November 27, 2012

How to Rock Beta-Reading

If you're a writer, you've probably asked someone else to read something you wrote and give you an opinion. That, in a nutshell, is what a beta-reader should do for you. Read your work, and give you some kind of amazing sent-from-heaven input that will make your work approximately ten million times better than it was before they read it. But let's face it, that's not entirely realistic. In my experience a good beta reader will only improve your work by a factor of ONE million, not ten.

But I digress! What I really want to share are my own rules for beta reading. A general how-to guide, for those of your just starting out, or recovering from a nightmare exchange, or looking to up your game. This advice is based on a solid year of beta exchanges, during which I believe I've learned the ropes. I'll let my CPs chime in on that one--what's a CP, you say? A Critique Partner. They are the kind of beta readers who will give you detailed, writer-based feedback. NOT beta readers such as teenagers, whom I view as target market samples--giving your YA novel to teens is ethnographic research in my book. I've explored that process as well, but the rules for that kind of beta exchange will have to wait for another post.

For now, let's focus on a beta exchange between CPs, people (most likely writers) who agree to read each other's work and share feedback. Here are my rules for a smooth exchange--because, like any exchange, there is the potential for a swap to go awry. Attending to the 'business' side of a beta swap right away can save you headaches and put you on the right track.

How to Set up a Successful Beta Exchange
1. Swap details first. Novel title, genre, short description or query, and WORD COUNT. Note the caps there? Yeah. Word count is pretty important in an exchange. If you've written 35K, and they've written 140K, you might not want to swap. Or you might! It's totally up to you. But exchanging this info up front will give you a chance to kindly opt out if you are not a match with your CP.

2. Swap samples. Some people swap the first three chapters. Other swap the first 25 pages. Whatever you swap, I recommend trying a sample of someone's work before you sign up to eat, I mean, read, the whole thing. If only we could do this in restaurants, too, right?

3. Establish swap expectations. This is the 'business' part of a swap. Set a timeline for the exchange. Agree to a format for feedback. Do you want notes in the Word doc? Do you want to use 'Track Changes'? Do you want a separate summary written in email? Do you expect the MS to be formatted a particular way? Will you be open to more questions after the crit, or reading a future revision?

4. Establish feedback expectations. There are INFINTE topics to address within a work in progress. It's a good idea to give your beta reader an idea of the feedback you're looking for. Is this a first draft? Are you looking for general feedback on plot, character development, pacing, and voice? Or are you at the polishing stage? Are you looking for line edits, grammar tweaks, and quick kills for dangling participles? Know where you are with your MS. There's no sense in getting line edits on a first draft. Save that picky, time-consuming work for later drafts whose plot holes have already been fixed.

Once you've chatted with your potential CP, found that you have a nearly identical word count, and exchanged samples (only to discover you must have been separated at birth), it's time to get to work. And how exactly do you do that? Well, here's my best guess, based on beta reading a couple of dozen MSs in the past year.

How to Beta Read
1. Remember that this is not your MS. However you give feedback, and whatever level of critique you have agreed to, do your best as a reader to tap into your CP's unique point of view. Try to push that unique voice and story in the direction it NEEDS to go, not the direction you would take it if you were writing this story. You can show a million writers the same picture, and we'll all write a different story. Help your CP write theirs, not yours.

2. BE HONEST. Notice that I put that one in all caps? That's because beta reading is a total waste of time if you aren't prepared to give honest feedback. Say what you mean. As a reader, and as a writer. Don't shy away from pointing out writing that needs work. Or voice that goes in and out. Or characters who act OUT of character. Or plot holes big enough to drive a car through. Or whole passages, or even whole chapters, that bored you to tears. Whatever level of feedback you've agreed to give, give it kindly, but with total honesty.

3. Specificity is a gift. As a beta reader, it's easy to feel like we need to solve the other writer's problems. Don't worry about that. Worry about telling your CP EXACTLY what you are experiencing/thinking/questioning at any part of the novel. Rather than making suggestions, ask questions. When your CP reads your question, they will know what to do. They're writers!

4. Do the work. What do you get out of beta-reading for another writer? Well, other than eye strain (I kid) (not really), completing a beta-read teaches you how to write. Yeah. So I think the effort is worth it. Because when you read someone else's story, you see things about your own writing that you would not see otherwise. For every minute you spend scrutinizing someone else's pages, your pages will improve. I promise. Plus, being a great CP is rewarding. You will attract even better CPs, people who are agented, or even published. A great CP does not go unnoticed.

5. Beta Reader Checklist:
-- Did the opening sentence grab you? The opening chapter? Does the novel start where the story starts (most don't in the first draft)?
-- What were the most exciting parts of the story? The most boring? How was the pace overall? In each chapter?
-- Did you like the MC? Were the secondary characters well developed as well? Did any characters act out of turn? Was the antagonist well-developed as well? Did you understand the antagonist's motivation? Did you have sympathy for them?
-- Was the world-building complete? Were there sensory details? Was there any info-dumping?
-- Was there telling instead of showing?
-- Was there enough dialogue? Enough action? Enough description?
-- Were there bad writing habits? Too much passive voice, dangling participles, lack of sentence variety, cliche phrases, bad dialogue tags, too many adverbs . . .
-- Did the story end in the right place?

And finally, one note on RECEIVING a beta-read. Thank your CP. And don't ask any questions, not for a minimum of 48 hours. Read through their feedback carefully. If there's one thing I've learned from beta swaps, it's that every single reader shares an observation that improves my work.

Because regardless of writing skill, most writers are great readers, and they have feedback aplenty. The first time you read beta feedback, you'll most likely have a heart attack. But rest assured, after the shock wears off, you'll be energized. And excited. And thankful. And you will LOVE your CPs.

Read About my First Beta-Read!


  1. You are SPOT ON! The first time a beta reader gave me a critique I almost passed out cold. BUT... their comments made my MS so much better than it would have been. Great pointers here!

  2. Oh I hope you don't mind me borrowing this. I really like it. Very organized.

  3. Eye strain? :) Great list! I totally agree with all of it. Beta readers are invaluable, especially good ones and you've definitely done a good job of covering the basics. So... when will you be ready for another exchange? ;) (Joking, I'm not that far yet)

    1. Great to hear you're working on a new one, T!

  4. This is awesome. I'm passing it along to my beta readers now.

  5. Love this, Melanie! Going to share it with my CPs.

  6. Some great tips Melanie!
    I've had the good fortune to find several. I was sure to tell my betas, who had only 4oK that my manuscript was 80K, at the start; now down to 72K--big improvement for my genre. Thanks to my beta for helping to guide where I might cut. I chop suey-ed that beast! :)

    1. Hey buddy, thanks for stopping by! And thanks for sharing my blabbering with the world :)

  7. Finally! Now I feel like I actually know what I'm doing ;)

    Thanks for the great tips Melanie!

    1. I just nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award -

      Keep up the great work!

  8. This is great - so organized, and I definitely agree with you that critiquing someone else's work helps so much. Not only is it good writing karma, but you really do learn how to look at the pages more critically when you start looking at pages you didn't write yourself. Thanks for the great post!

    1. Thank you! And I totally agree. I've beta read for many people without even swapping, because, honestly, I really enjoy it. Part of me wants to be an editor one day!

  9. It's a tricky role and one that shouldn't be agreed to without some thought. Rally good post, Melanie!

  10. Really good post. Typo was the computer's fault, certainly not mine! lol!

  11. I particularly like point #1. I've quit asking certain people to beta read for me because they don't understand that I'm not looking for a co-author, or collaborator. If a story is set in 18th century China, I don't want to be told to move it to Mars, or to make it a police procedural if it's a supernatural thriller. I will likely be referring people to this post ;)


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