5 Things Beta Readers Should Know before They Agree to the Task

There is a difference between a Critique Partner and a Beta Reader.

A Critique Partner is someone who approaches a manuscript from the point of view of a writer.

They are prepared to hone in on the nitpicky stuff, be blunt with their criticism, and give ample notes on where the story just doesn’t work.

A good Critique Partner puts significant work into critiquing a manuscript, and they usually understand what they’re in for. That’s why the relationship with a Critique Partner should always be reciprocal in some way. Either the writer is trading manuscripts with them and doing the same amount of work, or they’re paying them a fee to do it.

The role of a Beta Reader can be much more casual and this is where the lines get blurred.

A Beta Reader is someone who has agreed to read the book from the point of view of a reader.

This means that Beta Readers are not necessarily always other writers, or editors, or anyone with any sort of literary association. They might be a spouse or a good friend. And because they sometimes don’t have any experience with beta reading or critique, they might not have any idea what will be helpful in terms of feedback. They might read the whole book and say, “I liked it. It was good,” or, “It wasn’t for me. Sorry.” But they won’t know how to provide the details needed to make it better.

On the flip side, if the Beta Reader is a writer then they might be used to critiquing and go way overboard on picking everything apart before the author is ready for that stage. They might also expect the author to reciprocate in some way that hasn’t been clearly spelled out.

If you’ve been asked to be a Beta Reader here are 5 guidelines to help the process go smoothly for both parties:

Be Very Clear on Expectations
If you’re expecting something in exchange for being a Beta Reader, then make sure you let the writer know that. Reading manuscripts takes time and energy and most people are busy people. It’s important to feel your time is respected. Beta Readers should also be given a reasonable amount of time to finish reading the book. If the writer is on a firm deadline and you can’t finish in that amount of time, tell them they will need to find someone else instead.

Make Sure to Mention the Good
Many Beta Readers assume that the writer only needs to hear about the parts of the story that don’t work or could be improved. This is reinforced by the notion that writers need to be “thick-skinned” and immune to criticism. But writers need to be encouraged just like everyone else. It’s also incredibly helpful for us to know what we’re actually doing right so that we can keep on doing it. Be conscious of pointing out the excellent parts of the story along with the not-so-excellent.

Be a Reader, Not a Writer
This can be tricky for Beta Readers who are also writers. Sometimes it’s even hard for writers to read their own favorite published authors anymore because they can’t get out of that writer state of mind when they’re reading. The writer reads like an editor and a judge. But the reader reads like someone who is looking forward to being taken on an adventure. They tend to forgive minor typos because…they’re not there to edit. They are there to read the story and see if it grabs them, and if not, find out why.

It’s Not about How You Would Have Written the Book
I see this a lot when writers receive feedback on their work. The person giving feedback doesn’t like that it wasn’t a happy ending, or the MFA program they went through taught them to cut 95% of the adjectives, or it turned them off that the main character used so many curse words. It’s normal to have an opinion, but the writer’s job is not to conform their book to everyone’s opinion. Good Beta Readers are able to separate their personal tastes from a logical analysis of what actually doesn’t work in the story.

Writers, Be Real about Your Doubts
Writers should give Beta Readers a list of areas in the manuscript that they have concerns about. If the writer wants the Beta Reader to to focus specifically on certain sections, they need to ask for that. If a few other readers have already gotten confused about part of the storyline, the Beta Reader should know that before they begin. If the writer thinks the ending is weak, they should say so. Reading a manuscript can be a long journey and Beta Readers need to know the signposts for where they should slow down, and where they should stop to examine things.

Beta Reading can be a lot of work, but it can also be a lot of fun. And if you’re a writer yourself, you’ll learn so much about craft from volunteering for beta reading duties. If you’re looking for Beta Readers, or looking to do a little beta reading yourself, check out the forums on AbsoluteWrite for opportunities:

Beta Readers, Mentors, and Writing Buddies

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