You’ve agreed to be a beta reader for someone’s book – what do you do now? This post will give you concrete guidance on how to provide constructive criticism that will help the author improve their book.
READ BOOKS IN YOUR PREFERRED GENRES
Ideally, you should beta read only books that are in genres you regularly read. If your cousin has written a romance novel and you’ve never read one in your life, your advice to have the male main character die at the end of the book to provide a more dramatic ending is, at best, counterproductive and, at worst, catastrophic since the primarily rule of romance writing is to provide a happy ending.
If you’ve agreed to read something that is outside your usual genres, you can still offer valuable feedback on basic elements that cut across most genres – are the characters engaging, is the setting realistic, etc. However, be upfront with the author that you don’t generally read books in their genre. If you have time, you might also ask the author for comparable books in their genre and take a look at those before you begin your beta read.
BE HONEST BUT KIND
A close friend of mine works at a school where one of the guiding principles is to always deliver “the kind and careful truth.” I think this principle is so wise that I’ve adopted it in almost every aspect of my life, including my editing, and it has yet to steer me wrong.
In the context of editing, it can be difficult to tell an author that there are problems in their book. But an author can’t fix problems they don’t know exist, so be honest about the weaknesses you see.
At the same time, deliver the news gently. “I didn’t feel much connection to Jane as a character” goes down more easily than “I hated Jane.” Be sure to also find things to praise about the book. If you didn’t like Jane, was there another character you loved? And can you identify what the author did to make you love that character? Sometimes you can give the author positive encouragement while also showing them how to use their strengths to repair a weakness in the book.
As you are reading, take notes on your reactions or highlight areas that are confusing. Be sure to keep track of things you love in addition to problem areas (see being kind, above) – even if it is just a hilarious one-liner. Giving authors a specific example of a place where their setting seemed inauthentic or a character’s dialogue felt off will help them understand and implement your advice.
As an editor, I often find that questions are the best feedback because they alert the author to what isn’t working, while also giving them several possible productive avenues to follow for fixing the problem.
For example, don’t just say, “I didn’t really understand Jane as a character.” Instead, follow that thought with some questions: “Why did Jane have such a strong reaction when London forgot to buy more sriracha? Was she simply having a bad day? Was forgetting the sriracha a symbol of bigger problems in their relationship? Or does she just really really like sriracha?”
If the author doesn’t provide you with specific questions, take a look at the beta reader questions in this post to help you articulate what is and isn’t working in the book.
Remember: you don’t need to provide solutions to the problems you point out. Your job is to show the author what it’s like to read their book – as the creator of the world, an author simply can’t access that experience and needs folks like you to be the voice of the reader.
BE RESPECTFUL OF TIME
It might have sounded easy when you agreed to be a beta reader. Hey, sure, I’ll get this free book and spend some time reading it and then take a few minutes to write the author an email and say what I thought. But reading critically takes more time and concentration than reading purely for pleasure, and carefully articulating your thoughts for the author takes more time than tossing off a casual email.
So be prepared for the process to take longer than you think it will and plan accordingly. Don’t overcommit yourself to more beta reading or a faster timeline than will work for you. On the other hand, try to be respectful of an author’s schedule and get them feedback by the date you’ve agreed to, otherwise they might not be able to take full advantage of your insights.