My Approach to Beta-Reading

I’m in the process of beta-reading an enjoyable book, and it has reminded me that every now and then I use the phrase “beta reading” and people don’t really know what I mean by it, and that when I describe the way I like to beta read, occasionally it becomes clear that I do it a little differently than other people. So, I figured I would write up a quick post about what I do when I beta read a book and why I do it that way. If you find yourself asked to do a beta read and you haven’t done one before, I think this is a darned good way to go about it. But then, I would, wouldn’t I?

First, that term “beta read.” It is often referred to as “critiquing,” but I prefer “beta read” because I think it is a little more accurate: my first job as a beta reader is not to critique the manuscript (though that is important) but to pay very strict attention to my own reaction to it. Just like beta testing a program, I need to go through the process of operating a story in order to see where it doesn’t work. The only way to do that is to be a very attentive reader, not only to the work but also to my own reactions. This is something that the writer cannot easily do for themselves, except at great remove in time, so the beta reading process is invaluable to them in determining whether they have done what they set out to do.

That’s not always easy to do for other people either, especially when you’re engrossed in a story. What I try to do is always beta read with a pen in hand or with Word comments open, so that at the very least it’s easy to indulge in the urge to mark something. There are a number of things I find useful to mark:

  • Where I was surprised
  • Where I was confused
  • Where I laughed or was delighted
  • Where I was dismayed
  • Where I didn’t buy what I just read (both, “no way she would say that!” and, “um, computers don’t work that way”)
  • Where I lost interest
  • Where I got jolted out of the reading experience

(I’ll also put in little jokes or asides, which aren’t actually useful usually) There are two key pieces to this: I’m focusing on my reaction, and I’m non-judgmental about that reaction. I don’t know what the author wants me to feel right then, I’m just faithfully reporting. These little comments, when done right, are like tracer rounds. If the story is working as intended, then those surprises, laughs, “huh?”s and so on are confirmations that everything is landing right. If not, then they can help figure out what’s going wrong.

I’ve also started stepping back periodically to summarize my thinking. Most readers, whether they notice or not, are filling in bits of information on the story as they read, keeping track of who the protagonists are, who the antagonists are, what they think the main conflict is, and how they think that conflict will resolve (plus how they WANT that conflict to resolve). Think about reading a mystery: even when you’re not actively tracking the clues, you usually have some sense of who you find suspicious, and how lost you think the detective is. What I’ve been doing lately is stopping at every chapter and before I move on, thinking over what I just read in some of those terms, and just making higher-level notes. The best thing to do, if possible, is to provide a kind of core dump: “This is what I think is happening, this is what I want to happen, but this is what I think will happen instead. You bastard.”

You have to trust the writer when giving this kind of feedback. First, because you’re going to look dumb. You’ll make wild guesses (like all readers do) and you’ll miss important things (like all readers do) and get off in the weeds (like all readers do) but unlike all readers, your predictions will be down on paper. It’s OK to look dumb as long as it’s an honest dumb. Second, and more seriously, because very often the last thing a reader really wants out of the ending of a book is to get what they wanted on page 10. You’ve got to trust the writer you’re beta-reading for to not give in (or at least, to only give in when presented with a genuinely better idea) before you really let them have it. It’s like, if you’ve quit smoking, you don’t confess your cigarette cravings to someone who might offer you one. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t tell the writer of this gothic horror story that halfway through you desperately hope everyone comes out unscathed… just that you should maybe remind them that what you want for Mr. X on page 150 isn’t what will actually satisfy you at the end of his character arc.

Lately, I’ve been sending my feedback a few chapters at a time rather than all at once. I started doing that when reading a long book in which I doubted I could finish critiquing in time, but found that it had some useful side effects. For one thing, it lets the writer dig into feedback early, instead of getting it all in one enormous chunk, and guide my attention where needed. For another thing, it keeps me honest: if I guessed something embarrassingly wrong, well, I’m already on the record, so there’s no temptation to go back and revise. If I have a later thought about something I read earlier, I can just say so later. It also gives me a convenient opportunity to sit back and discuss some of the really high-level stuff like theme and characterization, and whether the story was working for me or not.

My job as beta reader is also to act as a kind of Comic Book Guy for the world of the book; you know, the whole,”you say in issue #95 that it is impossible for Spider-Man to shoot green webbing, sir, but that directly contradicts issue #36, page 8, where Spider-Man did not only exactly that but…” thing. That is, less obnoxiously, to become immersed in the book’s rules and get a sense of what’s possible and what’s not possible within them. This is especially true when beta-reading mysteries, because very often that “impossible”/”possible” distinction is what the case hinges on. I’ve got to know the world well enough to be confident in saying “what you just described seems impossible given what you’ve told me.” Also, sometimes, in this role I can offer advice along the lines of, “That doesn’t seem to be working for me, but have you considered this?”

This Comic Book Guy role sounds like it’s separate from my previous role as super-self-attentive reader, but it’s not. We as readers develop mental models of the worlds we read about. We learn through a story what’s possible and what isn’t… but our mental model may not actually fit what the writer has in mind. This is a much harder thing to get across in a beta read than instantaneous reaction, except in the case of “this right here surprised me”. Offering suggestions is a way of opening a window onto that mental model, and in that way isn’t just offering suggestions, but offering a hypothesis. (I’m still trying to find a better way to get that mental model across in a beta read, by the way, and am open to suggestions.)

The last part is hardest: don’t read the same piece twice, or at least not until it’s published. It’s really easy to get proprietary about one’s suggestions, and that doesn’t serve anybody well. The point is to help a friend improve their story, not to try to become a collaborator. Not reading the same piece twice removes entirely the temptation to notice that someone did or didn’t follow your advice, and the temptation to say, “this draft is better/worse than that one” which is rarely helpful advice. And anyway, it’s just too hard to read what’s on the page the second time around, versus what you remember from the previous draft. All in all, I think it’s best to read and comment on one draft, then wait to see it in print.

So, that’s my current approach to beta reading. And of course, there’s always room for other comments and suggestions alongside what I describe above. Essentially what I’m describing here isn’t so much the act of critiquing a book as of examining my own reactions to a book, and examining my understanding of it. It’s not a process that requires super-sharp insight into literary theory, or the skills of a brilliant writer; it requires only honesty and self-awareness.

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