13 Rules to Be a Better Beta Reader

Among the greatest gifts one writer can give another is that being a beta reader. A beta reader is a volunteer who reads over a rough manuscript and offers feedback on what’s working and what’s not. This feedback can span the gamut from simply a general reaction to a full-on critique. But not all beta readers are created equal. Just as you can learn to be a better writer, you can also learn to be a better beta reader.

Earlier this year, I receive the following email from Archie Kregear:

I have been doing a lot of beta reading lately. I was looking for a guide/checklist to help folks like me to be a better beta reader. The critique group I’m a part of is prolific, a beta read a month. I’ve searched through your site and nothing on the details, just etiquette.

He’s right. I haven’t written much about beta reading for the same reason I don’t write a whole lot about editing in general, and this because the foundational principles of both are no different from those of good writing. If you know how to write a solid story, you’ll know how to edit one. Indeed, much of the trial and error of learning how to write solid first drafts begins in the trenches of troubleshooting our sloppy first drafts and figuring out how to fix them.

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

The simplest answer to “how to edit” is “learn about story structure, character development, good prose, pacing, etc.” The same rules apply in beta reading. However, because of the extra accountability we bear in taking on a beta-reading job, it does deserve some extra forethought.

Most writers will learn some of their most valuable lessons thanks to beta readers. My own early experiences with beta readers transformed the way I approached story, as well as boosting my confidence. But most writers will also encounter a beta reader or two who, despite their best intentions, do more harm than not—either by offering faulty advice or by undercutting confidence. The entire writing community benefits when we all try to become the best beta readers possible.

To that end, here are my top thirteen tips for improving your editing game and becoming a better beta reader. Most of these tips will help you in editing your own stories as well!

Set the Ground Rules

1. Get Very Clear on What Kind of Critique the Author Is Asking For

The first and foremost rule of beta reading is that you are there to serve the story. If it’s important to put your ego in your back pocket and sit on it when you’re editing your own stories, it’s even more important to do so when editing for someone else. The first step toward that end is to make sure both you and the author are on the same page by making sure you understand exactly what kind of critique the author is asking for.

  • Do they want you to simply read the book over and offer a general opinion at the end: like or dislike?
  • Do they want you to offer a detailed content edit—a commentary throughout on what works and what doesn’t?
  • Do they want a structural edit that critiques plot, pacing, and character arc?
  • Do they want you to get down and dirty with a full-on comprehensive line edit that offers suggestions not just about the story but about the prose?
  • Do they want you to note typos or leave them alone?

It is also incumbent upon the author to be clear (and get clear) about their wishes. Nothing is worse for a beta reader than spending weeks thoroughly editing a piece only to realize the author was hoping for something more lightweight.

2. Communicate About How to Mark Suggested Changes

You’ll want to discuss the best way for you to mark your suggested changes. Track Changes is still the best method I know of. As long as both parties have access to Microsoft Word, you can use this tool to easily share your deletions, edits, and comments. The author can then just as easily decide which changes to incorporate or bypass.

Use Track Changes Accept Button When Figuring Out How to Organize Your Novel's Edits

However, you might agree that you both prefer working in a Google Doc. You might even ask for an epub you can read (or a doc you can convert to epub) on your Kindle. You can read at your leisure, making notes as you go, then copy/paste them from Kindle Highlights on your computer for sharing with the author.

Don’t be afraid to ask for what’s best for you. At the end of the day, you’re the one doing the favor here. Within reason, it’s fine to ask for whatever setup will be most convenient for your needs.

3. Agree on a Reasonable Deadline

This one is important for both the author and the beta reader. Depending on the length of the story and the depth of the edit, beta-reading can represent a significant time investment. You’ll want to realistically assess how much time you can put into the project every day and figure out about how long it will take you. Then do your best to honor that.

Many a writer can attest to the frustration and disappointment of trusting a beta reader who never comes through or who keeps fobbing off the deadline. Obviously, life happens, and beta-reading is probably not going to be your highest priority at any time. But once you’ve agreed to help out a fellow writer, do your best to honor that commitment. If you can’t, at least make a point to reach out and let the writer know you’re not going to be able to fulfill the agreement.

Pro Editing Tips

4. Be Specific

Now we get down to the actual beta-reading. How can you respond to someone else’s story in the way that will most benefit them? Perhaps the single most important offering you can make to another writer is simply that of being specific. If you don’t like something in the story, try to figure out why you don’t like. If you feel making a big change would benefit the story, try to figure out why you feel that way.

To some degree, any level of editing will always be subjective. But try to get clear on when the suggestions you’re making are based on logical reasons and your own understanding of story—and when they’re based on nothing more than your personal preferences. Your preferences as a reader are absolutely still valid and can be usefully shared with the author, but they should be noted as your preferences, not as universal rules.

Bottom line: always try to be clear with yourself about why you’re making suggestions. Not only will doing so better serve the author, it will also help you further hone your own storytelling instincts and skills.

5. Map Out the Ideal Structural Timing Based on Page Count

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

If the author has asked for a plot edit, one of the key things you can examine for them is how well the story’s structure works.

When beta-reading for someone, one of the first things I do is find the total page count of their story. I divide that into eighths to find the ideal timing for each of the structural turning points, then scroll through the document and add a comment as a reminder to myself to check how well the story’s structure is holding up.

For example, if the book’s Word doc is 300 pages, I would make notes as follows:

Inciting Event: p. 37

First Plot Point: p. 75

First Pinch Point: p. 112

Midpoint (Second Plot Point): p. 150

Second Pinch Point: p. 187

Third Plot Point: p. 225

Climax: p. 263

These comments are just for my own purposes, and I will delete them as I go. It’s also important to note they are indicating the ideal structural timing. Very few stories will line up page-perfect. But the reminders will help you keep track of whether or not the story includes all the important structural turning points, how close they are to the ideal timing, and how much the pacing is affected one way or the other.

6. Don’t Just Point Out Problems, Offer Solutions Where Appropriate

Writers don’t need (and won’t always appreciate) if you try to brainstorm solutions for every problem you point out. You want to give them clues and nudges to help them fix their story’s problems in their own unique way. But simply pointing out problems with no explanation or suggested solution can also be less than helpful. Simply saying, “The female lead’s emotional reaction doesn’t ring true here” might not always be enough. You could instead go on to suggest, “Maybe this would be a good place for her to express a little confusion and vulnerability.”

7. Point Out Scenes That Don’t Move the Plot

This one is always helpful. Particularly in first drafts, writers aren’t always aware they’ve included scenes that really don’t do much. If you find yourself bored when reading a scene or feeling you’ve already read this scene several times before, be sure to note that and note why. If you’re familiar with scene structure, you can also examine that to discover any broken or missing pieces that may be interrupting the forward movement of the story.

8. Make Note of Any “Tic” Words That Pop

No need to go overboard on this one, but if you start to notice the author consistently uses one particular word, make note of that and suggest they run a search to discover how often they really do use it. However, don’t ding someone for using words that are your pet peeves or that you’re noticing only because you know you have a tendency to overuse them.

9. Create an “Edit Letter” to Address Major Issues

At the end of editing, professional editors will send clients a document summarizing all the major issues they’ve found in the story. While in the midst of your beta-reading, you can keep a running list of issues you wish you discuss with the writer by the end.

I find it most helpful to divide the letter into broad sections with headers, particularly focusing on major areas such as “Plot Structure,” “Character Development,” “Dialogue,” etc., as well as any issues that are specific to the story.

You can also use the following list to ask yourself helpful and thorough questions about your reaction to the story. You don’t necessarily have to share every answer with the author, but scanning through the list may help you clarify your own reactions to the story.

>>Click here: 17 Questions for Critique Partners

General Guidelines

10. Explain Your Reasoning Wherever Necessary

Although you don’t want to preach at the author, don’t assume he knows what you know and will understand why you made a particular change. For example, if you edit a sentence to make it more active, you may want to make a little note, explaining your reasoning. Beta-reading is often a mutual learning experience in which writers help each other improve their craft. Don’t necessarily assume you know more than the author, but don’t be afraid to offer helpful tips where appropriate.

11. Try to Interact With the Story Simultaneously as Reader and Editor

Beta-readers wear multiple hats. Not only are you (probably) a fellow writer who is approaching the editing of this story as if it were your own, you’re also interacting with it as both an objective reader and an editor. Try to balance those last two identities. Don’t get so consumed by the fiddly work of ruthlessly editing that you don’t occasionally pull back and interact with the story as if you were a random reader who had purchased it. As a beta reader, you’ve volunteered to look under the story’s hood, but the ultimate test of whether or not a story works is whether or not it works for a reader. If you’re able to give your fellow author your perspectives as a writer, an editor, and a reader, you’ll have all the more to offer them.

12. Honor the Author’s Vision for the Story

This one is super-important. Respect the author at all times. This is their story, not yours. They have their own vision for it, which may entirely different from the vision you would have had. What they want the story to be may also be different from what you, as that random reader, would prefer to read. As a beta reader, you’re not here to mold their story to your preferences; you’re here to help them realize their best vision for the story.

One of the surest ways to do this is to outright ask the author: What’s your intention for this story?

If they can provide a story summary in the beginning, that can often help you determine what type of story they intend this to be.

13. Don’t Forget to Point Out Things You Like

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a critique, you know how brutal it can sometimes be. Even the best of critiques (and often exactly because they are really good critiques) can leave the author feeling overwhelmed. As a beta reader, your primary job is to help the author make the story better by pointing out all the things that don’t work. But pointing out the things you do like can be just as helpful in the long run. Anytime something makes you smile, laugh, cry, or experience any other strong reaction, be sure to make a note. And when it comes time to comment on the story as a whole, try the “compliment sandwich” method. Start by telling the author what you liked best about the story, then share your suggestions for improvement, then end on a final encouraging note.

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The most important guideline for being a better beta reader is simply the old Golden Rule: Critique other authors exactly how you would like to be critiqued yourself. Respect their hard work and their passion, honor the story they’re trying to tell, be honest but also kind, keep your deadlines and commitments, and enjoy sharing with someone else your deep love of storytelling.

Wordplayers, tell me in the comments! Are there any other suggestions you would add about how to be a better beta reader? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Eric Troyer says

    Great post, Katie. I have done only a little beta reading but a lot of editing. Your number 13 is an excellent point. I learned that while editing a book my dad wrote. (Our relationship survived.) I now have a line at the end of my editing notes: “Look for positives.” One of the last things I do is go back through and make sure I have pointed out all the positives I can find. It’s uplifting for both the writer and editor.

    And with number 12 I’d add that respecting the author’s voice is extremely important. That can be hard to do since “voice” is such a tricky thing and our own egos can get wrapped up in that. I challenge myself to make sure any suggested changes and additions I suggest follow the style of the author’s voice.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Haha. My mom made a point to tell me today that I should have added another rule to the article about how you shouldn’t let family members beta read for you. :p She was kidding. Mostly.

    • Paul Schreck says

      I was thinking the same thing Eric. Some of my Beta’s suggestions are little more than wanting me to write in their style or voice. It’s so difficult to find the helpful nuggets in their suggestions I’ll likely not ask for help in future works.

  2. I am a beta reader for one friend, and I love that! My sister and I also act as each other’s “alpha readers”, reading each other’s scenes almost as soon as they are written. 😉 I think this is a really comprehensive list. Thank you!

    One thing that struck me from my own experience is how much I learn as an alpha and beta reader. Honing my analysis skills on something less personal strengthens my confidence in my internal editing voice. It’s also helped me find a good balance between incisive insight and positivity. I’ve gotten good feedback from my author friends (they keep coming back, so… 😉 ), and I’m even content when I get harsh with my own writing.

    Thanks again for the post! (Also, thank you for everything you do. I’ve been rereading and rereading so many posts in the last few months as I finalize my novel outline. So much good information to internalize! I appreciate it so much!)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So great that you and your sister can do that for each other. A good first reader can make all the difference, even before you get to the nitty-gritty of a beta-read or edit.

  3. David Sofi says

    Great advice, and I am incorporating into instructions for myself. I am a member of two Beta-reading groups, and a selected member to edit/Beta read for three other authors. Over the past five years my critique style has evolved into: 1> tailoring to what the authors ask for, e.g. developmental, line, or proof reading; 2> two approaches, real time reader reaction on first read, or considered comments after the first read through; 3> avoiding advice. After reading numerous rejection letters containing editorial advice sent to world-class, successful authors, I see how even professionals with years of experience can miss the mark so badly as to be funny afterward. But what harm did they inflict? Instead, my style is to act like a reactive target–I share my reactions as a reader so the author can judge if she hit what she aimed for, and if not, why not. Then he can choose to rewrite or not. Yes, the gender varies, purposefully.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is so spot on. I think we can all err into well-meaning advice (and, granted, some advice is great), but often the most powerful aid we can give another writer is just our unvarnished reactions–so they can decide how to guide the story to get the results they’re looking for.

  4. Great post, Katie! This one’s a keeper. Many of your pointers will help me to fill out my pre-contract negotiation checklist for my editing service, as it develops into a full-time operation. Thanks!

  5. Chalilodimun says

    As a beta-reader and a writer, that was really interesting to read.

  6. Thank you for this post! It helps me solidify the concept of a good beta reader as I figure out the universe of writing!

  7. Another tip: get familiar with this blog. Sometimes when I’ve made a specific critique, I’ve included links to this website’s essays. That saves me the effort of explaining what a ‘scene sequel’ is while helping the author understand what terms I’m using.

    It’s 100% true that alpha/beta reading has made me a better self-editor.

    Another tip: make sure you get along w/ the author. It requires trust on both sides. If it’s lacking, respectfully back out (but don’t ghost the author).

    Personally, I only do alpha/beta reading for genres I read myself for pleasure. That way, I know the genre conventions & I’m more likely to enjoy the process.

    Some of the most interesting feedback is when the readers understand something different than what the author intended. For example, in a story I’m alpha-reading now, we alpha readers were speculating about when the main character would figure out that his love interest was manipulating him. Turns out that the author intended for the love interest to genuinely requite the main character’s love, but didn’t write the affection on page, thus we all assumed she was just playing him, lol.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good point. It can definitely be helpful, for both parties, to link to common material, so each knows where the other is coming from.

  8. This is a well thought out check list. It’s also helpful for looking over my own work. Thanks!

  9. Grace Dvorachek says

    I especially like the last point… sometimes I get a little carried away with plot holes, sentence structure, and typos that I forget to offer praise for the things I liked. The “compliment sandwich” method is one that I use pretty much any time I review someone else’s work, whether it’s a quick read-over or an in-depth edit.

  10. Kerrie Davis says

    As I usually do reciprocated beta reads, I’ve learnt to start with a 5k trial to ensure both parties are keen and useful. It’s hard to give useful criticism when I dislike some aspect of the story. When a beta-reader ghosts me, it’s easy to believe they hated some aspect of the story, but didn’t know how to tell me. Ghosting betas are the worst for my self-esteem and productivity, but I make it worse by not having a deadline.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Really good tip. It’s a relationship, and it needs to work for both parties upfront.

  11. Andy Clark says

    Between you and da’ playa’s, you’ve covered the ground. The other thing I would add is that if you see the novel just isn’t for you, you should probably say so when you realize this and back out. It’s in everyone’s best interest.

  12. You know this business better than I know it. I’ve read about beta reading, and I’ve seen various ideas and propositions about what they do. The best concept of a beta reader I’ve been able to come up with is a person who reads the ms as if it is a book they’ve purchased based on a friend’s recommendation. The reader offers a general opinion at the end: like or dislike and comments that a person would make to the friend who recommended the book. For example, “I had no interest in the romantic subplot. It seemed inauthentic. Or it was difficult to follow. Or I had a wonderful time reading it for several reasons.” Things like that. Why is this “my” ideal beta reader?

    Other beta reader “duties” aren’t what I’d expect to pay a professional editor for, i.e., detailed content edit, commentary on what works and what doesn’t, structural editing, critiquing plot, pacing, and character arc, or a comprehensive line edit with suggestions about the story and the prose, and or typos. These are important comments and suggestions that I wouldn’t expect to receive free, or almost free, of charge. Doesn’t the author want the book to be a professional grade document?

    Finding a beta reader that matches the author’s requirements beyond the “friend’s recommendation” reading is going to lead to various financial negotiations in a gray area involving editing requirements from non professionals who may or may not be qualified to give professional advice. By that I mean, do they really know what they’re talking about? Asking for that type of input from someone for free is risky and may waste time and cause confusion over the shape of your final product.

    I’m postulating an approach in which the writer does his or her best to self-edit the work into its best possible form, have beta readers go over it in a “friend’s recommendation” mode, make any changes, then send it to the best professional editor they can afford for everything else. Am I wrong? (Please don’t hate me. Oh, what the hell, hate me. I promise I won’t hate back. Wait, don’t hate me, period.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely not wrong. I recommend both that writers do their best to self-edit before sending the book out to betas (as much because that’s just respectful as anything else) and then hire a professional editor, where appropriate, afterwards.

      However, relationships with the beta readers themselves will vary. A trusted relationship with a longtime beta reader who knows their stuff can certainly involve in-depth editing. I’ve both given and received beta-reads at that level.

      Again, it’s important to understand and negotiate the relationship. Expectations should be clear on both sides and should incorporate the skill level of the one doing the reading. For instance, I have non-writers who beta-read for me and whose opinions I value, but from whom I would neither ask nor expect (nor want) an in-depth content edit.

      • Dennis Fleming says

        I agree. The danger is in not understanding the relationship and not negotiating an understanding. I’ve seen writers act on advice from beta readers who didn’t possess the skills to offer advice at that level.

        You are immensely helpful, as always.

  13. Great article and tips, thank you! I started reading for an author whose work interested me, but found they were quite liable to explain their way of doing it at length and to the exclusion of some of my comments. They had quote individual views about how they had chosen to write it,some of which seemed based on misunderstood theory. They pointed out they had a following on Amazon’s self publishing authors site, to refute comments. I felt this wasn’t what I hoped, and gave up commenting to them, as they seemed not really to want my feedback unless it was in agreement with their ideas. I do write and have workshop pedal a lot, plus read up on Yr site and others. Sometimes being a beta writer isn’t great and I would not of wanted that writer’s ideas on my work in progress, for sure. But overall I love the idea, and am willing to hear the tough criticism too. I want my work to be good, not mediocre.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, as stated elsewhere, it’s so important to find relationships that are validating to both parties. A lot of emphasis is put on the beta reader not trying to force opinions or advice onto the writer, but it’s just as important for the beta reader to feel their opinions are meaningful and valued–otherwise, why bother? Beta readers can put a tremendous amount of time into helping an author; if the author *isn’t* going to be helped (for whatever reason), then the relationship isn’t going to be worth the time or effort for either party.

  14. Before I start critiquing anyone’s writing, step one is to ask the writer what kind of critique he or she is looking for. If someone hands me an early manuscript and asks for a continuity and flow check, there is no point in redlining typos or grammar. Step two, assess the asker’s willingness to listen. If a writer who merely wants his or her decision to write validated, I’ll I’ll compliment the author on his or her masterful use of the definite article and call it done. If it’s someone who says, “Can you help? I’m stuck. It isn’t working and I can’t figure out why,” the critique will be more extensive. Step three, make sure that my comments clearly indicate which are opinion and which are facts. Step four, leave my red pencil in the desk until I have read and digested the entire document. Until then, I don’t know where the author is going with the story.

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