AND SPECIFIC ABOUT WHAT YOU LIKE.
  11. Seriously, tell the author exactly what’s working.  Writing is hard, and when they send you this draft they usually think it sucks.  Critical commentary is important, but if you like this author and want them to keep writing, encouragement is also key.  Tell them exactly what parts were amazing. Some good examples of this:
    1. WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL ME WITH THIS?!
    2. OH MY GOD THEY SHOULD JUST KISS ALREADY!
    3. I love this character!
    4. I did not know I needed a murder scene on a water flume ride, BUT APPARENTLY I DID.
    5. You are really, really good at X, and this scene is a perfect example of it.
    6. When do I get the next one?
  12. Laura, what about grammar and SPAG and all that jazz?  Well, yeah, mark that stuff.  But really, beta-reading is much more than proofreading.
  13. Have fun!
  14. When the story comes out, promo the ever loving fuck out of it.  Tell the world how much they’re going to dig this story that you have inside info on!

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