Beta Readers: How To Be A Great One

Kevin G.

If you want to or have offered to be a Beta reader, how do you find out what the author wants?

Let’s start by defining the term: A Beta reader is a volunteer who reads a draft of a book or story. Maybe not the very first drafts, but at a point in the writing process where there is still room for change. A Beta reader can be a friend or relative of the author, but people who know authors personally are seldom the best Beta readers.
The best start out as avid readers of a specific author's genre, who have no personal stake in the book and who can give brutally honest feedback. Other authors can be great Beta readers, but anyone who is a reader can provide wonderful feedback. However, to be clear, Beta readers are not proofreaders or copy editors. A Beta reader is not there to find typos or correct grammar, word usage, or otherwise serve as a copy editor.
They are reading an early or mid-way version of a story for the purpose of telling what’s wrong with it and making suggestions for how to improve it. The readers look at a manuscript several months before it's sent to an editor [or, if you don’t have a professional editor (you should)], then several months before the "final" manuscript is sent to someone to proofread and copy-edit the text.
The point of Beta readers is to give ideas about what is needed to make it better.
How do you become a Beta reader? Ask.
Send an email to an author whose writing you enjoy and say, “I’m a fan of your books and I’d love to volunteer to be a Beta reader for a future novel.” After your author recovers from the shock of getting a volunteer without any effort, s/he may shower you with gratitude and put you on their Beta reader list. It may be a while before the next novel is ready, so feel free to volunteer for more than one author. You can always decline the invitation later, if you’re too busy.
How to be a great Beta reader
What authors want from Beta readers is honest, unvarnished, brutal, and detailed criticism. In particular, we want big-picture feedback about the overall story, the characters, the plot holes, the tone, the pacing, and whether you are satisfied by the ending.
A Beta reader who says “I loved it!” is useless, except to stroke the author’s ego. (That's not nothing, perhaps, but not really what we need from a Beta reader.) No story is ever perfect after the first draft, or the second draft, or... let’s face it, it’s never perfect, but the object is to make it better as you go through revisions. The point of Beta readers is to root out where the story needs change, additions, subtractions, and rethinking.
As a Beta reader, you can tell the author the things they can’t easily see because they are too close to it.
Here are a few things for Beta readers to keep in mind:

Read the entire article in the Dec/Jan 2022-23 issue of InD'Tale magazine.

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