You want the best for your work. You want it to shine.
And that's a scary thing.
It's easy to forget how scary it is when the shoe's on the other foot. Beta readers come in all shapes and sizes. You get your fantastic ones, the ones who do a line edit, give you a commercial vision for specific scenes, and brainstorm plot points or character traits. The ones who want to help you along. You find your crappy ones, with an ax to grind, who hate you for using words like "was" or anything resembling an adverb. The ones who make you long for a match and a bottle of kerosene.
Sometimes, both the writer and the reader come away from the process feeling unpopular and outcast, the kid who's been sent to the corner of the class when it was really someone else who ate all the paste.
I love being a beta reader. I did it before I had an agent, and I still do it. I might not be fantastic, but I care about the advice I'm giving, and I always try to give it my all. I wouldn't have an agent without the amazing support of my own beta readers. This writing process is a journey, and I'm definitely not out here on my own.
So here are some tips from both sides of the fence:
1) Say thank you. Even if you disagree, even if your reader agreed to read your entire manuscript and they only read one page. Even if you think the reader is an idiot. Say thank you. It was their time. They gave it to you. Appreciate it.
2) Know what you’re asking for. Beta reading isn’t like sitting down with the latest John Grisham. If you want a line edit of a 100,000 word manuscript, that's going to take a lot of time. It takes 6 – 8 uninterrupted hours to read an average-length novel, period. That right there is a full day of work for most of us. That doesn’t include time to offer insightful comments throughout your manuscript or reading more slowly because you don't want to miss a crucial word. You wouldn't ask a complete stranger to give up an entire day to come weed your garden for free. Start small. A few chapters at a time.
3) Polish. Polish, polish, polish. Or, if you don’t want to send a polished manuscript, be up front about it and state your expectations. It's not fair to say something is ready for submission and then shock your reader with a manuscript that looks like it was written by a third grader on a bender.
1) Say no. Seriously. Most of us want to help people. Most of us want to say yes when something sounds appealing. But if you don’t have time, you don’t have time. I have a toddler, a full-time job, and I write. (That’s not a complaint, just a reality.) It breaks my heart to say no to people. But I know it would break theirs if I said yes and didn't deliver. Even beyond that, if you get into a project and it's not for you, say so. I had one guy send me a sci-fi manuscript that might have been the greatest thing since the work of Isaac Asimov himself. I don’t read a word of sci-fi, so I'm absolutely the last person who should judge it. I didn't let it sit in my inbox for months, feeling guilty that I didn't feel comfortable going through it. I just told him it wasn't for me and explained why. No hard feelings.
2) See the forest for the trees. Take off the professor hat and really think about what you're reading. Is it possible that passive voice worked for that sentence? Did that adverb bother you just because it’s an adverb, or was it really inappropriate? Is that really a POV switch, or is it just a stylistic way of writing? As writers, we're desperate to latch onto something concrete, because so much of writing is judgmental and subjective. But because it’s so subjective, the rules don't matter all the time. Try not to act like they do.
3) Don’t beat a dead horse. If you're seeing a recurring problem throughout the manuscript, send it back to the writer and ask if they'd like to revise and resend. You'll save yourself a lot of frustration ("Gah! Stop making your teenagers talk like it's 1934!") and you’ll offer the writer a chance to improve without reading the same comment 400 times.
4) Be nice. Enough said.
5) Be honest. This one is a little more complicated. It's easy to say, "OMG, this is amazing"—even when you don't mean it. It's hard to say, "You have three hundred pages of beautiful writing, but not one lick of plot." You think you’re being nicer by saying the first. You’re not.
My beta reader has been my critique partner for four years. We met on a writing forum, and started small. Now I can't imagine writing a word without planning to let her read it. It's a fantastic partnership, built on trust, respect, and a shared desire to get published. In case you're wondering, she read this blog entry.
And now it’s better because of it.
Brigid Kemmerer is an urban fantasy author, represented by Tamar Rydzinski of the Laura Dail Literary Agency. She finds time to blog in between her day job and her son’s diaper changes, at www.brigidkemmerer.blogspot.com.