Beta reading is a lot of fun. It’s a great way to help out an author, it allows you to be part of making a good thing better, and, if you’re a writer, you learn from helping someone else.
There are a lot of ways to beta read. You can do line edits, proofreading. You can do developmental-type suggestions.
You can tell the author what you thought of the characters, their goals, the conflict, the plot arc. There’s something handy about having another set of eyeballs on a manuscript and as a beta reader, you are the bomb diggety.
There are times, though, when you see a turn of phrase and just know you have a better way of saying that same thing. You see characters that would benefit from a few judicious tweaks of their personality: suggestions you are more than happy to provide. You discover plot holes that you can fix with a few keystrokes.
Yeah, but, it isn’t your book.
I work as an advocate for domestic and sexual violence victims. My job is to provide a space for the client to speak, confidentially, about whatever it is they need to talk about. When appropriate, I offer resources and my assistance in connecting them with others who may be able to help them. I try to validate their experiences, empower them to make their own choices, and give them support as they work toward their goals. I think that beta readers with similar skills can be extraordinarily helpful to a writer.
So how do you beta read like an advocate?
Sometimes I forget this very basic step but it’s a very important one. You might dive in with line edits, because that’s your strength, only to find out that the author wanted your overall view of the book instead. It’s frustrating to do a lot of work the author doesn’t seem to appreciate (they do, they really do) because they were needing something completely different from you.
2. Ask the author if they want any other help, like line edits, developmental changes, suggestions about characterization, even if they haven’t asked specifically for that help.
Sometimes it’s tempting to give one of my clients a list of resources “just in case” but that can overwhelm someone in crisis. Writers aren’t in crisis (usually, anyway) but it can still be frustrating to get a bunch of “help” with things you didn’t ask about. Always ask before you do it; keep your relationship with the author respectful. If you say, “Would you like me to point out spelling errors?” and the writer says, “No,” that doesn’t mean they are going to put out an error-riddled monstrosity, it just means that they are focusing on content at that moment, rather than editing.
3. Make suggestions, not declarations.
This one is hard for some people who like to be blunt and think anything less than their version of the truth is useless lies. Highlighting an entire sentence, paragraph, or page and saying, “This needs cut!” isn’t helpful. If you think something needs removed, explain why. You could give a suggestion if you feel you can’t explain what you mean, but don’t expect that suggestion to be the one the writer uses, and don’t be upset if they ignore you. Ultimately, it’s their story, not yours. You volunteered to beta read, right?
4. Don’t rewrite their story for them.
It’s tempting to ‘fix’ a story when you’re beta reading for someone. In my work, there are times when advocates just want to push the client out of the way and do the work: contact landlords, pay the client’s bills, write the protection order, call the police and get that no-good abuser locked up. There. All done. Except, the advocate has just done the exact thing the abuser has always done: taken complete control over the client’s life without her or his say so, basically implying that the client can’t make their own decisions. The same goes for you, beta reader. As much as you want to rewrite that paragraph or chapter to make it your version of better, resist the temptation. It’s disrespectful and honestly not your job.
5. Let go of your feelings of ownership.
You spent hours with that story. You toiled over it. Sometimes it makes you feel rather proprietary toward it, huh? Remember, that story isn’t yours. Those suggestions you made are just that: suggestions. Don’t hold onto a grudge that the writer didn’t take your suggestions to heart. Most likely, if they didn’t change something you thought needed changes, it was for a damn good reason. Remind yourself that it wasn’t ever your book in the first place and if it bothers you so badly that they didn’t take your words to heart, politely decline to beta for that person again. In my work, we don’t give advice and clients aren’t expected to do certain things to get our help, (like leave their abusive partner.) Domestic and sexual violence programs’ services are voluntary. Coming from an environment of control, this can be truly freeing.
Remind yourself that you want to help the author improve their writing. Remind yourself that you are beta reading out of the kindness of your heart. Remind yourself that you can stop beta reading any time it gets frustrating or you start expecting the writer to follow every suggestion you make. Remind yourself that it’s a learning experience for you and the writer and enjoy it for what it is.
Thank you to all you wonderful people who have beta read for me. And thank you to all the writers who have let me beta read for them.