The Tricky Business of a Beta Read – Avoiding Hurt Feelings & Getting the Most Out of It

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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?


Comment List

  • Joelle Casteel 17 / 11 / 2014 Reply

    Ugh at the woman not talking to you, Renee. The subject of beta reading makes me think of one woman for whom I BR’d and then stopped, blocking her for almost half a year on Facebook because she had forgotten that as a beta reader, I was doing her a favor and she was behaving like I had to stick to a really tight (as in every other day or so) timeline on her writing, even when I had to take a dog to the vet to have him put down. I do so appreciate everything you laid out in this article though; I think too many people forget to ask these sorts of questions.

    • Renee Rose 18 / 11 / 2014 Reply

      Ugh! I’m sorry that happened to you! It has to be an equal energy exchange, for sure!

  • Lorelei Logsdon 17 / 11 / 2014 Reply

    Great tips! I am in the market for some beta readers and the few I’ve found have been profusely apologetic with all their comments. I imagine they, too, have been made to feel awful for stating their true feelings on previous projects with other authors. I have to constantly remind them, “No, really, it’s okay to tell me!” I value all feedback, recognizing that it’s merely their opinion and I have the power to choose what I’ll change and what to leave as-is. Thanks for a great article!

    • Renee Rose 18 / 11 / 2014 Reply

      Yes! I feel the same way– I don’t want them to hold back!!

  • Maren Smith 17 / 11 / 2014 Reply

    Renee, excellent blog post. When I beta read for others, I do everything you listed above except the first one: I don’t ask what they’re looking for. I tell them what I’m going to do up front. I look for typos and inconsistencies, I’ll tell them what I thought they did right and where I think they could do better (and how), and I always make sure they know up front that they are the author and I am not, so the final say is always theirs. I haven’t hurt anyone’s feelings yet, but there’s still always that possibility, especially when you’re critiquing someone’s “baby”. Whoever this young new author was, she bungled a wonderful opportunity to make a good friend out of an experienced and world-class author.

    • Renee Rose 18 / 11 / 2014 Reply

      (blush). Thank you. You are a fantastic beta reader– I learned so much from your edits!

  • Rayanna Jamison 17 / 11 / 2014 Reply

    These are really great tips. I am really lucky to have found really awesome beta readers right off the gate.

  • aubreycara3 17 / 11 / 2014 Reply

    I beta read for two years before I wrote my own book, and I have to say I’m glad I did. It made it easy for me to set clear expectations and be okay with the honest opinions of others. My favorite beta readers have been kind but critical. You’re so right about not always listening to your beta reader but at least knowing that is something others will probably comment on. Great post.

    • Renee Rose 18 / 11 / 2014 Reply

      Yes–beta reading teaches you so much about both craft and communication. I’m sure your experience made it much easier when it came to writing and editing your own book!

  • Megan Michaels 17 / 11 / 2014 Reply

    Trent Evans is my beta and I agree that having an awesome and knowledgeable beta is invaluable. I’ve learned more from him than any professor I’ve had–EVER! And I think it’s important for them to be positive, encouraging, and uplifting. Great post, Renee!

    • Renee Rose 18 / 11 / 2014 Reply

      ooh, yes, you’re a lucky woman! I agree–their job is to help you, which definitely means being your biggest cheerleader as you slog through the editing process!

  • Normandie Alleman 17 / 11 / 2014 Reply

    Great article! I use professional editors (prior to submitting) rather than acquaintance/friend beta readers to give me feedback. I don’t like to mix business with friendships, and it saves me a lot of drama. 🙂

    • Renee Rose 18 / 11 / 2014 Reply

      That’s a great route to take. I’ve definitely considered it, just to help me learn and grow. And yeah, no one needs the drama! 🙂

  • Greta van der Rol 17 / 11 / 2014 Reply

    Deary me. I think the first woman you mentioned needs to get over herself or she won’t be in the writing business for long.

    You made some great points. Of course, when you develop a relationship with people, it becomes a bit different, because you both understand each others trigger points. Just goes to show – writing isn’t altogether solitary.

    • Renee Rose 18 / 11 / 2014 Reply

      You’re absolutely right. And having a developed relationship with your beta readers makes everything work better!

  • Trent Evans 17 / 11 / 2014 Reply

    Excellent article, Renee! I hope many authors (and aspiring authors) check it out, as it’s chock-full of great advice. Thank you for the kind and humbling words too:)

  • Livia Grant 18 / 11 / 2014 Reply

    What an excellent post. Very wise advise. I am blessed that my beta relationships (going both ways) has gone well, but I’m gonna bookmark this to come back to on occasion. Thanks!

    • Renee Rose 18 / 11 / 2014 Reply

      Thank you!! I know, a good beta relationship is worth its weight in gold!

  • hollawrites 18 / 11 / 2014 Reply

    Wonderful post, Renee. My brother just wrote his first book. It was a surprise when he told me. I said I’d beta-read it for him and he asked me what that was. I explained and he said no thanks, he’s afraid of what I or anyone else might say. I don’t get that, you’re planning to put it out there for a whole mess of strangers to read and who knows what kind of reviews they might leave. Why not grow a tough skin and let someone (a couple of someones) take a look first?

    • Renee Rose 18 / 11 / 2014 Reply

      I know, I’m always confused about people who don’t ever get beta reads!

  • Stephany 19 / 11 / 2014 Reply

    Great post! I recall my first beta reader who tore me a new one. She was harsh, but I didn’t ask for soft treatment ahead of time. I will be forever grateful for that scathing critique of my first novel. It definitely made me a better writer. 🙂

    • Renee Rose 11 / 12 / 2014 Reply

      Sorry, just found your comment today. I’m with you– so happy and grateful to be told the cold, hard truth! 🙂

  • Tabitha Bishop 04 / 01 / 2016 Reply

    Treasure trove of great tips and suggestions. I dropped out of two crtique groups for different reasons, and miss the feedback. Grammarly and Hemingway can’t replace a live human being.

  • Ivy 24 / 03 / 2016 Reply

    Enjoyed the article. See everyone tonight on chat.

  • Alyssa Bailey 24 / 03 / 2016 Reply

    So I had no experience when I read this the first time and now I have a little. I want to improve and using a beta reader is one way to do that. However, everything that has been listed above, I now have experienced at least once. I want to be better every time so I have utilized your hints when asking. the one thing I do forget is to say how long I can wait. So far, it has not been a problem.

    My worry is that I want to give my thoughts but not everyone is looking for them. I need to make sure I know what they want me to look for and I have to remember to tell them I am going to give some standard thoughts on flow, consistency, etc.

    Anyway, you are one of my author idols so thanks. There is a handful of you that allowed my mind to believe I could climb out of that closet I lived in and write so I could enjoy these new issues in my life. And I am loving it.

    • Renee Rose 24 / 03 / 2016 Reply

      Aw, thanks!! I’m so glad you are exploring what you love!

  • Libby Campbell 26 / 03 / 2016 Reply

    Great article! Thank you so much.

    One of the ways my writing partners and I try to help each other grow or expand (love that description) is by pointing out what works as well as what needs improvement.

    In her book The Writer’s Life Julia Cameron said, “I have seen more good writing destroyed by bad criticism than I have ever seen bad writing helped by good criticism.”

    If I know I’m hitting the right note in some areas, then I’m less discouraged by the work the rest of it needs.

    • Renee Rose 26 / 03 / 2016 Reply

      I’m sure that’s true– I love Julia Cameron. I’m pretty sure she’s where I took the part about never giving general negative criticsm. 🙂

  • Royaline 13 / 11 / 2017 Reply

    This was seriously helpful for a newbie like me. Thank you for sharing your experience and the advice.

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