Beta Readers: Best Practices


While I can’t talk about what all authors want from a beta, because I am not all authors, I can say what I want from a beta, because I am one author (kinda). Maybe this will apply broadly. We shall see.

The author-beta relationship is a strange one. The author exposes a vulnerable, still-in-the-works thing to the beta, a fleshy little newborn fiction coated in soft bits. The author is pleased. The author thinks this is an Excellent Thing which they are giving to the beta. The beta takes this dream and proceeds to point out every flaw, fracture, and missing piece. The beta takes this whole beautiful entity and returns a broken thing which the author must go fix.

Then they, like, go see a movie, or something. Get some froyo. Whatevs.

Cat asked me to talk about what authors need from betas. But the author-beta relationship is, if you ask me, a two-way street. It’s important for the beta to know what the author needs. But it’s important for the author to understand their betas too.

There are two ways in which I sort betas in my brain: by the types of crit they are likely to give, and by the depth of crit they are likely to give.

The first division of beta, by the type of feedback: Micro and Macro. The Micro beta is the one who picks over sentences, who has a real feel for language, who can point at details which are out of place. The Macro beta is the one who can point at where plot falls apart, where story elements aren’t working, where characters are not themselves.

The other division of beta, by the depth of feedback: the writer and the reader. The reader is someone who reads for enjoyment, who can say “I liked it” and “This part kicked ass” and “This part sucked kinda.” The writer — and whether or not they actually write is irrelevant — reads with an understanding of craft. They see backstage, and they have the ability to point and not only say what doesn’t work but why it doesn’t work.

And just to be clear: I think both writer-types and reader-types are important. If it doesn’t seem obvious as to why, well… most people aren’t writer-types. They’re reader-types. And, for example, while many of us writer-types see nothing but flaws in books such as Twilight, loads of reader-types loved it. That perspective is important to consider.

But regardless of what kind of beta someone may be, the things which a beta should attempt to provide are the same:

  • When something doesn’t work, a beta should point at it and say that. If they understand why it doesn’t work, they should say that too. If they don’t, then they don’t need to worry about it. “This doesn’t work” is still a very helpful thing.
  • Addendum: Tell the author it doesn’t work. Tell them why it doesn’t work. But don’t, absolutely do not tell them how to fix it. “This is how I would do this…” Then go write your own story.
  • Conversely, when something does work, a beta should point at it and say that. If you read a sentence, and it just knocks you on your ass, tell the author! You never know, that may be the part the author has stared at for so long, they now wonder if they should delete it. Help the author save the good bits.

But as I said, this one’s a two-way street. Betas need to provide things to authors. But authors need to provide things to betas as well.

  • If an author has specifics they are worried about, they should note them down. Betas are pretty rockin’, but they aren’t mind readers.
  • A beta reader is not your mom. Authors shouldn’t just bang out a draft and fire it off. They shouldn’t expect to be able to send a draft, and then, half an hour later, “Oops, I just fixed the ending,” and then a half hour after that, “Oops wait, this ending’s better.” Authors are asking a favor. They should respect the beta’s time.
  • If an author wishes to cultivate a long relationship with a beta, it helps to discuss the crit. To say what worked and what didn’t. “I get what you’re saying on this part, but I’m not feeling it here.” The beta can see how the author internalizes things, and the author can get a clearer picture of what’s going on. (This may not always apply, but if the impulse strikes and the beta is amenable, go with it.)

You may have noticed I didn’t put “thank the beta reader” as a bullet point. That is because this should be obvious. And anyway I’m not worried about that. If an author doesn’t show a beta reader gratitude, the reader likely won’t stick around for long. It’s thankless enough without authors adding to it.

The beta-author relationship requires each to get the other. The beta has to get the author’s writing, and the author has to get the beta’s comments. The best beta is passionate about the things which the author writes, their voice, their stories. The best beta is like a fan except their eyes are clear enough to see the flaws and still love the author’s stuff for it. (Maybe they are like a mom.) Likewise the author has to respect and adore their beta, to shower them in gratitude, to let them know their time was not wasted and their efforts were not in vain. They must respect the beta’s opinion, even when it’s hard, even when it hurts, because that little knot of dread is just the author-brain realizing there’s work to do, and that realization wouldn’t be there without your epic beta.

If you think about it, you’re not looking for a beta reader. You’re looking for a literary soulmate. When I hear it like that, I realize how lucky I am to have the readers I do, and that I should probably go thank them one more time, just so they know how kickass they are.

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  1. Cat Ellen
    10/05/2011 at 5:52 pm Permalink

    “Literary Soulmate” — I think I need to run out and print up cards with THIS as my title. I love it. This sums up everything I ever could have wanted to know about my Author-Friends, and what they might hope to get from me. *squee* indeed!

  2. Christie Yant
    10/05/2011 at 6:01 pm Permalink

    Great post! Lots of good advice here.

    Personally I’ve never had a problem with a trusted beta offering suggestions on how to fix problem areas. I don’t always do what they suggest, but sometimes they have great ideas. It’s also good practice for working with an editor.

  3. Erika Holt
    10/05/2011 at 9:42 pm Permalink

    I agree with Christie, although it probably is possible for a beta to go over-board in suggesting fixes. I’ve accepted some suggestions and rejected others, but so far haven’t been offended by the ideas offered.

    Just a fantastic post, thank you!

  4. Reginald
    10/05/2011 at 9:52 pm Permalink

    Thanks for this post, Geardrops. I’ve been wanting to do critiques and get critiques alot more effectively. This is good stuff to consider!

  5. Raelyn Barclay
    12/05/2011 at 12:59 pm Permalink

    Excellent post! You brought up good points.


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