The Tricky Business of a Beta Read – Avoiding Hurt Feelings & Getting the Most Out of It
Last year I was asked by a new-ish author for a beta read. Stupidly, I agreed without asking first what exactly she wanted from me. I read her book–a hot tasty read that didn’t have a typical “romance” plot for the spanking romance genre. I gave feedback about how she could make it fit the romance genre, and talked about the things I liked. She never spoke to me again. I’m serious.
If you know me, you know I’m nice. I never want to hurt anyone’s feelings. If I had known beta reading would hurt this person, I never, ever would have done it. I don’t need to earn enemies when I’m taking time away from my own writing and trying to do someone a favor.
Let’s face it–giving and receiving feedback is a tricky business. When giving, our goal should always be providing feedback in a way that leaves the recipient feeling expanded, not contracted.
When receiving, being clear about what kind of feedback you’re looking for is helpful. If you just want copy edits, say so. If you want content edits, say that, too. And particularly if you have specific questions, let them know. If you really just want someone to tell you that they love it, say that! I’m serious! I just finished my first middle grade novel and I was feeling quite fragile about it. When I gave the first two chapters to a friend, I told her I wasn’t ready for any serious critique, I only wanted to hear if what I had going was working. She understood me perfectly, told me she loved it and couldn’t wait to read more (a true friend–lol!).
But a true friend is also one who helps you grow. Some of the very best beta reads I’ve had came from Trent Evans and Maren Smith who taught me about craft with their edits. For example, I have a tendency for hyperbole. Trent crossed out one of my adverbs and pointed out that I’d already said that with such-and-such body language. Oh! I didn’t need to overstate. I have a number of other friends with whom I swap manuscripts on a regular basis and we can rely on each other for both honesty and the understanding that all feedback is given with the intent to help, not hurt.
Why bother with beta reading? It’s not just useful for the person receiving. Learning to give feedback helps you grow as well. It’s a way of studying craft. You notice what doesn’t work in a story and have to figure out why it doesn’t work. The better you get at this, the more your own writing improves.
Giving a Helpful Beta Read
- Ask what they’re looking for. Back to the experience I related at the beginning. Had I asked what she wanted, I would’ve known not to critique. Based on that experience, I don’t beta read for people I don’t know that well anymore because there’s just too much chance for misunderstanding.
- Emotional Response. My colleague Katherine Deane is great at this. She lets me know her emotional responses to everything in the story, as they come up. Be the annoying friend who talks through the entire movie. If you can see the heroine is headed down the wrong path and the author has you on the edge of your seat, make a little note in the margin telling them. (Like “Eek! or Oh no!”). It’s fun for the author to know when something works. If the hero does something swoon-worthy, tell them! Likewise, if one of them pisses you off or irritates you, say that too. It doesn’t mean they have to change it–their intent may have been to show their character as flawed there. Your job is just to reflect back how you’re reading it.
- Noting problems. Always try to give the why behind it all. If you hated the main character, point out the specific places and explain why they bothered you. Remember, it’s just your opinion. Someone else may not read it that way, so you’re not saying it’s right or wrong, you’re just explaining your responses.
- Be specific. The most damaging criticism you can give someone is phrased in generalities. “I just didn’t like it.” or “It didn’t work for me.” That’s where you have to dig deeper and really explain why you had the response you did, pointing to specific techniques used or areas that lacked something. If you were bored, try to explain why using concrete examples: “While the sex was hot, there was no dramatic or sexual tension because the hero and heroine’s problems were all solved in Chapter One.”
- Keep the author in the driver’s seat. In general, it’s best to let the artist solve their own problems. Your job is simply to point out where the problems (or your perception of problems) may be. A simple and rather obvious example is pointing out they’ve used the word “murmured” too much and offering a list of alternatives, rather than crossing out murmured and inserting your own choice. This goes with plot suggestions, too. That doesn’t mean I don’t ever offer or receive them–I do. But leave them loose. Don’t say, “I really wanted to see her kick her boss in the nuts and stomp out” here. Instead, you could say something like, “I was disappointed she never faced off with her boss, have you considered…?”
- Note copy edits. When I beta read, I give content and copy edits at once. I mean, why pass by a typo when you can fix it?
Receiving a Beta Read
- Tell the beta reader what you want. I usually want the whole she-bang–content and copy edits, anything that comes up for them. I do also sometimes have specific questions, like “I want to make this a little longer, is there any place you think needs more development?” Sometimes if I’m not sure about a character or plot development, I wait until after they’ve read it, so I don’t influence their initial impression and then I ask the questions.
- Talk about Timing. The worst thing ever is when you’re working to a deadline and your beta reader doesn’t get back to you. If you’re hoping they can do it in a few days, ask them up front. If a few weeks is fine, tell them that, too.
- Remember you’re in the driver’s seat. You asked for feedback to make it better, and you get to choose how much of the feedback to take. I have, at times, not taken my beta reader’s feedback, but I have to say that in every single case, it was also something a reviewer commented on. That doesn’t mean I would go back change it, if I could. It just means if your beta readers comments on something, the people who buy your books will too.
- Find a regular critique partner. I am blessed to have at least four friends who I know are always up for a beta read and I don’t feel like I’m imposing to ask. Obviously it goes both ways. I can’t wait to beta read their work, because for me it’s one of the few times I make time to read all the wonderful books written in my genre.
- Relax. Revision is a natural part of our art form. Speaking from experience, if you get into the “this story might suck” mode, you totally cut off the flow of ideas that would help it become better (and I promise it won’t suck!). Stories I sent off to the editor with the note “I think this sucks” have been some of my top sellers. If only I had enjoyed the process more while I was in it!
Please comment if you stopped by! Let me know what has worked and has not worked for you! Did I miss anything you think is important to keep in mind when either giving or receiving a beta read?