This Article appeared in InD’Tale Magazine in the Dec/Jan 2022/23 issue.
Beta Readers: How to Be a Great One
Kevin G. Chapman
Authors understand (or should) the incredible value of good Beta readers. Getting early feedback on your characters, plot, and pacing can make any novel or story better. But how can an author maximize the value of your volunteer Beta readers? And if you have offered to be a Beta reader, what does your author want from you? How can you be a great Beta reader?
Let’s start by defining the term. A Beta reader is a volunteer who reads an early draft of a book or story. Maybe not the very first draft (I tend to have three drafts before Beta), but at a point in the writing process where there is still plenty of room for change. A Beta reader can be a friend or relative, but people who know you are seldom the best Beta readers. The best are avid readers of your genre who have no personal stake in you or your book and who can give you brutally honest feedback. Other authors can be great Beta readers, but anyone who is a reader can provide wonderful Beta feedback. But be clear, Beta readers are not proofreaders. A Beta reader is not there to find typos or correct grammar, word usage, or otherwise serve as a copy editor. A Beta reader is reading an early version of your story for the purpose of telling you what’s wrong with it and making suggestions for how to improve it. You should be having Beta readers look at your manuscript several months before you plan to send it to your editor or, if you don’t have a professional editor (you should), then several months before you send the “final” manuscript to someone to proofread and copy-edit the text. The point of Beta readers is to give you ideas about what you need to do over the next few months to make it better.
And how do you become a Beta reader? Ask. Seriously. Send an email to an author whose writing you enjoy and say “I’m a fan of your books and I’d love to volunteer to be a Beta reader for a future novel.” After your author recovers from the shock of getting a volunteer without any effort, they will shower you with gratitude and put you on their Beta reader list. It may be a while, of course, before the next novel is ready for Beta reads. So, feel free to volunteer for more than one author. You can always decline the invitation at the time if you’re too busy.
What authors want from Beta readers – How to be a great Beta reader (these are the same thing)
What authors want from Beta readers is honest, unvarnished, brutal, and detailed criticism. In particular, we want big-picture feedback about the overall story, the characters, the plot holes, the tone, the pacing, and whether you are satisfied by the ending. A Beta reader who says “I loved it!” is useless, except to stroke the author’s ego. (Not nothing, perhaps, but not really what we want.) No story is ever perfect after the first draft, or the second draft. Let’s face it, it’s never perfect, but the object is to make it better as you go through revisions. The point of Beta readers is to root out where the story needs change, addition, subtraction, and rethinking. As a Beta reader, you can tell the author the things they can’t easily see because they are too close to it. Here are a few things for Beta readers to keep in mind:
B-1. DON’T volunteer if you can’t do the job and meet the deadline. An author should tell you when they want your comments back. Four-to-six weeks is a good time frame, but sometimes an author might need a quicker turn-around. If you know you can’t make that deadline, then don’t volunteer. Politely explain and say that you still want to be on the Beta reader list for future books. If you do accept the assignment, but find that you can’t complete it, tell your author right away. Don’t ghost your author and leave them hanging when the deadline comes and they are not sure whether your feedback is still coming. If you can’t do it, just say so. But, if you finish half the book and have to stop, go ahead and send in the feedback you have and tell your author that it’s based on reading through page 152. The feedback will still be valuable, so don’t squander your effort.
B-2. DON’T correct the copy. You are not a copy editor – you are a Beta reader. They are not the same. Do not point out missing commas or quote marks. Don’t fix tense problems or spelling or formatting. Don’t suggest alternate words or point out where the same word was used multiple times in the same paragraph. That’s not what a Beta reader does, and your author does not want you to spend valuable time and energy on things that will be fixed by editors and proofreaders three drafts from now. Focus on the big picture issues. See the forest, not the twigs. (Note: if your author wants you to fix typos and copy-editing issues, then your author doesn’t understand what a Beta reader is. Question your author about what they really want from you so you don’t waste your time. If you want to volunteer to be a proofreader after the text is “final,” by all means volunteer for that assignment, but understand what you’re doing at the beginning.)
B-3. DON’T be afraid that you will offend your author. Don’t pull your punches. Don’t try to be nice. In the immortal words of fictional Broadway theatrical director Roger Debris, “Be brutal, be brutal! Because lord knows they (the critics) will be.” When you are being nice, you are being useless – your author needs your honest opinions, not your pity. If your author can’t take honest criticism, they would not be asking for it. If you think the whole story needs to be re-structured, or that the ending is awful and needs to be totally changed, say so.
B-4. DO ask questions as part of your feedback. “Was I supposed to remember where the secret box was from chapter three?” “What happened to the doctor from chapter seven?” “When did Harry get that gun?” If a question pops into your mind while reading, there are two possibilities. Either the author was hoping that you would have that question (in which case, you have confirmed the author’s success), or (more likely) you are helpfully flagging a problem. Other readers are likely to have the same question. By asking the question, the author now can make sure the story provides an answer, or rewrite the earlier text to fill in the information so that future readers won’t have the question. A simple question written in the margin (or in the notes of your WORD document) can be as valuable as a page of commentary.
B-5. DO make observations about characters. One of the hardest things for an author to see in their own story is how the writing fleshes out a character – or fails to. The author knows the character – knows what makes them tick, knows their fears and desires, and knows where they came from and where they are going. One characteristic of great writing is when the author successfully conveys all that knowledge about the character to the reader, while still telling an interesting story. It is easy for an author to either leave something out or put in contradictory information, which leaves a reader confused about the character’s motivations or intentions (or even what color their eyes are). If you have questions about the characters and their relationships, point them out. “Why didn’t Susan tell her sister where the magic sword was?” “I thought John was in love with Tracy, but then when she died, he didn’t seem to have any emotional reaction.” “Chris tore his right biceps muscle in that football game and hasn’t had a chance to have surgery yet, so how could he hang from that tree with one arm while firing a rifle, unless he was firing with his left hand?” These kinds of observations are pure gold.
B-6. DO point out plot holes. Like character flaws, it’s hard sometimes for an author to see where there is a gap in the story’s logic, because the author knows where it’s going. The author knows that the killer chose the poison because the hero always dipped his French fries in honey mustard. But how did the killer know that? The cops show up at the location where the kidnapper is holding his hostage just as the sun is setting, but the tip came from the informant who had just finished breakfast – so what took the cops so long to get there? If there’s some leap of logic (or faith) that gets you from point A to point B and you’re not sure how that happened in the story, put a big flag on it. And if you spot something that’s impossible (as opposed to merely improbable), make sure your author knows about it. Even if it’s just something you’re confused about, speak up. You’re not the only reader who will be confused. And if you have some expertise about a subject and the author gets it wrong in the story, let them know how to fix it. I’m a lawyer, so when an author writes a courtroom scene where the key witness finishes their testimony and then the judge dismisses them with the court’s thanks – before any cross-examination – I scream. Point out the flaw and save your author the embarrassment.
B-7. DO give feedback about pacing. Tell us when there are long stretches of the story where you are bored, or waiting for something to happen. Let us know where the story is going too slowly, and where you need a break from all the action. Tell us if there is some text – or a whole chapter – that doesn’t add much to the story and could be cut entirely. Readers hate it when a story starts to drag. Authors hate to cut scenes that they spent time lovingly writing. If you don’t say something, you’ll miss a chance to improve the book.
B-8. DO write down your thoughts and notes immediately. Don’t wait for the end to start writing. Put comments into the text. Write your notes in ALL CAPS at the end of the paragraph, on a separate sheet of paper or in an email or on your tablet or . . . anywhere that’s good for you. We want all your thoughts. Don’t worry about organizing them carefully (although that would be nice) or writing them in brilliant prose. Spill your guts! Tell us everything.
B-9. DO give an overall impression at the end. In addition to all the above, when you have finished the story and had some time to think about it, give us your honest overall impressions. What did you love? What bothered you? Were you happy with the ending? Was there something missing that you wanted to see? Would you give the overall book 4-stars? If not, why not? And, finally . . .
B-10. DO tell us how to improve the story. Authors don’t have a monopoly on good ideas. If you see something that you think would greatly improve the story – TELL US!! We might not accept your suggestion, but it is useful information no matter what. You think Tony should have hidden rather than confronting the killer in chapter ten. You think it would have been better if there were more (or fewer) casualties in the big fight scene. You think Kelly should not have died so soon. Whatever it is, give it up now, while there’s still time to make revisions. That’s the point of a Beta read.
Finally, make sure you send in your comments by the deadline and confirm with the author that they were received. Every once in a while, emails get lost or inadvertently deleted. Your author should acknowledge that they got your notes, but if they don’t reach out again to make sure.
We love our Beta readers. We cultivate them and appreciate them. If we can all do better – as Beta readers and as authors – then we’ll all end up with better books. Now that’s a happy ending.
Kevin G. Chapman
 Kevin G. Chapman is an attorney specializing in labor and employment law and an independently published author. His Mike Stoneman Thriller series, includes Lethal Voyage, Winner of the Kindle Book Award, andFatal Infraction, the #1 Police Procedural of the year (Chanticleer Book Review CLUE Award). Kevin just released a new stand-alone romantic thriller called Dead Winner, which Kirkus reviews calls “An entertaining and gripping crime drama” and “a surprising and tantalizing murder mystery.” Readers can contact Kevin via his website at www.KevinGChapman.com.