Chronicling The Craft is a series where I share my experience with working on my YA fantasy novel THE KEEPER’S CURSE, which is now in its third draft. These articles alternate between a) progress updates and fun “TKC-related” content, and b) revising / editing tips. Today it’s the tips-oriented post to celebrate 80% completion of Draft #3.
I had trouble thinking of a subject to cover this time. The past three tips-driven Chronicles (word-cutting strategies, planning changes to one’s writing routine, and wrestling writer’s doubt) were inspired by challenges I experienced at different points during Draft #3. Lately, though, no one single “issue” with editing has stood out to me. Yet I’ve started giving serious thought to the next stage: beta-reading.
Yes, that terrifying yet exciting phase of sharing your writing for feedback is the topic of today’s Chronicle. I’ll share lessons and advice based on my past experience with beta-reading for other writers. I’ll also touch on how to decide who might be a good beta-reading candidate, and give you a peek inside my plans for my WIP’s beta-reading stage. So, let’s dive in!
Five Tips from My Experience as a Beta-Reader
There’s something thrilling about laying eyes on another writer’s words before the rest of the world does, regardless of whether it’s one chapter or an entire manuscript. At the same time, being one of those “first sets of eyes” comes with this responsibility: You’re not just reading the story – you’re critiquing it so you can tell the writer what works and what needs improvement. This requires reading the story with an analytical mind, almost as if you’re reviewing it for Goodreads or a book blog.
I admit I’ve never reached a formal “beta-reading” phase with my previous stories. However, I’ve beta-read for other writers, and I used to attend a writer’s group that critiqued each other’s work. Based on those experiences, I try to ensure any feedback I offer hits these five criteria:
Tip #1: Balance Compliments with Constructive Criticism
The purpose of a beta-read is to help the writer understand what they’re doing right and what needs work. Lean more toward the encouraging side, and they won’t know what to fix. Fall more to the “bloody” side, and you might obliterate their confidence.
Therefore, make sure you balance honesty with fairness in your input. If you connect with a character, cry over a certain scene, or gasp at the plot twist, let the writer know. If you find an inconsistent narrative voice, a lack of character chemistry, or a world-building flaw, tell them that as well. I don’t necessarily strive to give an equal amount of positive and “critical” feedback. Instead, I call attention to the highlights as I find them, just as I would with any flaws.
Tip #2: Ask Questions
As you beta-read a manuscript, you might find you have questions about elements such as world-building, character motivations, or time gaps between scenes or chapters. If something seems off, ask the writer about it in your feedback. (Or, if it can’t wait, send them a quick email.)
The point of your questions isn’t to get answers for yourself. Rather, they’re meant to alert the writer of a story aspect that needs to be addressed, to get them thinking about angles they had missed before. They’re another part of the “big picture” when it comes to constructive feedback, and in most cases the writer will welcome and appreciate them.
Tip #3: Be Specific With Your Comments
I’ve seen a wide range of feedback on my and other writers’ work over the years. Some of it has been positive (“That’s really nice!”), and some of it brutal (“This is garbage!”). What do both comments have in common, though? They’re vague – and vague comments, whether compliments or criticisms, never help.
So, when beta-reading or critiquing, ensure your comments are specific. If the narrative voice is inconsistent, indicate a couple places where those inconsistencies pop up. If you love certain bits of dialogue, point those out as well. Most importantly, remember to include why you thought or felt that way. This explicitness on your part will give the writer an even clearer vision of how to improve their story.
Tip #4: Remember the “Grain of Salt” Rule
When I finish a beta-read, I always include my “grain of salt” rule:
“You, the writer, writer might not agree with all of my feedback, and that’s OK. You have the final say on which changes will work for your story and which ones won’t.”
Bear this in mind as you beta-read a manuscript. The writer will do their best to be open to any comments you offer. They might not incorporate everything you suggest, but they’ll agree with other points you make and be grateful for the effort you put into reviewing their work. (That said, if multiple beta-readers mention a particular story issue, the writer should pay attention to said issue.)
Tip #5: Respect the Writer’s Time – and Ensure Your Time is Respected, Too
I originally titled this tip as “Submit Your Feedback in a Timely Manner.” But the truth is, the relationship between a writer and a beta-reader is a two-way street. A beta-reader should honor their promise to review the writer’s work and submit their feedback by a mutually agreed upon deadline. At the same time, the writer should give the beta-reader enough time to complete the review. If either side isn’t flexible or respectful of each other’s time, the relationship will fall apart.
If you agree to beta-read a writer’s manuscript, make sure that the writer respects your schedule or circumstances, and that you respect their time as well. Before the writer sends you the manuscript, discuss and agree on a deadline that works for the both of you. Then, if you’re unable to meet that deadline later on, let the writer know as soon as possible. This will prevent any hard feelings or trouble down the road between the two of you – and chances are, the writer will be understanding and give you more time to submit your feedback.
Deciding Whether Someone Is a Good Beta-Reading Candidate
Just as being a beta-reader has its challenges, so does looking for the right beta-readers for your own work. How can you tell whether someone might be able to give you the feedback you need? Here are five “criteria” to keep in mind:
#1: A Good Beta-Reader Must Have a Critical Eye
This is far and away the most crucial quality for beta-readers to have. Heaps of praise or positivity might make you smile, but neither will help you determine which parts of your story still need work. Instead, a good beta-reader must be able to give you constructive feedback. They need to assess the strengths and weaknesses of your manuscript, then share that assessment with you in an honest yet tactful manner.
On a similar note, many writers suggest to avoid having friends or family beta-read your work. I generally agree with this statement, since friends or relatives might be afraid of hurting our feelings or unfamiliar with our WIP’s genre. That said, if a friend or family member has given you reliable feedback in the past, then by all means let them be a beta-reader. Two of my offline friends have given in-depth, helpful critiques on my past writings (not to mention one of those friends is a HUGE fantasy fan), so I’ve already invited them to beta-read TKC when it’s ready.
#2: A Good Beta-Reader Should Enjoy Reading Your Genre
The writer’s group I used to attend welcomed all genres: literary fiction, mystery, memoir – and my focus genre, science fiction / fantasy. Most of the time, the non-SF&F writers critiqued the SF&F stories without much trouble. However, sometimes a non-SF&F writer would tell me, “I’m sorry, but I can’t comment on this. I don’t understand magic.” In short, they couldn’t always offer the feedback I was looking for because they rarely read speculative literature.
Whether you write fantasy, romance, horror, science fiction, or so on, your potential beta-readers should enjoy your genre. They don’t need to be experts or hard-core fans. Rather, they need to be able to understand your story and its world or rules, and to provide the right kind of feedback to better your story’s chances of appealing to its intended audience.
#3: A Good Beta-Reader Is an Astute Reader, and Not Necessarily a Writer
Some writers say that only other writers can be good beta-readers. In my opinion, not only is that statement rude, but it’s wrong. Avid readers, professional editors, and book bloggers can also be great choices. See what you notice when you read book reviews written by such people, or talk to them about books they’ve read. If they pick up on things like plot holes, inaccuracies, or inconsistent writing quality, then you might want to keep those people in mind.
#4: A Good Beta-Reader Exhibits Tactfulness
Just as purely positive feedback doesn’t help our work, so does its polar opposite. In fact, that “obliterated confidence” bit I mentioned earlier? That’s how the writer might feel if a beta-reader isn’t careful with their approach.
A true beta-reader will genuinely want to help the writer improve their craft. They’ll be honest about their observations but respectful in their phrasing. It’s a tricky balance, but the right people will take the time to achieve it for your story’s sake as well as yours and theirs.
#5: If They’re Also a Writer, a Good Beta-Reader Might Ask for Your Feedback on Their Work
If other writers beta-read your story, there’s a good chance they’ll ask you to beta-read theirs in the future. And why not? These “swaps” can build further on the trust you’ve already established and turn it into a nurturing, insightful friendship. And while we always want to put our best work out there, we need each other’s help to reach that point. Critiquing each other’s stories is one way of accomplishing this.
So, What Are My Beta-Reading Plans for The Keeper’s Curse?
I’m planning to send TKC to beta-readers in January. It’s a ways out, but given that I should finish Draft #3 before Thanksgiving, it’s a reasonable timeline. And since November and December can be hectic due to end-of-year holidays, I don’t think it would be fair of me to add another task to people’s plates then.
Am I looking for beta-readers? Not really… because VOLUNTEERS! So many people have already asked to beta-read TKC, and I’m thrilled because of it. In fact, I have a teeny problem. It’s not the worst problem, but… I might have too many potential beta-readers for the story. It’s tempting to send it to everyone who’s volunteered, but doing so might make the comment-gathering and Draft #4 revision process overwhelming.
Here’s my solution: I’ll choose a handful of people from the pool of volunteers and contact them privately once Draft #3 is done. That way, I can see if a) they’re still interested, and b) starting in January works with their schedule. (Of course, if someone thinks they’ll have more time to beta-read over the holidays than in January, I’ll be happy to accommodate.) I’ve already approached a few people, but for the most part I’ll check with everyone I have in mind once I’m ready.
Unfortunately, this means other volunteers might not get to beta-read TKC. If you end up being one of those people, I hope that you understand why I need to be selective, and that this won’t cause hard feelings between us. However, I might need another round of beta-readers after this one. I won’t know until all of the feedback comes in and I’ve revised TKC again, but it’s possible that I might still need your help in the future.
How I feel about finally letting people read TKC? Nauseated. I’m not kidding! It’s excitement, anxiety, nervousness, and anticipation all rolled up into a big, squirming skein in my stomach; and it’ll mushroom whenever I see an email from a beta-reader who says, “I’m done!” But I need to take this step. I need to know if the story works or if it’s junk (again, I’m not joking), and I’m too partial to it to determine that on my own. And no matter what, I know the story will benefit from the beta-reading stage immensely.
Looking for More Advice on Beta-Reading or Finding Beta-Readers?
These posts look at all angles of the subject, from how to handle beta-reader feedback to why betas are so important in the first place:
- “A Quick Guide to Beta Reader Etiquette” by K.M. Weiland (Helping Writers Become Authors)
- “How I Do Betas: Tips on Efficiently Testing Your Book on Willing Test Subjects” by Victoria Grace Howell (Wanderer’s Pen)
- “Things to Know Before Sending Your Novel to Beta-Readers” by Katie Grace (A Writer’s Faith)
- “What Should We Look for in a Beta Reader” by Jami Gold (Jami Gold’s Official Website)
- “Why Beta Readers Can Revolutionize Your Writing” by Marcy McKay (The Write Practice)
Have you been a beta-reader for other writers in the past? How do you approach it in terms of what you look for and how you phrase your feedback? Also, if you’ve had people beta-read your work in the past, how have you handled the feedback you received?
Did you catch the first half of the 80% progress report? Click here to read Tuesday’s post, where I shared more songs from TKC’s novel playlist.
Original photo credits: Dustin Lee (banner)