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Beta-reading not only provides an opportunity to help others, but also exercises your creative muscle, which aids you in your own writing. It’s a true honor and privilege whenever you’re asked to be a beta-reader. It’s even better to be a trusted beta-reader, someone whose opinion others repeatedly rely on when developing their ideas. Here are some tips for giving the best feedback possible:
This, first and foremost. Don’t have the time to devote to a proper critique? The story isn’t your cup of tea, or the genre isn’t one you’re familiar with? Best to be upfront about it, rather than half-assing things and wasting everyone’s time. Being honest also means telling the writer about your every impression, not just what you liked. Critique that avoids problems doesn’t help your writer improve.
Yes, your main goal should be honesty, but your delivery matters too. There’s no need to be an asshole about it- you’re trying to help this person, not tear them down. Always phrase things so your critique is clearly about the work, not the writer. The writer will be more open to phrasing like “I think X could be improved if you [suggestion]” rather than “You suck at X. Change it.” Remember what it’s like when you’re the writer looking for critique, how nerve-wracking it can be. A writer must often overcome immense anxiety to even ask for your help. Don’t make them sorry they did.
If the writer doesn’t provide specific things they want feedback on, ask for some. Are they worried about pacing, spelling/grammar, cohesion? Should you treat this as a first draft (and be more forgiving as a whole), or a polished final draft? This will help both of you make the most of your time.
Have you ever attended a writer’s group where everyone is expected to solicit and receive feedback? For the most part they’re wonderfully helpful, but inevitably, there are one or two readers who hand back every sample with no notes, saying only, “It’s good!” My paranoid brain always assumes they either (a) didn’t care for the genre/story (absolutely their prerogative, but at least tell me as much); or (b) thought it was an unmitigated trainwreck, and are trying to avoid saying so.
Don’t be one of these people. Have an opinion! To develop one:
- Several reads are best.
- As much as possible, complete your first read without any thought toward critique or the writer’s concerns. Record your reactions and first impressions on a separate sheet of paper. It may be that some of the questions you have at the beginning are answered later in the piece, so that’s why you don’t want to make notes in the work itself just yet.
- Note down things you enjoyed- good lines, funny parts, etc.
- Note down moments when you were confused, bored, or found humor in something that wasn’t supposed to be funny. These are points where you disconnected from the story. It’s important for the writer to know about them.
- Note down your impressions of the characters- what you like or don’t like about them, and why. It may be you’re not supposed to like them. This allows the writer to gauge whether his setup is working as intended.
- If given specific things to watch out for, comment on these to the best of your ability. Go back and reread specifically for those things if you have to.
- If spelling and grammar are really bad, don’t try to correct every last thing- just note that these need improvement. If spelling/grammar are decent, do note the mistakes you find (if any).
- For anything you didn’t like, prepare as many suggestions for improvement as possible. It’s much more helpful to hear “X didn’t work for me, how about you try this instead?” versus “X needs work. I’m not sure what.”
Once finished, go through your critique with the writer. I like face-to-face for this best, fueled by coffee or similarly wonderful substances, but email isn’t bad either. The reason face-to-face is nice is that you can immediately delve into or clarify your remarks as needed. You can also brainstorm together, which I find is the best part of beta-reading. Many things that end up in my manuscripts were spawned during these caffeine- and laugh-addled sessions, things I never would’ve thought of on my own.
Moreover, it feels really good to help other writers improve their work!
Do you have any suggestions for providing the best feedback possible? Drop me a line in the comments!