What is a Beta Reader?
Apart from being a writer's best friend, beta readers provide a cross between edits and a critique. A beta reader does not edit a manuscript, but will note the errors for the author to fix. Advice and critiques are other services a beta may perform.
Establishing a Relationship
You've just partnered with an author; what do you do first? Establish with your author what each of you expects from the relationship. A solid understanding of expectations starts the partnership on a productive path and avoids misunderstandings.
Is the author expecting a 24 hour turn around, while you're thinking a week? If not discussed prior to an exchange, turn around time can cause tension. Be honest with your availability and then add some padding, in case of emergency. Do not agree to time constraints you cannot meet.
Length of Partnership
Is the manuscript a novel or a short story? Ask what the author is seeking a beta reader for and avoid getting roped into a lengthy engagement unawares.
Is the manuscript hardcore horror or sweet romance? You can beta read outside your usual genre, but it's best to have some familiarity or liking for the subject material. If horror bothers you, this could be a doomed relationship.
If you worked out all the other requirements, be sure to ask for specific feedback requests. These are topics the authors wants you to give extra attention, in addition to usual beta reading feedback. This should be included with the manuscript e-mail, so you can read the material with those requests in mind. An example: Does my hook work to draw the reader in right away?
You've come to an arrangement with your author and you received the manuscript and feedback request. What do you do first?
Read the requested feedback and then the manuscript. Try to enjoy it the first time. If an aspect jumps out at you, negative or positive, write it down. Personally, I use my trusty highlighter tool, which is quicker, but noting the instance is the important part.
Read the manuscript a second time with a critical eye. Highlight or note any trouble areas as you see them. This stage varies between beta readers. Some may read three or four times, each time for a separate purpose. You will likely discover what works best for you and develop your own method.
This is a long task requiring a beta reader's full attention. Note and comment each and every error or problem area you find. You may see several repeat errors, but it's important to note each one. The point of a beta reader is to find all the issues the author missed. If you are seeing it, the author did not. You will not have to explain more than one or two, but do note each correction necessary.
"Technical" aspects are more concrete than style. In most cases
they are either right or wrong. I find it easier to begin with the concrete, which allows me more time to consider the softer aspects of style. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, tense, point of view and formatting are technical aspects.
Style isn't often correct or incorrect. An author's style and voice can be underdeveloped or weak however. Especially with new writers, it's important to address necessary improvements. Characterization, plot, hook, word choice, etc are aspects impacted by style.
It does not aid the author to know his or her writing can be improved without an inkling about how to improve. As a beta reader, you will need to articulate why an aspect is weak and how it can be improved. Often this will include examples or suggestions to clarify for the author.
You know there is something wrong, but you can't put your finger on what. Say that in your comments. Example: [I can't quite put my finger on what's wrong with this sentence, but it's not quite right. It's a little long and doesn't flow right, but I'm not sure how to fix it. Maybe a rewrite is in order?]
An author will not expect you to be perfect, so give feedback based on what you think. Remember to be honest when you're uncertain. Don't lead an author astray by guessing then implying it's a fact.
An author needs to know his or her strengths, in addition to weaknesses. Between paragraphs, or at the end of the manuscript, add positive notes. Identify any aspects you consider strong or otherwise appealing and point them out. Please note that it's possible to consider an aspect appealing but also advise an improvement. Remember to make the positives prominent however.
To keep criticisms constructive, it's important to focus on improving and not the failing. "Negative" notes should be reserved for issues repeated consistently throughout a manuscript. Example: If the author is clueless about dialog formatting, make a note at the bottom. Give a quick tutorial or link to an informative article on the topic.
Requested Feedback Notes
I give my author requested feedback in a separate sections of notes. Remember to give the specified aspect more time. If you aren't strong in the area, brush up on it with a quick google search. It can help both you and the author to consider the topic more in depth.
Resources and Links
It never hurts to offer your author more research material on the topic of writing. When possible, give one or two credible link resources regarding areas the author needs improvement.
You are interjecting notes into a file, and it's important that your author identify the notes easily. In accordance with that need, I recommend using formatting tools.
A different text color will make your comments stand out. Use a readable dark color, like dark blue or dark purple.
Emphasizing all your comments with the bold tool makes them easier to find and read between the author's text.
Brackets or parenthesis should enclose all your comments to separate them from the author's text.
Using a strike-through tool helps indicate words slated for deletion. It's a universal sign to cross out words that is understood at a glance.
You can insert your own commenting symbols or formatting as needed. Remember to explain the meaning in your beta key.
In order for your author to understand your varying notes, it's necessary to make a key. Explain what each formatting tool means. Keep it simple however. If you use a dozen different colors and symbols, your author will become frazzled. Include it in every beta file so the author can reference the key as needed.
Sample Beta Key
1. All my notes are surrounded by brackets and bold. [Example.]
2. Words, letters or punctuation that should be inserted into your text are surrounded by brackets and are without explanation. Example[.]
3. Words, letters or punctuation I feel should be deleted are marked with the strike-through tool.
4. Sections of your writing I particularly liked, and my comments about it, are in green. Example.*
5. All other comments are in dark blue. [Example.]*
*Examples should reflect your formatting, but I cannot duplicate color examples in a DeviantArt text box.
Sample Beta Notes
We know what goes into a beta reader's file now, but what exactly does it look like? This is a quick example I put together:
"He's busy until nine
,[.]" h[H]e [The speech is its own sentence and the action tag is also its own sentence. Use a comma only when you follow with 'he said' or some other speaking tag. An action tag is a new sentence otherwise and requires a period.] crossed his arms over his chest, guarding the porch[. - Always remember to punctuate the end of a sentence.]
It would be her porch one day and she'd make sure he never set foot on it again. She simply had to be patient. Crossing her arms, she
does [did remember to stay in past tense.] just that. Five minutes dragged by with the cretin [I like how you label him 'the cretin.' It works with establishing his character, or at least her dislike of him.] staring down at her. Her pulse kicked up a notch. [This is a good example of pov but this sentence is dangling on the paragraph. With the length of five minutes, it seems random that her pulse would increase. Try placing it earlier or later (when something happens) and working it seamlessly into the paragraph.]
[I noticed that most of your dialog is improperly formatted. I found this good tutorial for you to reference. It takes a few tries to get the hang of it, but after a while you'll get used to the rules and won't think twice. Dialog formatting: (Insert link here.)]
*Deviantart does not allow color changes in deviations to emphasize positive feedback.
Rinse and Repeat
Even though you've beta read the manuscript, the author will often send in revisions. This is quite helpful for the process. A second beta read will allow you to address any issues you missed the first time. Also, if you suggested extensive rewrites or additions, new issues can arise.
More importantly, you will see if your author understood your notes. If you receive the revisions with few correct changes, then chances are you have a communication issue that needs to be addressed.
It may take your author several attempts to turn your corrections into habits. If issues persist, consider finding new ways to explain your corrections. Provide additional links to help your author.
If your author sends his or her tenth manuscript with little or no improvement, you may have an issue. At that point, either the partnership isn't compatible, or your author is using you for free editing service.
Do not jump to the conclusion that your author is simply using you, however. You might be a contributing factor. It's possible you are teaching your author in a way that the author finds difficult to learn. Sometimes partnerships are simply not compatible.
Discuss the issue with your author first. If a solution can't be found, consider breaking off the partnership amicably.
Do's and Don't's
Do not delete.
Never delete an author's words, even if you think the word or section should be removed. Do not do it because it's the author's right to make that decision.
Do use your strike-through tool to show what you think should be removed. Do add comments explaining your reasoning and suggesting improvements.
Do not rewrite.
Never rewrite the author's work. It is counter productive to the partnership to write for your author.
Do use examples for clarity's sake. Do give quick suggestions to give the writer somewhere to start his or her improvements. Because the process may overwhelm some writers, be clear that you are giving suggestions and not corrections on style matters.
Do not criticize the author.
Never insult the author. Focus on the writing and helping the author improve. The writer's personal habits, beliefs or skill level are not topics for a beta reader to belittle.
Do focus on instructing the writer how to improve his or her writing skills. Offer resources and advice when appropriate.
Please note that your individual beta experience may differ. Personality, habits, willingness to compromise and a slew of other factors will determine your experiences.
For example: A few authors may not like sugar coated corrections. On the other hand, some authors may require a more sensitive approach.
If you know yourself to be particularly insensitive, it may be beneficial to discuss the topic in initial communications.