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Beta readers are 'gold'

A step not to be missed

A photo of a comment on a manuscript with the text "Who said that?"

You’ve written your manuscript, redrafted, polished. You’re ready to send it to a publisher or agent. But there’s a vital and valuable step to take first: beta reading.

A beta read is when someone who’s not an editor or other industry professional looks at your entire manuscript; the concept being that you are your own ‘alpha’, or first, reader and your beta readers are your second readers.

In computer language they’re beta testing your work, looking for bugs.

Author Ellie Marney, at her recent Advanced YA course through Writers Victoria, said beta readers were like gold. “Look after them. Buy them wine,” she said. Chose readers whose opinions you trust. If they’re writers, reciprocate.

Ellie says there are three things even an inexperienced beta reader can look for: the good bits, where they became bored or wanted to get up and make a cuppa, and the parts where they were hooked. She suggests a minimum of two readers: one who reads in your genre or market, and another who knows about writing.

I’m in the middle of my first big beta read process, and Ellie’s comments about the value of beta readers echo my experience.

In total, five people will read, are reading or have read one of two different manuscripts – four my first story and one my second. And each is a reciprocal read.

For the first manuscript, I’ve done a swap with one person; two others I’ve read for are on or have just passed a deadline and are about to read my MS; and another has read mine and I’ll read his when its ready. I’ve read another writer’s work and she’ll read my second MS when it’s ready. Which it isn’t because I’m too scared to look at it at the moment. But that’s another story.

I’ve swapped manuscripts with people I trust and whose opinions and work I respect. So far, only one glass of wine has been involved. Soft drink, hot chocolate, and coffee, however… But these people, their feedback, are gold.

My writers group hit me with questions about the process: How did I find these readers? What do I do? What type of feedback do I give/receive?

We met through courses, workshops and programs over the past couple of years and kept in touch. We write for similar markets, or our works have similar themes. One offered to read my first MS earlier this year, and gave insightful and useful feedback that helped me realise where the MS was failing. I’m particularly interested to see what he thinks now it’s been completely rewritten.

Every MS has been a Word doc, which allows the reader to use the Comments function to make notes, and any changes to text – typos etc – are marked. This means the author can accept or reject these changes as they see fit, and add to or collate the comments. The manuscripts have ranged from early drafts to near-finished works.

Each author has asked for feedback on set of points ranging from general comments to feedback about specific characters, the plot or themes. In this sense a beta read is similar to critiquing as part of a writers group – except it’s a full-length, start-to-finish readthrough in a few sittings instead of examining parts of a work over a long period of time.

Without going into detail about the comments I’ve given or received, the feedback’s pointed out inconsistencies in the MS, where the pace slows or jumps too quickly over events, where something doesn’t seem feasible, where scenes are confusing, an action is being used repeatedly, a character’s not constructed well, or an action seems out of character.

The positives are just as important – when a scene works, a line stands out, or the description is perfect, heartbreaking, or draws an unexpected emotional response. When you’re hooked into the story. When humour works, when twists take you by surprise, when you can’t put the story down.

The feedback’s mainly phrased as questions: Did you want X to feel Y here?... When did they come into this room? or as comments: I had to read this twice… I’m thinking X is happening here. Is that the intention?... I thought X said this, not Y... I’m confused about…

There’s also the occasional funny comment thrown in. One of my readers declared love for my love interest. I’ve made self-deprecating half-jokes about journalists. We’ve related some comments back to personal experience, but we know one another reasonably well and can throw things like that in. I did, however, stop short at mentioning I thought a certain sleepwear outfit was pretty damn hot.

As well as the in-story comments, we’ve all listed larger points in the return email or in a separate document – what we’ve loved, and what we’ve felt needs work, or we found confusing.

Done the right way, feedback can be encouraging, supportive and warm. Done the wrong way, it can be devastating. It’s important to remember, as both the giver of feedback and the recipient, that any suggestions are just that – suggestions. They’re jumping-off points.

What’s the wrong way? Imposing how you would write the story on the author is the big one – you are not the author. The author is the author. You rewriting the story is not helpful. Trust me – I’ve had feedback like this. It made me think I couldn’t write, had wasted my time o the MS and had no idea what I was doing. The aim of beta reading is to help make the existing story better, not to leave the author so distraught he or she can’t see a way forward.

Saying something doesn’t work without explaining why is another no-no. Query the author’s choices, sure – but don’t argue or insist your idea’s better. You are not the writer.

The right way? If in doubt, go the ‘sandwich’ technique. Often used by teachers, this involves ‘sandwiching’ a constructive comment between two positives. Use the comment/question phrasing above. Don’t be prescriptive. Avoid the phrase ‘You should’ if possible. There are numerous resources available online, including beta reading sheets that help you pinpoint what to look and how to word your feedback.

As a recipient, you don’t have to agree with the feedback, but be open to it. Your beta readers are fresh eyes. They don’t know what you’ve cut out or left in and will often pick up threads that you’ve inadvertently cut off or have picked up halfway along. You might think that having all your characters’ names starting with ‘M’ might be an interesting device, but if all your beta readers note they have trouble keeping track of who’s who it might be work reconsidering. One reader might find a passage you love confusing, another might think it’s the best thing they’ve read in years. The important thing is to take note of why they find it confusing – if this was your intention, great. If not, can you find a middle ground?

Being a beta reader is a valuable experience in its own right. Seeing how others structure their work and reading stories at various stages of the drafting process has helped me with my own writing. Everyone I’ve read for is incredibly talented, and I’m humbled and honoured to have been given the chance to glimpse their stories. I’m even more humbled that they’re taking the time to return the favour. The feedback I’ve received already has been hugely beneficial, and coupled with what’s to come will make my work stronger. And once my first MS is done and away, I can get onto my second one. No more excuses.

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