Wednesday, September 12, 2018

So You're Gonna Beta Read!

It's not you, it's your story!

Beta readers are an essential function for any author. But you only get what you put in, which means you’re probably going to be asked to read yourself.  Beta reading is actually an excellent opportunity to work those reading/writing muscles and provide some excellent feedback, while also gaining something from the experience.

Here are some essential tips to bringing you A-game to the Beta Reading Tournament and become a champion:

1 – Listen to the writer’s request.

This one can’t be stressed or said enough.  Some authors want the full package: grammar, spelling, character development, dialogue, plotting, etc.  Others would rather you focus on just a few items from their list. Be very clear with the author about what is expected. If you haven’t been asked for spelling correction, don’t provide it.  If the author hasn't told you what's expected, ask. Make certain to understand fully what you're reading for, and when the author wants it returned.

2 – It’s not your book.

I hate to be negative on lists, but there’s no polite way to say it—do not provide rewrites.  This isn’t your book, this isn’t your plot, these aren’t your characters.  You wouldn’t expect to whip out your brushes and paints and start “correcting” another artist’s still life of rotten fruits. As writers, we're often tempted to show (rather than tell) how we'd do it (and do it better).  Don't.  Just don't.  Don’t rework the author's work unless unless you’ve been asked for examples.

3 – Be realistic.

Did you seriously just ask if you could:
"wind my mainspring?"
You’re busy, and you have a life. Well, you're a writer, and you have work to do, research to complete, and your family may want an appearance at the dinner table every third evening. If you can’t realistically complete the task when asked, and if you can’t put out your best effort let the author know before you agree.  If something bad happens and you aren't going to meat the deadline, or you're going to be a few days overdue, tell the author. It doesn’t help if you mismanage expectations, and it certainly doesn’t do anything for your reputation.

4 – Read what you like and what you know.

The author has asked you for your opinions, and the best opinions you can provide come from your genre, or those genres that you enjoy. Reading outside of a realm where you’re comfortable and familiar is not a good way to provide beta-level feedback to an author.  If you're a steampunk author, getting lost in a romance novel's expected tropes and trappings won't do anyone any good.  Helping another steampunk author figure out that mainsprings and airships are the way to go will!

5 – Be gentle, be kind, be conversational, be honest.

The beta-read is no time to dust off your sarcasm and irony and show how cleverly you can tear down a manuscript. There are no awards for Most Cutting Remarks in a Mixed Genre. This doesn’t mean you pull punches—wrong is wrong and boring is boring. If you found a passage or a scene frustrating or hard to get through, say that and explain it.  Some of the best feedback is framed in the form of a question, rather than advice—“Did you mean in Chapter 2 for the reader to believe that the butler did it?” This may even help to show a major flaw in the overall writing.

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