As beta readers, we come across a plethora of manuscripts, all at different stages. There are the manuscripts that make us want to jump for joy and tell the world about the great story we just read. Other times (most of the time), we are reading manuscripts that are not in their final stages, and it can sometimes be hard to focus on the story and not get mired down in the aspects that are not polished. When this happens, it is important to remember a few key things, in order to avoid giving an overly negative critique.
The most important thing to remember when you are beta reading for an author is that they are handing you their word baby. They have nurtured and grown this baby for longer than the average human gestation. At some point, they have gotten distracted by baby’s big blue eyes, and have, very naturally, gone nose blind to its diaper. If you are lucky, the baby is in clean clothing, and all you have to do is coo and suggest a quick diaper change. Most likely though, the baby has had a major blowout, and the author doesn’t realize that their baby is covered in poop. It is your job, therefore, to coo at the baby, acknowledging the miracle of the ten fingers and ten perfect toes, while handing the author a wet wipe. Coo and wipe, coo and wipe. The symbolism isn’t perfect, but you get the drift. Every author is going to have parts of their book that shine and parts that need a little help. It is really important to mention both of these things equally. Is the writer good with dialogue? Do they put emotions into words so that you can sympathize with the main character? Is there a pet in the manuscript that is written in such a loving way that you want to run to the shelter and buy a fur baby of your own? In your mind, these things may seem secondary to the glaring grammatical errors or characters who are not progressing or changing, but what the author does well is just as important to mention as what they haven’t done well. Usually, where a manuscript shines is where the author feels the most confident. Acknowledging the good allows the author to feel a kinship with the beta reader, causing the author to be a little more ok with criticism that is less than flattering. Acknowledge the cuteness of the baby, subtly point to the diaper.
The second most important thing to remember when beta reading is that there is a book for every reader and a reader for every book. I recently beta read a book that offended me so much I had to talk myself out of quitting no less than four times. I had to stand up, walk away from the computer screen, pour a glass of wine, gulp, and then embark on the next chapter. Rinse and repeat. I gave this book five stars. Why? Because the writing was impeccable, the characters were thoroughly developed, and the plot was exceptionally well thought out. I had to look past my personal bias and ask myself if the structure of this manuscript was good. It was. Not everyone is going to be as offended as I was at certain topics. My experience is not your experience. What I find horrendously offensive, you may find funny, and vice versa. Though I am not this book’s ideal reader/audience, I have no doubt that someone out there will fall in love with the story, and as I was beta reading, I had to keep that potential reader in mind.
The third most important thing to remember is that this work belongs to the author. It is theirs to do with what they wish. Giving the author a suggestion as opposed to an order gives the author the feeling of owning their work. The last thing we, as beta readers, want to do is rip a manuscript apart and then rewrite it ourselves. This goes against the very nature of beta reading. We are not copy editing the manuscript. Suggestions keep the feedback light and less official, more in line with a beta read. As an example, if an author has used the sentence: “I seen that car go down the road,” instead of telling the author to replace the word seen with saw, I would simply highlight the word seen and comment seen vs. saw. Or, I would write, “Consider rephrasing using the word saw instead of seen.” Utilizing suggestions instead of orders significantly reduces the negativity that the author will potentially sense coming from the beta reader.
Lastly, try to remember that we are choosing to beta read. This is not a chore or something we do to be able to put food on the table. It is something we do because we love reading. This is supposed to be fun. You are helping usher word babies into the literary world! This is a huge honor. I remember when I was in elementary school, the principal called my mom into his office to talk about my behavior in class. I was (unsuccessfully) hiding novels behind my textbooks and reading during lectures. I couldn’t stand to be away from whatever I was reading for a whole school day, or even between recess and lunch! I assume many beta readers have a similar passion for reading, and this is in turn how we should approach beta reading. With passion! Instead of reading a chapter and then taking laborious notes, I use the comment function in Word to remark on what I am reading, as I am reading it. The author is literally privy to my train of thought as I am reading their manuscript. Where did I lose concentration? Where did I laugh out loud? This kind of informal commentary is essentially what the authors are looking to us to provide. They are looking to improve the experience of the potential reader by having someone experience their story in advance. By helping make the experience of reading these manuscripts better than they were originally, we are helping get more books out there, and maybe, just maybe, helping to get a book into the hands of someone who will fall in love with it.
Bio: Kristina's passion for reading started at a young age. During the day, she works as an administrative assistant both at a hospital lab and at her husband’s financial planning firm. She enjoys up-cycling books into decorative items, including votives, plant holders, and paper flowers. When she is not reading, she is most likely playing video games with her husband. Her favorite authors are Kate Morton, Sarah Jio, and Kristin Hannah.
Check out Kristina's blog: Get on Your Ass and Read.
Something witty should go here, but I haven't had enough coffee.