In preparation for the Royal Ascot contest that I have registered for, I sent the first 7,000 words of my story to Kat and Jilly to beta read. In all the back-and-forth between us (they’re now on my second revision and will likely get a third before my April 1st submission deadline, if they’re willing to re-read it), I thought about what makes a good writer/beta reader partnership. I came up with 6 things (although I’m sure the 8LR — that is, the Eight Lady Readers — can come up with more).
[Unfortunately, this post isn't about finding a good beta reader...that's a whole other can of worms that I'm not going to get into. What I'm talking about here is keeping that writer/beta reader relationship going strong!]
1. Be Mindful of Deadlines.
Face it, we’re writers, and we typically have a deadline. A good beta reader will be mindful of your deadline and will get you comments/feedback with enough time for you to make the changes and possibly resubmit for further review. If they don’t think they’ll have time to give you timely feedback, they’ll tell you. (I admit to being guilty of promising I’d read something for someone, then not getting to it. Bad me! I have vowed never to do it again.) If you’re not available to beta read, say so (but see the caveat in #6 below). Most likely there are other writers who have the time to provide feedback, even if you don’t.
As a writer, be sure to give your beta readers enough time to read and comment (for an entire book, this could take awhile). Don’t expect comments back on a 80K-word novel in a few days.
2. Be Willing to Give and Take Criticism.
As a beta reader, you do your writer a disservice by simply raving about their book and not providing any constructive criticism. That said, it shouldn’t be all negative, either. In anything someone writes there is some good and some not-so-good, so be sure to tell the writer what works, not just what doesn’t.
On the flip side, you as a writer must be ready for the good and the bad that comes with feedback (chocolate and/or wine intervention may be necessary here). Even great writers like Stephen King or Amy Tan get some negative feedback on their early drafts. That’s normal. Expect it and learn from it. If you think everyone should love every word you write from the get-go, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment (and not just when you ask for a beta read, either).
3. Be Specific.
Make sure your feedback as a beta reader is specific. Comments like, “This doesn’t read well” aren’t very helpful. A more specific comment might be, “I don’t feel the marquess’ sincerity in this scene…he seems fake based on what he says vs. what he does.”
In a similar way, be specific about what you’re looking for from your beta reader. In early drafts, it may be that you’re looking for overarching plot-type things or character development, but as you get further along, perhaps you want to know where there’s too much “show” rather than tell, or you’re concerned about dialogue and anachronisms (something I definitely worry about). Or perhaps you don’t want to know about grammar mistakes (that’s why you hire a copy editor). Setting expectations beforehand will ensure your beta readers look for what’s important to you and ignore what’s not.
4. Create a Dialogue.
This kind of goes along with being specific. Jilly and I have gone back and forth a few times via email about the scene where Nate and Susannah meet for the first time…in part so I could understand her comments better, but also so she could understand where I was trying to go with the scene and perhaps suggest an alternative. Same with Kat (only our conversation was about a different scene and over the phone). As a beta reader, make yourself available to discuss anything with the writer in more detail.
As a writer, reach out to your beta reader. Even if you think you understand someone’s comments/suggestions, it wouldn’t hurt to recap them and, if necessary, suggest alternatives based on their comments to make sure you really got it.
5. Be Polite.
This goes both ways. Don’t slam someone who beta read your book and gave you a bunch of negative criticism (even if it was harsh or personal). You made a bad choice for a beta reader. Next time, find someone else.
Certainly, as a beta reader, be mindful that there’s a person behind the book you’re reading, probably someone you know, and you don’t do them (or yourself) any favors by making personal attacks (“you’re a terrible writer”) or making comments overly harsh. Put yourself in the writer’s shoes…if you read your feedback, how would you feel?
You can’t always be the writer. At some point, your beta reader (who is likely a writer, too) will need feedback as well. Turning your back on them (unless you have a really, really good reason) doesn’t foster a good writer/beta reader relationship. Naturally there may be schedule conflicts to overcome, but be prepared that as the writer, you may have to adjust your workload/schedule so that you can give them feedback, too.
There’s lots of advice on the ‘net about how to find a good beta reader, so when you do, perhaps keep some of these tips in mind so that you may cultivate a long-lasting beta reader/writer partnership.
What suggestions do you have on maintaining a great writer/beta reader relationship?