Beta reading in an insightful way can be very hard for authors. It was very hard for me, for a long time (though I didn’t realize it then) because I just twitched to go through and make tons of corrections that were all to stylistic things and ended up strangling the voice of the author I was reading for.
I think it was a pretty sucky time to be my beta partner, and I look back and am not surprised that the people I was reading for then don’t have me read for them anymore. But I got older and wiser, and learned how to beta in the way most useful to my partner.
It can be hard for an author to look at something and divorce themselves from the way they would have written it. But it’s totally necessary, if you are going to be an effective beta reader/crit partner: you cannot focus on things that are stylistic issues. I am not saying that you should never mention these things–if there is something that really bothers you and you believe would trip up readers, go right ahead–but don’t put tons of focus on it.
Because the things that are really important to focus on, the things it will help your beta partner the most if you focus on, are the parts that don’t work for you because you are having trouble following the plot logic/characterization/whatnot.
So look at the comments you are making. Do these comments boil down to “I would have written it X way”? If so, nix them and make comments that are universal, comments that point to problems or good parts that most everyone can agree exist to one extent or another.
Some good questions to consider when beta reading:
- Does the plot follow logically from one event to the next?
- Is there enough conflict to carry the plot/keep the story interesting?
- Is the characterization consistent?
- Do the characters have clear goals/motivations?
- Is the language/syntax appropriate to the point-of-view character? This means: is the sailor swearing? is the bride blushing? and if not, is it clear why they aren’t?
- Does the point of view character have a strong voice?
- Is the sex too technical? Too… anything? Not enough anything? In other words, is the sex appropriate to the characters having it?
- Is there a fair amount of narrative traction?
- Do the subplots make sense? Do they have a purpose/feed into the main plot?
- Does it feel like there are any missing scenes? This would fall under the ‘plot logic’ heading–are all the paths that the plot takes clear? Do you feel at any point like you missed something plot-wise?
- Are there any plot points which were unresolved?
- Do any scenes feel like they drag along at a snail’s pace?
- Does the tone that the scenes are written in fit well with the story?
- Is the pacing even throughout the book?
- What is the characteristic of the writing: dry? purple? somewhere in the middle? How does this line up with your preferences as a reader? (Keep in mind that the way something is written can have a big effect on your enjoyment of it.)
Of course there are instances where any of these things might not happen and the story not suffer for it–there are exceptions to every rule–but generally when you are beta reading, you want to focus on the elements of the story/storytelling than on line-editing. (Unless that is what your beta partner asked for, in which case, have at it.)
And always, always, if the answers to these questions are yes, then tell your beta partner that they did a good job on these things! It can be a huge blow sometimes to hear that you did this, this, and that wrong and nothing right. So if they are doing any of the above things (or some things I didn’t manage to think of) correctly, tell them, and they will love you for it.
For the record… these are also things I consider when reading submissions and editing. So beta reading effectively can extend to more parts of your life than reading your friends’ work.
Thus, it is important to learn to beta in a relevant way.
Some useful links:
Examples of beta reading – Very helpful if you are unsure exactly what format you are supposed to use when beta reading for someone.
How to Beta Read – Exactly what it says on the tin: an in-depth look at the way you should beta read.
Results of a Beta Reading survey – This is a very, very comprehensive survey of 54 beta readers from 2008, and the results of it. Helpful for the Do’s and Don’ts and also for going into depth about the ways that beta readers mark things, the resources they use. Like I said, very comprehensive.
Absolute Write’s Beta Readers Forum – One of the many spots to find readers, and they have some useful information in their sticky topics, too.
An Experimental Psychologist’s Take on Beta Reading – Very interesting and an excellent resource for those of us who are science-minded. It is broken into four sections: Part 1 – Subject Pool; Part 2 – Recruiting/getting them to read; Part 3 – Data collection; Part 4 – Results and conclusions.
Any links I missed that aren’t just reiterations of the above? Toss ’em up in the comments and I’ll edit the entry :)