There are many ways an author can Pay it Forward to the writing community. The regular followers of this blog know I like to but books from fellow self-published authors and promote those I’ve most enjoyed via my Recommended Reads. This is a great way of giving something back to those who’ve supported you as a writer, either directly or indirectly, but I understand it can be cost prohibitive to some. However, there is another way authors can support authors, and that’s through beta reading.
The more eagle-eyed of you will have spotted I’ve not posted a new recommendation recently. This isn’t because I’ve been slacking with my reading but because I’ve taken the opportunity while my current WIP is resting to beta read for a couple of authors.
What is beta reading?
Beta reading is where you read an early version of a manuscript in order to identify the things that work and the things that don’t – from a reader’s perspective. The goal is to provide the author with information about their book which they can’t see themselves because they are too close to the story. The typical areas to proved feedback on are plot, pacing, characterisation, and prose.
My rules of beta reading
Providing any kind of feedback to an author is a sensitive area. There needs to be an element of openness and trust for it to work well. Because of this, there are certain unwritten rules I always try to take into account when beta reading:
- Be honest. You’re job is to help the author produce the best book possible. Shying away from criticism doesn’t help the author. If something doesn’t work, tell the, but also tell them why. The same goes for when something comes across well. While a beta read will mostly pick up on the areas for improvement, it’s important to highlight the areas that work well.
- Make sure the book is in a genre with which you’re familiar. There’s nothing worse than being asked to provide, or receiving, feedback from somebody who clearly doesn’t love the genre or style you’re writing in.
- Judge the book from the perspective of its target audience. If you are reading a YA or MG novel, don’t complain at the unrealistic lack of custards or visceral description.
- Ask if there is anywhere in particular on which to concentrate. Sometimes a writer will have concerns about certain scenes in their book, either because it isn’t working, or as I had in Second Chance, because of the nature of the content. Make sure you’re aware of these beforehand so you can give them your full attention.
- Explain your own strengths and weaknesses beforehand. When I beta read I’m good at judging the tone and pacing of a novel, OK at characterisation but poor at picking up typos or grammar issues (I can just see my editor nodding his head in agreement). Let the author know where you can and can’t help, so they have the chance to get the other areas checked elsewhere.
- Remember you’re trying to help the author write their book. It can be very easy to fall into the trap of looking at how you would write the book or make changes to the storyline. This isn’t the goal of beta reading. Saying you didn’t like the ending because it didn’t provide closure for character X is good feedback. Saying you disliked the ending because if you’d written the book character X would have ridden that candy-coloured unicorn into the sunset instead of carried on as a janitor, is not.
- Yours is only one opinion. Good authors ask feedback from many sources because everybody has a different opinion. When I’m writing, if all my beta readers say there is a problem in a certain scene, I’ll know it’s an issue. If only one does, while another loves the same scene, I know I need to use my judgement. Don’t be surprised if the author doesn’t take everything you say on board.
- Don’t forget to question? If you are unsure about something, ask the question. As a reader you miss things so there may be times where a simple ‘have you mentioned this before?’ is much better than complaining about an issue that isn’t there.
How do I feedback?
What I like to do is provide a report looking at the different areas – plot, pacing, characterisation, and prose – so the author has a clear idea of the major areas to focus on. I then like to send back the actual document if possible, with comments, so the author can see exactly where things could be improved, or areas I particularly love. My document comments tend to be a little more direct than in the report, because they are how I felt at the time, but this is no different to how I would assess my own work.
The benefits of beta reading
Beta reading is hard work but very rewarding. Not only does it provide really useful support for your fellow authors, it also helps you improve your own writing too. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve picked up an area for improvement in an author’s work, only to realise I’ve done the same thing myself. I know my writing has improved since I started beta reading.
Because it can be a lot of work, most writers find it difficult to locate good, experienced beta readers. Yet writers are the best beta readers around, so offering somebody the chance to read their work is an enormous favour. At the same time, be understanding if you ask somebody to beta read for you and they turn you down. The only reason I’m beta reading at the moment is because I have a short writing break. In a couple of weeks I’ll be back to purely concentrating on my own book.
So, if you are looking for another way of Paying It Forward to your fellow writers, why don’t you offer up your services as a beta reader? Not only will you be providing invaluable help, you might get to learn something about your own writing too.
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