Have you ever been a beta reader for someone? It’s fun and it’s brain-numbing. I’ve been on both sides of the beta reader; I’ve been one, and I’ve used one.
There’s no guide to being a beta reader. Most betas do so out of their own free time and love of reading. Some do it as an exchange, “I’ll read yours if you read mine.”
I’ve learned a few things about both sides, and I think there should be some guidelines.
First – one of the things that irks me most is when a beta changes the syntax of a sentence. Don’t change wording unless the writer asks. I see it as you changing my style into yours. I don’t like it. If the wording is unclear or chunky, just say so and point out the exact placement of the chunkiness. Don’t change how the sentence is. Let the writer to do writing. Simply inform them of your response to it.
Second – the “I don’t like this word” thing. I can’t tell you how many times I received a chapter or MS back with comments that highlighted a certain word and said “I don’t like this word. Consider using this other word instead.” The instance that I remember most is when I had described someone’s hair as falling into their face because it was too long. The beta suggested that I used the term “veiled” to describe it instead.
Now, I have nothing against that word, but it strikes me as a fan fiction way to describe hair. “His hair veiled his face.” Does it sound that way to anyone else? I suppose I’ve gotten my eye full of bad fan fiction over the years and phrasing like that just feels so “fan fiction.”
Third – I really dislike when betas will give overall comments like “it read chunky in places.” Okay, but WHERE? One of the reasons I ask for betas is to help find those chunky places so that I can smooth them out. These sort of comments don’t help me at all. It’s like “the dialog felt forced sometimes.” Okay, cool, I’d love to fix that, but WHERE? In what scenes? Who’s talking?
These reasons are why I like using the comment function on Word or Google Docs. They highlight whatever text you want and the comment you type directly points to the text in question.
All this said, I know that being a beta isn’t always easy or fun. How do you tell a writer than the entire story need work? How to you suggests tips on style without sounding like you’re insulting their craft? How do you deal with writers that are hard-set in how they’re going to do things? How do you tell a writer that naming the name character Xytemop isn’t a good idea? What if you don’t know where exactly the story fell apart?
Being a beta is about being honest. If you don’t like something, say so. Don’t sugar coat it and let the writer think their novel is better than it is. Help them to become better, harsh words or no. Now, don’t be mean – say it like it is without being cruel or mean. Don’t use words like “stupid.”
I’ve also made a few pointers for writers when dealing with betas:
First, take beta suggestions with some salt. They are only trying to help you and your novel out of their own time and effort. They’re working for free so don’t scare them off with demands and deadlines. A beta reader represents the most important part of the industry, after all – the reader. They’re giving you suggestions based on their personal tastes and opinions.
Second, don’t nag. That doesn’t mean you can’t send an email asking for a progress report after a few weeks without hearing from them, but don’t constantly nag or reprimand them for not giving certain comments. If you want someone with a deadline and in-depth editing, hire an editor.
Third, be a beta reader so you know how it flows on the other side of the stream. Get some experience as a beta. Looking at other people’s writing is a great way to see your own in new light.
Fourth – One beta reader’s suggestions are not final. They’re not the only readers in the world, but if enough beta readers give you the same ball-park suggestions, you might want to look into it.