Time to Massage Your Story: Beta Readers

Suppose you’ve got a dog. It’s a great dog- slobbery and furry and cute. However, it’s got a nasty habit of chewing up your shoes. What do you do? Well, you obviously ask advice from other people, because in this parallel dimension, the internet with all its ability to undermine your confidence is non-existent. In the writing community, these other people are called beta readers, and the dog is actually a manuscript.

I know it’s a shitty metaphor, but in my defence, I haven’t written anything in two weeks (exams are a bitch and three quarters. I say three quarters, because that’s approximately how much sanity I lost while preparing for them. I am currently only a quarter the person I once was…let us all take a moment to grieve for the mediocre mind that has now mostly departed).

Now, I didn’t know anything about beta readers other than their definition -a group of strangers that read your manuscript and provide insight as to its entertainment value- so I decided to become a beta reader and figure out what other authors would make me do. I was hoping for dirty things, but alas, it was always a very professional relationship.

Based on my experience as a beta reader, here are some tips for other beta readers out there, who haven’t quite figured out how to do this literary thing yet.

  1. Time how fast you can read a book. It’s helpful in estimating how many projects you can take on at once. For instance, I can read a well-written, 300 page book in about 3 hours, so if someone tells me that their manuscript is around 60K words, I’m going to add two hours onto my three hour baseline because I know that I’m going to add in a bunch of comments in the margins. Manuscripts are rarely well-written; they usually have some sort of problem, and it’s your job to find the problem, highlight it, bold it, and generally be a (diplomatic/sugar-coated) dick about it. Of course, some authors like to send your their book chapter by chapter, which is much easier to juggle. It only takes about half an hour to read a chapter. So, plan accordingly.
  2. Figure out if the writer wants a beta reader or a critique partner or a swap. If you don’t have a manuscript on the go, maybe don’t volunteer to be a critique partner or do a swap? A critique partner is someone who’s a writer as well, and who gives a writer’s perspective on the manuscript. In return, the manuscript owner provides the same services for your work-in-progress. It’s a partnership; you bounce plot ideas off each other, and rant about the writing process, etc…And a swap is, well, a swap of manuscripts. You need to have a manuscript yourself if you want that to happen. Of course, sometimes the author wanting a swap will be very happy to just get the services of a beta reader- less work for them.
  3. Be prompt with your replies to the poor author. Writers tend to get pissy if they don’t get feedback on time, and who can blame them? You’re basically judging their soul in digital form! It’s a nerve-wracking process.
  4. Be very diplomatic with your criticisms. My first time beta reading, I got a chapter’s worth of the worst writing I had ever seen. The plot was confusing, the characters were 2D and cliche, there were info dumps everywhere, and the grammar was the stuff of nightmares…so, in pure Ella fashion, I spewed recriminations in the comments in the margins. I honestly thought it was the right thing to do- the author sent me this piece of shit to figure out how to improve it, right? Noooooooooooope.
    Image result for dog looney toons

    After I sent this writer an email detailing exactly what went wrong, and why I thought it went wrong, with some general suggestions on how to improve it; s/he sent me a whiny email about how the info dumps were necessary, and the confusing plot was actually just mysterious, and the copious overuse of italics was to establish tone, and so on. I kept on trying to explain why s/he was wrong, and I was right; as the reader, I did not have access into their head, therefore if I was confused, it meant that they hadn’t explained themselves properly. Nope, s/he just kept getting more pissed. Moral of the story: sandwich your criticism in between happy, positive things that flatter the author’s ego. That way, you won’t have to deal with the angry emails that I kept on getting. Mind you, you’re a beta reader, so you still have to say the bad stuff, just…say it nicely. Apparently, people don’t like coarse criticisms accompanied by jokes in bad taste- who knew?

    Image result for look looney toons
  5. Make sure your emails have good grammar. You’re supposed to be a reader, make sure the author believes you’re literate. To test this out, I sent an email reply to a query where I didn’t capitalise the beginning of my sentences, and I used emojis a lot. Although the author replied, and let me read his/her first chapter, they didn’t take my criticism seriously, obviously; I was talking like a tipsy teenager…which I kind of was, but that’s not the point.
  6. Make sure you know the author’s timeline. That way, you know how to organise yourself to get the manuscript read on time, so you leave a good impression. This step is common courtesy, but the good impression part is more if you a) want to read more stuff by the author, or b) if you want them to return the favour and beta read your manuscript.
  7. Find out what your author wants you to be on the lookout for. Common requests are:
    • plot holes
    • character arcs
    • grammar
    • entertainment value
    • dialogue

I hope you enjoyed my first post of the holiday season. I’m debating posting a Christmas-themed horror story at some point this week. Let me know if you’d be interested!


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