Chronicling The Craft: A Conversation About Beta-Reading, From Nailing Your Critiques to Finding Good Candidates

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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:

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)

21 thoughts on “Chronicling The Craft: A Conversation About Beta-Reading, From Nailing Your Critiques to Finding Good Candidates

  1. This is very timely, as I’ve just had one of my manuscripts back from my chief beta-reader with some suggestions for a fairly hefty rewrite:). I had the benefit of being able to discuss her reservations and suggestions face to face and now have a clear idea how to jink the storyline and move around the main events so as to improve it. I’m very lucky as she is a gifted writer and experienced editor, so having her as a beta reader is very fortunate. But all your points in this excellent article are spot on:).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t had anyone beta-read an entire manuscript, but I’ve asked some of my reader friends to go over a piece before I submit it to a contest or post it online. But they’ve only given me praise and highlighted a few typos, which isn’t really great because those are mistakes I could’ve corrected on my own and all I was looking for was the “bigger mistakes” to be pointed out, so to speak. So I agree with the point that says giving it to close friends doesn’t really help. Approaching somebody who enjoys reviewing books objectively or writer friends would be a better option, in my opinion.
    I just offered to beta-read for an author a few days ago and I’m really excited about it because it is the first time I’m doing so for a finished manuscript. These tips will certainly help me in giving the author my honest feedback. Thank you for sharing them! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, that’s the tough part about having friends beta-read your work sometimes. They don’t always look at stories critically because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, or because they’re not used to reviewing the big picture in that manner. I ran into that bump in the road when I used to share drafts of my poems with my college friends. They’d tell me how awesome each poem was, but that was it.

      But like I said, if you’re lucky enough to have friends who DO look at stories or your writing objectively, then by all means ask them if they’re interested. I can’t wait to have Fellow Fantasy Fan sink his teeth into TKC and tear it apart (metaphorically speaking… I hope… ), because that’s how he is when he reads.

      That’s great about your beta-reading opportunity! I’m glad this post came to you at the right time then. 🙂 And thanks for your comments, Nandini!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great advice! I’ve never beta read or had anyone beta read for me, but I teach composition classes, and your advice lines up really well with what I tell my students to aim for in peer review. Be polite, but not SO polite that you don’t give useful feedback. And definitely ask questions. Don’t assume that if you’re confused it’s “just you” and it’s just that you personally don’t understand. The writer may actually need to elaborate! (On the writer’s end: If someone asks you to explain something, that means it is not clear in your writing. Don’t verbally answer the question being asked, thus only clarifying it for that one person. Add to answer to what you’ve written!)

    I know there are great volunteer beta readers out there, but if I wanted one at some point in the future I think I would consider paying one, at least if I were on a deadline. I think (sometimes, not always) when people do things for you as a favor, free, they don’t prioritize it. If I paid a beta reader, it would be with the expectation the work was definitely completed by the agreed-upon deadline. (Alternatively, I suppose you could just get several volunteer beta readers and assume at least a couple of them will be timely.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Briana! And that’s a good point you bring up about writers responding to beta-reader questions. If they’re asking a question, it means you’re not clear about that topic in the story itself. And if multiple betas ask you the same or related questions, then you clearly still have work to do in that area of your manuscript.

      The only “argument” I’d make about paying beta-readers is that not all writers can afford to do that. Of course, it would depend on how many betas are involved and what’s considered a fair sum for the work. But I live on a tight budget, and I’m sure other writers do too, and that’s often the deciding factor on whether I can afford to do something (not just paying beta-readers, but in general).

      For the most part, I’ve found the most willing beta-readers to be people who genuinely want to read the manuscript. And quite often they might volunteer to do it without you even asking them. There’s no point in having someone beta-read / critique your manuscript if they’re only half-interested in it – because they probably won’t finish it. So the more driven or excited your betas are about reading your story, the more likely you’ll get complete feedback from them.

      You mentioned that you teach composition classes. Do you have any additional advice on the “technique” side of beta-reading or critiquing that writers might find useful?

      Like

      • Definitely money is a concern. (Even if I had a lot of money I’m not sure I’d want to pay for things I didn’t have to!) I think you’re very right that people who have enthusiastically volunteered to read your work will actually do so. I would just keep hiring a beta reader in the back of my mind if I tried other avenues that didn’t work out for me. I’ve read enough author blogs to know that beta readers sometimes just disappear on people. 😦

        You seem to have covered most of the things I go over with my students in terms of critiquing! I guess I might add that it’s useful to be specific with your critiques where possible. I know beta readers are not the equivalent of editors and are not expected to go into great detail. But I think it’s one thing to say “This is confusing. You should elaborate,” and another thing entirely to state what exactly it is you find confusing and exact information you think could be added.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful post Sara!
    I’ve been a beta reader three or four times now and it’s an experience I love! I think it’s such an honour to help a fellow author hone the potential of their story. And I always end saying the same thing: these are just my views, just my opinions, feel free to disregard whatever doesn’t feel right for you 🙂
    Now as I’m about to present my novella to a few beta readers, I’m terrified!
    Good luck finding the right beta-readers for your work… I hope my name finds a way into that pool… if it gets pick, I might just celebrate like I’ve won the lottery (as long as that doesn’t end in stoning)….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Faith! It’s funny, because I’m in the middle of a beta-read right now, too, so writing this post was relevant to me in more ways than one.

      Beta-reading used to make me nervous, actually. I’m very thorough with my comments, so I used to worry that the authors would be offended by the “volume” of my feedback… But I’ve learned that how you phrase those comments is just as important as how many you offer. So, like you, I get excited when I have the chance to read someone else’s work before it’s published, and I feel a lot more relaxed about it now. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great tips, Sara- and I recognize some of your reading techniques from when you beta-read for me 🙂 You did a wonderful job and handled it so professionally.
    I hope I’m still on your list for reading TKC at any point, whether after this draft or a future one, because I’m so eager to read what you’ve been working so hard on!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Sunday Post – 9th October | Brainfluff

  7. Wonderful post, Sara! I have been a beta reader several times now, and it’s an exciting experience each time. Now that my book is ready, this will be my first time having a complete manuscript I wrote beta read by others. Am I nervous? Incredibly! But I’m also eager for the help I know beta readers can provide.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s definitely the norm to feel nervous before sending a manuscript to beta-readers. You’ve worked on it for X amount of time on your own, and then the thought of sharing it with anyone for any reason scares you. I think that’s why I’m trying not to think about TOO much before I reach the end of Draft #3… but my brain can’t help it sometimes. :S

      Thanks as always for your comments, E.!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This is a great post! And thanks so much for the mention. ^ ^ If you have a slot free, I’d like to beta. Best wishes with your edits. I too like to wait until after the holidays to request betas. It’s why I usually request in winter (after Christmas) or summer.

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Chronicling The Craft: Draft #3 Is DONE!! | Sara Letourneau's Official Website & Blog

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