Monday, September 26, 2011

Doing Your Duty as a Beta Reader

Since I've only beta read one book thus far (Pursuit of a Dream the first book in the Victory Lane Chronicles by Rob Pruneda, available on Smashwords for a steal at $0.99), I can't say that I'm an expert on the matter.  However, as a writer, I do know the importance I place on what I do and I would hope that those who choose to become beta readers would understand and appreciate this importance and place the same amount of it on the books they're critiquing.  Beta reading is a very rewarding experience (no matter what side of the fence you're on.  On one hand, it gives you the opportunity to read the works of other writers, unpublished or published.  For me, reading the books of others gives me a new perspective on my own work.  It gives me ideas on how I can better my writing and, in some cases, on what I'm doing wrong.  Being the recipient of beta reading opens up your eyes (and makes your stomach turn with anticipation while you await the results).  Other people are naturally going to see things that would have otherwise completely eluded you, whereby giving you insight on what you're doing wrong--or right for that matter. No matter whether you intend on e-publishing or going the traditional route, I highly recommend the usage of beta readers to give your work that extra polishing.

As I mentioned, my experience with beta reading is limited, but I still like to think that I know what qualities to look for in a person who is going to beta read my work and what qualities I believe you, as a beta reader, should exhibit when evaluating the manuscripts of others:

Don't worry about hurt feelings:  Your most important job as a beta writer is to be honest.  It's not doing the author of the book you're reading any kind of service for you to sugarcoat any criticisms you may have.  As writers, one of the first things we have to develop is a thick skin.  Harsh words come with the territory.  The fact is, not everyone is going to LOVE your book (shocking, I know).  As a beta reader, you need to point out all the errors in the plot, the predictable dialogue, the errors in grammar, and--worst case scenario--whether a major re-write is going to be needed in order to salvage the book. You're there to give your honest opinion; that's why the author asked you to beta read for them in the first place.  If they're a reasonable person, they'll be able to take the verdict they receive and better their work.  If they're not, then they were never ready to handle their work being beta read in the first place.

Never beta read the works of your friends/family:  There is no way you can be 100% truthful and unbiased with those you care about.  Think of it as the crappy children's art syndrome. Okay, perhaps that's a little harsh, but for those of you with kids, you may know what I'm talking about.  When your child brings you that "puppy" they drew that looks more like an atomic bomb exploded in a room full of Smurfs, your reaction isn't, "What the hell is this crap?" It's more like, "Oh my gosh, sweety.  This is so beautiful!"  And you mean it, for the most part.  When you read the works of those you care about, like it or not, there are blinders that naturally appear.  What one may perceive as awful, another may perceive as needing only a slight tweaking.  Even if those blinders never show up, there is still the thought that you are going to have to see these people on a regular basis and you don't want your words to have completely shattered their dreams (making for a very awkward Thanksgiving). Read the works of close friends and family for fun, but never go beyond that.  Giving someone false feedback is never helpful.

Break out your fine-toothed comb:  Next to being honest, a beta reader needs to be thorough.  Read each page, digest every sentence.  Don't just look for those errors that stand out, look for those errors that are camouflaged in the midst of otherwise flawless, beautiful writing. Be watchful of small glitches in detail.  Did a character leave his or her coat at home and it has now magically appeared while said character is in the midst of a 600 mile road trip?  Are the characters being true to the original picture the author painted?  Is the story flowing like a babbling brook or is it slowly trudging uphill in a snowstorm? After reading their book a hundred times over, the author tends to become blind to the obvious; their minds mentally correct the mistakes.  Beta readers provide new eyes and have the capability of spotting those errors in detail missed by the authors after their 101st read-through.

When in doubt about a grammar/spelling error refer to sources:  Break out the dictionaries, thesauruses, and various other books on the proper usage of commas, semi-colons and em-dashes.  None of us are experts nor do we always avoid making grammatical errors.  If you don't know whether something is wrong, refer to the sources.  If you still don't know afterwards, then throw a suggestion in anyway.  At least this will give the author something to think about while simultaneously quieting the nagging monkey on your back.

Avoid discouragement:  As much as you need to be honest with your criticisms, you should never tell an author to give up on their dreams.  All writing is subjective.  There are published authors out there whose books I prefer not to read as their writing style doesn't do anything for me.  But, they're published authors and they have a fan base that I can only dream of.  Give the author your honest opinion, point out what doesn't work and what you didn't care for.  However, never under any circumstances tell them to quit what they love nor discourage them from writing more in the future.  Encourage re-writes and offer to read them once they've completed them.  Just because their writing doesn't work for you doesn't mean it won't for others who read it.

Your Preference v. Their Writing: Let's face it, we all have our different tastes and there are just certain books you see on the bookshelf that, although they may be well-written, simply just don't appeal to you because you're not into love triangles, ghosts, robots, cowboys or talking rodents. Hence the existence of genres.  Chances are, unless you stick to beta reading exclusively from your own genre, you're going to be asked to critique a book containing subject matter that appeals very little to you, if at all.  This is where you need to put your own preferences aside without allowing them to bias your opinion and focus on the writing itself.  Sure, you may rather endure Chinese water torture than read a shoot-em-up Western, but you can't let that stop you from focusing on sentence structure, plot lines, grammar, character development, dialogue and all the other jazz that comprises truly great writing.

Timeliness and Follow-Through:  When you agree to take on somebody else's work, you're essentially agreeing to make it a priority.  Granted, there are those unforeseen events in life that can act as a set back to your duties as a beta writer, but you should still keep on top of things by shooting the author a quick e-mail letting them know where you're at in the book, your thoughts thus far, and a reasonable time frame for completion.  Yes, being thorough takes time, but that doesn't make it acceptable to begin another writer's work when the snow is flying only to finally complete it while you're sitting on your back porch in your bikini sipping a mojito. When you agree to take on someone else's work, you agree to make it as important to you as it is to them and to honor the fact that they have their own deadlines and expectations of when they'd like to see their work completed.

What are your thoughts?  Have you ever beta read for someone else?  Ever had a bad experience with the beta reading process?


Margaret Yang said...

Very timely blog post for me because I'm beta reading for a friend right now. It's tricky to suggest improvements in a way that won't harm the author's psyche. Thanks for the reminder to be honest!

Fred said...

Nice one. If you know any that want to practice on me, I'm looking for beta readers. I don't mind if they cut my hair funky, or give me bright blue mascara, it's all in the way we learn.

Seriously though, it is a fine balance being a beta reader sometimes, and I agree on Your Desires vs. Their Wants. Bridging that gap can be the skill needed to communicate effectively what you are trying to say.

Sylvia Hubbard said...

I sent out three books to people who requested to be a beta reader and I only got one response back. It was very helpful to my writing and I was very appreciative to that reader.

I was very disappointed with the other ones and they had the nerve when I sent out another request for a different book to ask for a copy of that.

Rachel Daven Skinner said...

A lot of great things to keep in mind, thank you.

I'm curious, does one Pay beta readers? What's the difference between a beta reader and a freelance editor?

Rachel Daven Skinner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Beta reading has always been one of my favorite pastimes. It's wonderful to be a part of someone else's creative process! These are very good reminders to be honest, but encouraging. It is good to immerse yourself in the writer's work, to understand their style, before you make suggestions. Because honestly, it's not about telling the writer what you would do with their work. It's helping them see what they might do to their own work. Thank you for the thought-provoking post!

Dynielle said...

This is a great blog, so informative and helpful. Just one question, where do you find a beta reader if you need one?

Dynielle said...

This is a great blog, it's very informative and helpful. Just a quick question, if someone is needing to find a beta reader, where can you go about finding one?

Sara Furlong-Burr said...

Margaret-You're very welcome. Glad I could help. Thanks for stopping by!

Ryan-If you're still looking I'd be more than happy to help.I'll only add a little bit of lime green eyeshadow. I agree, being a beta reader is like walking on a tightrope.

Motown-Unfortunately, you're going to run into those type of people. :-( Look on the bright side, they must have enjoyed your writing if they asked for more, lol.

Rach-To be honest with you, I really don't know. I think a freelance editor is more likely to get paid than a beta reader. I believe some beta readers (the more experienced ones who advertise their services) charge. Less experienced ones, however, will probably only ask that you read their work in return.

amaranthmine-I thorougly enjoyed the beta reading process and I completely agree with you. Thank you for stopping by my blog!

Dynielle-Thank you. I really appreciate it! I found a beta reader on Twitter where I've networked with literally thousands of other writers. You can also find them through writing forums such as Absolute Write.

Unknown said...

Great post! I will say I have become great friends with some of my beta readers. We have an understanding that when it comes to our writing we are ruthless, because we know editors will be.

Natalie Aguirre said...

These are all great tips to consider in beta reading. It's very important to sandwich the suggestions for improvement with positive comments. There's always good to point out in manuscripts.

I just heard about you from Pam Torres. I live in Ann Arbor and grew up in Benton Harbor. My blog is Literary Rambles.

Molly Spring said...

I've only had on experience being a beta reader, and was surprised by not only how good it felt to help another writer, but how much I learned about my own writing from the experience. Looking at someone else's work with a critical eye helped identify some of my own strengths and weaknesses. It was definitely a win-win situation.

Unknown said...

Good post. I've been writing some crits online for short stories, but I'm trying to jump off that cliff and agree to beta reading.

Your post and the comments make it seem a little less daunting.