• Ejuen Armstrong

The Art of Beta Reading

Helping writers to improve via constructive critique


Do you like reading new novels, even before they've reached the market? Or just love to read? Are you someone who likes analyzing and critiquing stories to give helpful, constructive feedback? Perhaps you have knowledge in a specialist field. If so, then becoming a beta reader might be just the thing for you. This article gives a brief insight into the role, and how you can help provide writers with a much-needed service.

This type of reading usually entails going through a completed manuscript and giving the writer overall feedback. Alpha readers are those who look at the book from its rough draft and make in-depth suggestions. Many beta readers are also alpha readers - even when they didn't plan to be! As someone who does both, I would say that generally alpha is desk and red pen; beta is a lie-in-bed read. A beta reader can help a writer to tie up those loose ends so that their book is truly ready for publication.

In certain cases, if a book is already published, but not selling well, a beta reader can give critical input on where final improvements could be made. Reading doesn't require any specific skills, but there are things you can consider to provide your best feedback.

Alpha is desk and red pen; beta is a lie-in-bed read


Genre

Although everything has its exception, it's difficult to read something that doesn't interest you in the first place. Get as much information as you can from the writer before you begin reading. What's the genre? Will it be science fiction, romance, crime, thriller or historical? Is it specialist or non-fiction? Accepting the genres you're most comfortable means you'll be able to give your best.


Does the book veer into material which you find controversial or offensive? Letting you know upfront should go without saying. Unfortunately writers, in their joy at finding a beta reader, can forget to state these things beforehand.

Let them know succinctly (but not unkindly) what worked for you, and what didn't.


Word Count

What's the word count? Let the writer know how long you expect to take in completing the book. Unless you have nothing else to do, don't give a three–day deadline for a book that is likely to be five inches thick when printed. You may find it's a wordy tome full of complex theories and world building or backstory. This is the type of book that will take time to go through.

Typos

Some writers might not ask you to point out their spelling mistakes. However, there's no harm in listing the obvious ones they or their alpha readers if they had them, have missed. In most cases they will thank you for it. Additionally, don't assume a few typos must mean they're no good at writing: you'll find typos even in contemporary best-sellers. Naturally, if the typos you find are excessive, you should point out this weakness. Otherwise, just take your time to read through. Did the story create any 'buzz' for you? Did it move you in any way? If not, why not? Let them know succinctly (but not unkindly) what worked for you, and what didn't.

Have they mentioned a famous person who's not yet living in their timeline?


Continuity

Continuity errors are one of a writer's worst nightmares. Have they given one of the characters a different name halfway through, or changed the spelling? Do they have The Titanic sinking in 1812 in the South Pacific? Have they mentioned a famous person who's not yet living in their timeline? Highlight these and your writer will be eternally grateful to you for pointing out such bloopers.


Flow

How well does the sentence structure flow from paragraph to paragraph, or from chapter to chapter? The text should carry you smoothly towards the book's destination. Do you find it confusing if the writer changes tense or person? Is it difficult to tell which character's point of view (POV) you're now seeing? Does a brand new character appear midway through the story as if they've been there all along? Bear in mind some writers deliberately do all these things. Ask them if this is what they intended, and let them know if it's not working for you.

You can also point out a word of phrase which seems excessively repeated.


Repetition

You can also point out a word of phrase which seems excessively repeated. Sometimes writers also use this as a device. For example, giving a character a catchphrase to make them seem more real. e.g., "Holy smokes, Batman!" or The Hulk's: "You wouldn't like me when I'm angry." However, if you’re finding constant repetition of a word or phrase within the narrative of the story, it could be a bad habit that the writer isn't aware of.


Is it difficult to tell which character's point of view (POV) you're now seeing?

Be Kind

You might be surprised to hear that many writers suffer from an astonishing lack of confidence. By giving you their manuscript before anyone else sees it, they are placing you in a position of immense power and trust. Don't abuse it. Be honest without crucifying them. Your aim is to give an overview, not to pick every sentence or nuance to pieces.

What are the writer's strengths? Always point these out if you can. Mention a phrase, chapter or event in the book which moved you in some way. Comment on something a character did. This will show that you've taken time to read at least some of the book. If they are happy with you, they may very well recommend you to others, and who knows. Although many beta readers work for free, you could find yourself stepping towards a new career in editing.

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