What do Authors Need from Beta Readers?

Reprinted from the BetaReader Journal

Beta reading is a growing field in publishing. The Journal will in the next few issues examine some evolving topics on beta reading including:

  • What does an author expect and need from a beta reader?
  • What does a beta reader expect and need from an author?
  • Should a beta readers be paid? (see past Journal poll)

As more writers turn to self-publishing and authors’ access to professional editors and proofreaders at mainstream publishing houses decline, the need for “more eyes” to look at manuscripts before publication has grown. Where spouses, friends, and associates (notoriously harsh critics) were once the primary resources for reading early drafts, there is now emerging a more professional cadre of readers who actively seek out unpublished work – the beta reader.

What exactly is the role of the beta reader?

Does she represent an average reader?

Is she an editor?

How ruthless should she be with a work that has taken so many hours and represents the hopes and aspirations of the author?

The following are what some authors say they want and expect from a beta reader.

Kat Kirst says there should be – “good ground rules and expectations.”

A great place to start the conversation about rules and expectations can be found at Betareader.us with the link to a Beta Reader Manual. Though the author is uncertain, the article found on deviantart.com contains sound observations and is a great place to start a conversation about expectations between author and beta reader.

Other observations:

  • Being a good beta reader is an art, a carefully crafted skill for most people. The critiques they provide are invaluable, but especially for aspiring authors throwing their work out there, so to speak, with 700,000 other manuscripts (published last year).
Ben Hutchins
Author at Mad Ink Publishing
  • Don’t stick with a critiquer (sic) just because they always praise whatever they read. That may not actually be helpful. Read something they have written, and decide whether or not they write well. Choose critiquers who can address specific weaknesses, whether those are technical (grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.) or substantive (plot, characters, dialogue, etc.). It’s important to respect what a critiquer says and learn how to accept or reject suggestions based on merit and not ego. Once such a person is found, add that person to a small, personal circle of ongoing critiquers.
Don Maker
Freelance Writer at Metacognition Press

  • Keep the writer’s voice and words as much as possible. You are only making suggestions for the writer’s benefit not editing the script. Plots and characterization is included in my first sentence. Make suggestions. And be brutally honest.
Ruth Ann Hixson
  • As an author who is just starting to use beta readers, I would say that you need to define very clearly between you and the author what help they want. Maybe they want you to make suggestions about style and voice, maybe they just want you to spot plot holes and problems with pace etc. When I read for someone else, I can’t help doing a copy edit as I go – but I always ask if they mind, and whether they want that separate to other comments.
Ann Marie Thomas
Thank you so much for agreeing to read xxx and for providing your feedback. Don’t be afraid to hurt my feelings because when it comes to my book, I want to make readers happy. Happy readers = successful writers.
And don’t worry if you’re not an expert in the craft of writing. Remember that most of the people who read fiction are not experts either, but they’ll buy a book if it grabs and keeps their interest. However, they won’t recommend it if the story drags, is not believable, or contains glaring factual errors.

DON’T FIX THE PROBLEM: When you find a problem, you don’t have to fix it. Sure, if a solution occurs to you, I’ll be very grateful. Feel free to share it…but don’t feel obligated.

CHARACTERS: Characters don’t always have to be likeable, but they should be at least interesting. Above all, they should be believable. If any of the characters don’t seem real to you, please let me know. You can also tell me which characters were your favorites and your least favorites.

UNCLEAR/CONFUSING: Sometimes writers and their editors think they’ve put all the information the reader needs to know to understand what’s going on in the novel into clear words and ideas…but they’re wrong (it’s all in your head, my dear). Lack of clarity can kill the reader’s interest. If something, anything, is unclear to you, just write UNCLEAR and indicate the part that was unclear.

BORING/TOO SLOW: The worst thing a writer can do is to bore the reader, but writers will frequently inject irrelevant information because they are attacked by over-powering urges to show everyone how smart they are, or to convince the reader that their view of the world is the only correct view. If a particular section, even a paragraph or sentence, is boring or you want to skip over it, write BORING and indicate the part I should have left out. Elmer Leonard has made a fortune by “leaving out all the parts the readers don’t want to read.”

UNREALISTIC/UNBELIEVABLE: There may be parts of the story you find unbelievable. For example, you might not believe that a particular character would do what I made them do. Don’t you just hate that? Well, so do I, so tell me about it by inserting UNBELIEVABLE where applicable.

AWKWARD WORDING: Awkward wording – – a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, sometimes even a single word – – can throw readers out of the fictional dream. Writers detest getting rid of ‘their little darlings,’ but they must. Just put AWK and indicate the part that made you forget about the story.

YOU LIKED IT: Writers improve their writing through failures and through successes, so if there’s anything that you especially liked – – a phrase, a word, an idea, a character, whatever – – write GREAT (if you want, you can even write BRILLIANT (:-) and indicate the section that grabbed you.

In fact, please make any kind of comment that comes to mind, but remember that I’m not asking you to be an editor, just a reader.

Sheryl Dunn
Chief Thief a.k.a. CEO at Shelfstealers


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