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 a beta reader; what do you do first? Establish with your beta what each of you expects from the relationship. A solid understanding of expectations starts the partnership on a productive path and avoids misunderstandings.
Are you expecting a 24 hour turn around, while your beta is thinking a week? If not discussed prior to an exchange, turn around time can cause tension. Be honest and reasonable with your expectations because your beta is essentially working for free.
Length of Partnership
Is your manuscript a novel or a short story? Be honest and upfront with the length of your manuscript. If your beta reader is expecting a short story, don't be surprised if he or she disappears when you send a novel. When the engagement is lengthy, break up the exchanges into chapters or another agreed upon length.
Is the manuscript hardcore horror or sweet romance? It's best if your beta has some familiarity or liking for the subject material. Your beta may find it difficult to give you adequate feedback on subjects he or she doesn't understand or like.
If you worked out all the other requirements, be sure to request specific feedback. These are topics you want the reader to give extra attention. Include the request with the manuscript e-mail. An example: Does my hook work to draw the reader in right away?
Beta Read Complete
You've made your arrangements with your beta reader and sent the file with your feedback request. Now you've received your file back, what do you do first?
Read through the Beta Key completely and reference it as needed. The key explains what the beta's comments mean.
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.
Read all of your beta reader's notes from start to finish. There will be a great many notes and your file may come back twice the size of the one you sent. That's okay. Don't panic. Those notes are going to help you. If you need to, take some time and come back fresh.
Sample Beta Notes
What will you beta reader's file 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.
When you are ready to edit your work, copy your original file before you start. You will be making heavy changes and you want the original, in case you change your mind.
Open your original file and your beta reader's file side by side. This will make it easier to make changes and look at your notes. Do not edit your beta reader's file.
You want to keep your beta's notes for future reference.
It may be easier to start with technical changes first. Those are concrete and not generally subjective. This gives you time to consider more intensive changes while fixing minor errors. Reminder: make all changes to your original file only.
After the technical errors are corrected, move on to the style comments. Using the highlighter tool, highlight each instance your beta has commented.
Read over your beta's overall notes, usually at the bottom or between your paragraphs. If there are extensive rewrites suggested, this might require you to consider it for a few hours. If there are links, it's a good time to read through them. Resources will help you make your revisions.
Once you've considered your beta's comments, and read through the suggested resources, it's time to get to work.
Tackle the highlighted portions of your work one at a time. Consider each as its own separate instance to avoid being overwhelmed. They are soft aspects, that do not have a single right answer, requiring a great deal of tweaking. You may try several different rewrites before settling on one.
Suggestions vs Corrections
Your beta reader gave you lots of suggestions and a few corrections, but maybe you aren't sure what the difference is.
Corrections are more concrete than suggestions because a correction addresses something that is considered incorrect. Generally this pertains to spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc, that can be either right or wrong. In most cases, you will simply fix the errors.
Suggestions are possible changes that the beta reader thinks will strengthen your writing. They are often a starting off point for you. It is much more helpful to say, 'This [criticism] might be balanced out if you did this [suggestion],' than 'This doesn't work for me. It's too [criticism.]'
Your beta should help you get going, not simply point out a problem. With that said, there is more than one way to write. You do not need to use your beta's particular suggestion, but do give the issue and possibilities consideration.
An Uncertain Beta
You've come across a comment in your feedback that's a little disconcerting. It will look something like this:
[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?]
It probably sounds absurd, since you are relying on this person's knowledge, but that's how it goes sometimes. Your beta reader isn't all knowing or infallible and should be honest when he or she is unsure.
Read over the sentence and decide if you can discern the issue. Usually your beta will tell you what he or she doesn't like about it (the flow, wording, punctuation, etc), and that might help you figure it out. Look it up, if you can.
If you can't determine what's wrong, ask someone else or consider rewriting it entirely. There is no single correct way to write a sentence, and sometimes it's simplest to start from scratch.
Rewrites, small or extensive, need to be checked carefully for repeat technical errors. For Example: If your beta sent you a resource for dialog formatting, consult it when you write or edit dialog. A beta reading partnership works best when you make a concerted effort to learn the corrections.
Note the repeated corrections and accepted suggestions and compile a list. Save the file for easy referencing in the future. Now that you have a record of your errors, it's easier to stop repeating them, but it will take time. Before you write anything else, consult the list. Once you've finished writing, consult the list again to check for those errors.
Rinse and Repeat
Once you have made all your revisions, and double checked your rewrites for errors, send it back to your beta reader. You will want to ensure that you and your beta understand each other. There is no better way than seeing proof in your writing.
Your beta may notice issues that he or she didn't before, or your rewrites may have new errors. Either way, it is beneficial to repeat the process.
Your beta reader gave you a particular suggestion you don't think works for your manuscript. Do you have to do what your beta says? No, if you disagree with a suggestion or piece of feedback, you can discuss it with the beta reader or not use it.
If you do not agree with any of your beta reader's feedback, there is an issue. Either you are having a communication or a compatibility issue.
Perhaps your beta reader is at a lower skill level than you, or perhaps you're not really seeking feedback for improvement. Then again, your beta reader may explain concepts in ways you find difficult to learn.
Do not jump to a conclusion, however. Discuss the issue with your beta reader to find a solution. If the issue cannot be resolved, consider ending the relationship amicably.
Become a Beta Reader
I recommend every writer become a beta reader. It will help you think critically about writing, which you can apply to your own work.
Beta reading has a way of teaching you new things about writing. You will be presented with requests for feedback on topics that you may not even be familiar with. It's a good incentive to take twenty minutes and research new topics or brush up on old ones.
It's best to find a writer that is at your skill level or below, in order to be more effective. If nothing else, give in depth critiques for other writers.
Do's and Don't's
Don't expect only praise.
It is part of your beta's job to address your writing weaknesses. If you are not willing to do that, do not seek out a beta reader.
Do expect your beta reader to assist you in understanding writing and developing your skills. That will often include a humbling list of errors in your manuscript.
Don't abuse your beta.
Your beta reader is not a free editing service to handle your writing for you. If you do not attempt improvements, you are disrespecting your beta reader.
Do make honest attempts to learn what your beta is teaching with his or her list of corrections and suggestions.
Don't ignore feedback you don't understand.
If you don't understand what your beta is explaining, it does neither of you any good. It wastes your time and your beta reader's time.
Do ask questions and discuss topics you find difficult. Your beta reader will likely direct you to valuable resources to improve your writing.
Don't forget your manners.
Your beta reader is doing free work for you. That's a large favor.
Do thank your beta reader for investing their time and energy into helping you improve your writing skills. Sometimes authors will credit a beta reader when posting or publishing a manuscript. A little comment can go a long way in keeping your beta happy.
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: Some beta readers may offer fewer suggestions, in order to let the author find his or her own solutions. Other beta readers may beat an author over the head with a million suggestions.
If you know yourself to be particularly sensitive, it may be beneficial to discuss the topic in initial communications.