Critique / The Process / Writing Community

What do you expect from your beta readers?

Critiques are an important step of the writing process, for both the writer and the person doing the critique.

For my non-writer friends and family who dutifully read my blog (and not because I pay them, I SWEAR), I’ll give a short vocab lesson. A beta reader is much like a beta tester for a software program. They are often the first people to read a book/story/article/what-have-you for a writer. They provide feedback so the writer knows what to fix. Writers sometimes have a hard time seeing what is wrong with their own work. Things aren’t confusing to them because they are so close to the story. Beta readers provide a fresh set of eyes and help whip things into shape. With or without actual whips, I suppose that depends on your style.

I have volunteered to beta read for a writer friend of mine. This is my first time–I’m a beta reading virgin. I am quite excited about this opportunity, but also nervous. I want to do a good job helping my friend with her book. Now, don’t worry too much about my friend, she has a few other betas helping her and I know those betas are awesome. So, if I really suck at this (gosh, I hope I don’t), she will still get good feedback.

I thought I’d just throw a few questions out there for people who have done this before or those who have had beta readers for their own work (I’ll have to do this one day too).

–What do you expect from your beta readers? What should a beta reader expect from a writer?

–Do you give/ask for a specific kind of feedback (say, one beta grammar checks, one looks at your character development, one looks for plot issues, etc.) or do you give/ask for general feedback of the whole piece?

–Do you have a certain process for beta reading/critiquing? Do you read the whole piece first and then make notes/changes? Or do you make the notes as you go?

–What is an acceptable time frame for a beta to give feedback? A few days? A week? A few weeks?

–I’m a reader and a learner–have you found any good websites, books or blogs with tips on how to critique?

–Do you critique outside your genre? For instance, if you write contemporary, would you critique science fiction?

–Do you use the same method for any piece of writing you critique, or do you approach certain subjects differently? Fiction vs. Memoir? Romance vs. Horror?

I have asked a billion questions of the writer I am beta reading for, I think I have a pretty clear picture of what she wants, but I think it’s interesting to hear how others do things too. Looking forward to your answers.

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19 thoughts on “What do you expect from your beta readers?

  1. So interesting that you posted this! I just enlisted by adult niece to beta read my middle-grade novel manuscript. Here were my questions to her:

    Is the book any good?
    Which scenes work, and which ones don’t? What adds to the story, and what doesn’t?
    Where are there plot holes? What doesn’t make sense?
    Do you like the characters? Do you care what happens to them?
    Did you want to keep reading? Where does the action drag or your interest wane?
    How are the chapter breaks? Do you have suggestions for changing them?
    How is the “voice” for a 7th grade girl?

    She’s a “beta read virgin” as well! But I think her opinion will be invaluable, as she is smart as a whip, she’s a good writer herself, and it’s been fewer years since she was 12 than it has for me!

    • Your questions are really helpful, Julie. Thanks! Good point about a younger reader seeing if your story makes sense/flows well/has good voice. My sister doesn’t know it yet, but she may be enlisted to help me now (she’s an actual young adult vs. me a…well…not-young adult).

  2. When I do critiques for someone, I do line edits (meaning, if I find any grammatical/typo errors I will note them in that spot) as well as line suggestions (if I want to suggest a different word to use, or note a spot where the flow isn’t right, etc). Most of my notes end up sprinkled throughout the text (using MS Word revisions). Then I will usually include some overall impressions, although I don’t think these are as helpful as the in-text ones I provide.

    Overall impressions are a big part of what I want when I receive a critique (which is why I force myself to provide them). The line-by-line stuff is important, too, but I really want someone to tell me what they think of the plot, the characters. Especially when I read book reviews nowadays, I want to know – what would my book review say right now?

    One thing I wanted to note is that for me a beta read is not the same as a critique. Some people might use them interchangeable, and that is fine, but that’s not the way I use them. So for a critique, I would expect it to be a very detailed analysis, whereas a beta read would be more general. A critique would usually be done by a fellow writer (or editor, etc) whereas a beta read can be done by anyone who likes to read. So, you just want to make sure you are clear on what kind of feedback will be provided (proofreading, line edits/suggestions, overall story feedback, etc).

    • Thanks, Amber. I like the way you look at it–what would my book review say right now? That’s a great way of looking at it. And I agree, now that you’ve said so, about the difference between a critique and a beta read. What I am doing now, by those parameters, is definitely a beta read. So, I will focus more on the broad feedback.

  3. I’ve had the honor, and that is exactly how I think of it, to beta read for a few authors. Each author, even each story, needs something different. The stories I’ve worked on seem to have fallen in one of three groups yet are all considered beta reads.

    1) First read. This is just slightly above a first draft. Usually the author has done a self-edit run through it but now needs some distance. Usually the author is looking for plot holes, problems with character development, etc. rather than spelling and grammar. (This can often be more critique partner than beta read.)

    2) Beta read. This may have been read and/or critiqued before. The author is usually looking for the same things in the First read but also hopes for spelling, grammar, pose that doesn’t flow, pacing, etc. In this level all types of beta readers can offer something to the author from a simple “I liked the story, it worked for me.” to more complex “This scene felt like the start of a plot thread but then nothing.” The best beta readers will be able to help brainstorm without trying to rewrite the story for the author.

    3) Final read. This is where the author is looking for the line edit type pass. Usually, this happens right before the author is ready to send it off to their agent or editor.

    My general rule in getting the information back to the author is first state what I liked about it. I try to cover characters, structure/plot, and pacing…giving at least one positive per area.

    Then I’ll break down anything that didn’t work for me. For example, I’m a deep POV junkie and I warn the author of that before I start listing whatever pulled me out of the POV usually with some comment like, “so take the following in that vein.”

    For spelling and grammar, I turn on the track changes and just note everything I come across there. Anything I’m not sure about but looks wrong or odd I’ll make a note like, “double check X it looks wrong to me.” Same for consistency issues, “you used X here but Y on pg#.”

    One of the most wonderful things about doing a beta read what you learn. It’s one of the best ways to grow as a writer yourself. Not to mention some amazing friendships.

    Sorry, that got away from me. Hope you enjoy the experience.

    • No apologies needed, this was so helpful. I’m really glad I asked this today b/c all of the comments have given me something to think about. It will also provide me with something concrete to come back to later when I beta read again or am ready for beta readers.

      And I agree, it’s a great honor!

  4. When I beta, or when I have others beta for me, I already have a relationship with them, so I can tell them what I’m looking for, and the type of response that I need. Same thing as a reader, I tell them how I like to beta read and go from there.
    When my group first started to formalize our writing relationship, we gave each other samples of writing and commented/critiqued it to give each other a feel of how we edit, and what we look for as we read. For example, I like to read the whole thing first, leave first read feedback, then read through a second time, highlighting/ commenting (via Microsoft word) on a section and again leave overall comments (what I get, what I didn’t get, if I loved characters, if I hated them (in a good or way!)…whatever emotional connection I had, I comment on, because as a writer, that’s my purpose: to connect with the reader.)
    With my writing group, we have decided to be alpha readers/beta critics, meaning we get (and give, whatever the comfort level may be) rough draft/first draft stuff and give BIG picture/idea, high level feedback. From my rough draft (alpha) readers, I get: “the story is fascinating/I like the concept, but I don’t connect with this character/ you have a good skeleton here, keep building/I like the POV change/ the story starts later–move this scene forward.” Then, during later drafts, copy edit/line edits would be added.
    This all seems very intense, which is why I only have a few alpha readers (2-3) who have seen the WIP from the get-go. My other 3 readers, I plan to introduce during my 2nd draft (line edit/copy edit phase).
    In my alpha group, we basically came to the conclusion that we edited/critted the same way, and were after the same kinds of things. And we also assume positive intent in each other: to be able to create the best possible story we can.

    • Thanks for your feedback, Liza. Your approach is basically what I did. I read through the whole piece and finished last night. I made notes of my big picture impressions and emailed it to the writer this morning. I told her this weekend I’m going to go through it a second time and make notes in the document, talking about specific sections. I’m not going to do line edits at this point because I figure she’ll want to make changes to the story first and line editing would kind of be a waste of time if she ends up cutting sections (or adding sections).

      I think this also helped me see how I will handle revisions in my own WIP. I’ll read the whole thing first, then make notes on big picture impressions, then I’ll dive back in to examine it closer.

      You sound like you’ve got a great writing circle/critique group!

  5. I am a beta-reader and I have solicit a couple of beta-readers to read my works. When I pop my writing over to my readers, I let them have a go at it. I want honesty. Brutal, downright honesty because that is what an editor is going to do.

    I want someone who is not afraid to tell me to ‘kill my darlings’. I want to know what works, what doesn’t work, what can be changed. Does my voice work? Do my characters stay in character? Do I use words that match the age of my characters? I want grammar mistakes pointed out. I want it all.

    In turn, I give the same to those I read, unless they are specific. Some only want to know what works and what doesn’t. Some only want to hunt for grammar errors. Some want me to look at queries and see if they are in sync with the novel. For the most part though, they are seeking the same thing I am . . . honesty and suggestions to make the story stronger while remaining nice and helpful.

    I also do line edits as well as leaving a summary at the end of each chapter that explains what I found wonderful and not so wonderful, as well as my suggestions. I always make sure they understand these are only my opinions and to take what they can use and discard the rest.

  6. There’s a lot of great comments here already, and I think most things have been covered. I just have one tip: Write a short summary of the text you beta. I’ve found that it helps the author to see what you paid attention to and in doing so, the author can see if (s)he spent too many pages on something or didn’t make something else clear enough. I don’t know if this is common practice, but I believe it can be useful.

  7. So, I’m just taking notes here to help me with the same situation.I am very excited for this beta opportunity because I already adore the writer. I do think a schedule breakdown would be helpful for all. As far as assigning duties to beta’s I don’t that’s necessary. We all have are unique talents and areas of knowledge and think that will come out naturally.
    This was a great post Erin and the comments were equally helpful!

    • You’re right, every beta will bring a different perspective, so assigning duties wouldn’t be productive. And the comments were all really helpful, weren’t they? I’m so grateful everyone chimed in with such helpful responses.

  8. Thanks for this, Erin. it also helped me figure out exactly what I need done this time around with my piece. I think Raelyn’s got it right. I think what I need most right now is to fluff and punch holes (her #1). The tenses and grammar/punctuation can come later. LOL. I’m still excited to see what my beta readers say, and biting my knuckles at the same time.

  9. I’m a beta reader so I though I’d answer some of your questions. 🙂 Sorry if any of my answers are nonsensical. I blame it on sleep depravation. Speaking of which, it’s time I try to get some sleep!

    –What do you expect from your beta readers? What should a beta reader expect from a writer?
    I find that most people simply expect me to read their work and give an honest opinion of it. As I beta reader I expect the writer to appreciate my opinion, even if they don’t like or agree with it.

    –Do you give/ask for a specific kind of feedback (say, one beta grammar checks, one looks at your character development, one looks for plot issues, etc.) or do you give/ask for general feedback of the whole piece?
    I have had people ask me to focus on certain aspects of their story such as pace or plot holes, but I’ve never had anyone tell me not to comment on something. There aren’t many people so confident in their writing that they want no one to comment on the grammar or plot. It’s not odd to use different betas for different aspects of a story. For example, I am not the best with grammar. I let all the people I beta for know this so they know not to expect much from me in that department.

    –Do you have a certain process for beta reading/ critiquing? Do you read the whole piece first and then make notes/changes? Or do you make the notes as you go?
    I beta as I go.

    –What is an acceptable time frame for a beta to give feedback? A few days? A week? A few weeks?
    This all depends on the betas agreement with the writer. Some want it back within days while others within weeks. It also might depend on how your receiving the manuscript. For me, the sight of a 80,000 word manuscript can sometimes be daunting. It may take me 2-3 weeks to finish it. However, if the same manuscript is sent to me 3-4 chapters at a time—me receiving another batch of chapters upon finishing the previous—I can finish it in a week. Sometimes life gets in the way. As long as there is communication between the beta and the writer, things should be okay. 🙂

    –I’m a reader and a learner–have you found any good websites, books or blogs with tips on how to critique?
    I never really looked. I just read some other critiques online and jumped in! I think practice is the best way to learn. I started critiquing on Scribophile.com and I still do. It’s a great site to check out if you’re serious about improving your skills in both writing and critiquing! 😀

    –Do you critique outside your genre? For instance, if you write contemporary, would you critique science fiction?
    I have critiqued out of my comfort zone. Sometimes I’m happy I did and other times I want to bang my head against the wall. Anyhoot, the best way to avoid committing to beta a work you have to make yourself read is to request a summary/query letter of the work as well as the first chapter for a test read. This week alone I’ve turned down about 10 beta request because after reading the first chapter and query letter they just don’t seem like my cup of tea.

    ~Della

    • Thanks for answering all of my beta reading questions. I think you’re right, looking at an entire manuscript can be kind of daunting and communication is key between writer and beta. I’ll have to check out scribophile.com, I do want to get better at critiquing, I think it’s important. And I’m not so hot with the grammar too, I definitely let my writer know that. I’m OK with the basics, but I’m a chronic comma abuser :). Practice makes perfect, right?

      That’s kind of a neat idea, to ask for a query and summary before doing a read, it’s probably great practice for the writer as well.

  10. Pingback: They Like Me. They Really Like Me. « Erin Writes

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