So You’re a Beta Reader

This post, born in the darkest corners of my mind, is probably a direct result of my own novel being in the hands of a group of beta readers. Right now, I’m in that I-can’t-write-at-all-and-I-totally-suck-phase.

Let’s talk about giving good crit.

As if I’m the expert here. Bah. But, having been on the receiving end of critique and criticism both – yes, there’s a difference – I can tell you what’s helped me and which kinds of feedback have left me blubbering in a corner.

Today’s post will focus on writing critique, but the idea can obviously be applied to anything.
Let’s start here. (Definitions via Google)
critique
/krɪˈtiːk/
noun
  • a detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory.
    “a critique of Marxist historicism”
    synonyms: analysisevaluationassessmentappraisal
VERSUS
criticism
/ˈkrɪtɪsɪz(ə)m/
noun
  • the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes.

    “he received a lot of criticism”

    synonyms: censurereprovalcondemnationdenunciationdisapproval

Writers, artists or anybody asking you to look at their work (or personal situations for that matter) want critique, not criticism. Critique is something that will help you navigate the flaws of your story and fix them, so the final product is better. Criticism is something that will make you want to burn the entire manuscript in a furnace, then hurl yourself in afterwards.

OK, that last part was a little dramatic. 😛

So, what to do?

  • Before you say yes

Someone asks you to beta read their work, but you really don’t have time. Or you don’t want to read it, or you’re not in the right mind space, whatever. Be honest. Remember that this novel is as good as the writer’s child. If someone asks you to babysit their child and you can’t do it, you’ll tell that person, right? Otherwise, their kid will run free, unsupervised in your house. Not an ideal scenario.

If for whatever reason you can’t read the manuscript, be honest about it from the get-go. Or, if something comes up halfway through the novel, just tell the author you won’t be able to finish reading it. Simple.

Believe me when I say it’s disheartening when you send a manuscript to 12 people to beta read and only get feedback from 3. And that after some of those people fell over themselves to volunteer to read it. True story.

Feedback is invaluable to the writer, especially before the novel is published. Those plot holes that pop up after publishing will probably be eternalised. Your function as a beta reader is to help find and repair those pesky plot holes.

  • You’ve said yes

Try to finish reading by the deadline you and the author agreed to. If you’re not going to make the deadline, be honest about it.

Make notes as you read the story. The writer never has to see all your notes, but these will help you give better feedback. What should you be keeping track of?

  1. Those sentences or scenes you loved.
  2. The events you couldn’t quite follow or developments that seem out of character.
  3. Scenes that left you bored and yawning.
  4. Redundancies or repetitions.
  5. Those things that made you pause. A character that had blue eyes two paragraphs ago, but now has green eyes.
  6. A sentence you had to read twice to understand. A word that shouldn’t be there. A character calling someone by another name than they’d previously used. Or anything else that made you go huh?
  • The dreaded feedback day arrives. 

Type out your thoughts, using your notes. It’s not easy, I know, but it’s going to be OK.

  1. Be blunt, but kind. You were asked for your honest opinion, so don’t feel bad to give exactly that. Just don’t be an ass about it. If you didn’t like something, say so, but try to include reasons – these are priceless to the author, who will better understand what is so off-putting about their characters and give them ample time to fix the problems. Don’t try to hide something that you didn’t like to save the writer’s feelings. They won’t appreciate it when they get a bad review after the novel was published and you come out and say you kind of agree with the review. The writer will hurl a character based on you off a cliff in the next novel, I can almost guarantee. 😛
  2. Many critique tip posts will suggest you use a compliment sandwich for the point above. Basically, you put the negative feedback between two positives. Example. I loved your dialogue and the slang you made up. I didn’t like the way Lexi spoke, though. She wasn’t consistent, all sweet and girly one moment, but pretentious and bitchy the next. She seemed a little manipulative and I don’t understand why everyone in the book loves her so much. But Aaron’s jokes were the best! I laughed out loud at many of his pranks and enjoyed following him around the school. You get the idea.
  3. Don’t tell the author what to do. Never go with ‘If it were me, I would have…’ or ‘you have to change this…’ or anything else that comes off as an order. If you want to piss off someone, telling them what to do is a sure way. If it were your novel, you could write it however the hell you want. But it isn’t, so you can’t. Try to remember that months (if not years) of work goes into every draft of a novel. The writer is doubtlessly too close to his or her work to see all the mistakes, which is why you were asked to help. But assuming you could have done better is hurtful and falls in the criticism rather than critique category. And really, writing a novel is no walk in the park.
  4. So, instead of commands, go with suggestions. ‘Maybe this scene would flow better if…’ or ‘I would suggest…’ or ‘you could always try…’ or ‘in my opinion’. You’ll never go wrong with statements like ‘I loved…’ or ‘I didn’t like…’ or even ‘I hated…’ because those sentences are clearly your opinion (and are often the most honest kinds of feedback).
  5. If something in the novel annoyed you, but you can’t really explain why, mention that too. Maybe one of the other beta readers picked up on the same thing and could motivate what went wrong. Most of us writerly types follow the advice given by Stephen King – if more than two beta readers have the same problem, it’s probably something that needs to be fixed. Your feedback, as I’ve mentioned, is invaluable. Don’t feel bad to give it. Really, we can take it. 🙂

Sometimes, you can be as gentle as humanly possible, and the writer will still threaten to commit suicide over your feedback (another true story). In those cases, don’t blame yourself.

Receiving critique is a skill one has to learn and hone. I believe you become more open to crit as you advance in writing-maturity (if that’s not a thing it should be).

For me, the shift from don’t hurt my feelings to be brutally honest happened in that moment when I realised I want to grow as a writer. I don’t want to stay on the same level for the rest of my life. Don’t get me wrong, I still get hurt by criticism, and those critiques withheld to spare my feelings annoy the crap out of me. But when someone says ‘dude, your protagonist is about as exciting as drying paint’ (the true stories continue) I get excited. Especially when the beta adds ideas on fixing the problem.

My favourite example is Nerine’s running commentary while editing the first draft of TPA. She kept saying Cara is too white-room, why isn’t she reacting? At one point, her comment came down to ‘Sweet baby Roosevelt on a pogo stick, she’s surely got to react to this!’ I squirted tears as I cartoon-laughed, but I got the point. Now, Cara reacts, hopefully enough to avoid causing another Roosevelt-pogo stick comment. 🙂

In the end being a good beta reader isn’t difficult. Just remember to be kind and honest – that’s all there’s to it. You’re going to help the author more than you realise.

Thanks for reading.

Yolandie