Today’s Spotlight shines brightly on Sarina Langer author of Rise Of The Sparrows with a Guest Post about Beta Reading. Check it out and be sure to enter the Giveaway!
Beta reading is an essential part to writing a book. Whether you’re the writer in need of two or ten betas or whether you’re the beta reader, there are a few things that might help if this is your first time doing this, or if the first attempt didn’t go so well.
I worked very closely with my betas when I edited Rise of the Sparrows, and am now a beta myself for the first time.
But why should you ask betas to go over your novel for you, and tell you everything they don’t like about it? There are many first-time writers who believe that their own eyes are enough when it comes to reading over every last chapter again. They’ve written it, after all – surely there’s no one better suited to making changes? Surely your best friend who reads, like, all the time, or your mum who’s totally honest with you, are enough? Your best friend and your parents are welcome to read your book, of course, but you shouldn’t rely on their advice alone. If you want brutally honest feedback, there’s no one better suited than people who enjoy the genre you’re writing, but who don’t fear their Christmas presents being cancelled if they are too honest with you.
I’ve put together a few points which will hopefully give you a better idea of what to expect if you’re the writer, or if you’re the beta (keep scrolling!) because frankly, having strangers criticise your baby can be a terrifying and nerve-wrecking experience.
If You’re the Writer
You want honesty
This is the number one thing you want betas for. Cold, hard honesty – but you want it from both angles. You want to hear everything your betas dislike about your current draft, but you also want to hear everything they love about it. Chances are there’ll be plenty of both! If the thought of someone hating what you write worries you, remember this: It’s what betas are there for. Their feedback allows you to do two important things: Fix everything that’s not working, so that you can publish a better novel as a result, and become aware of your strengths and weaknesses.
Two of my betas told me they were worried that I’d get angry if I didn’t agree with their feedback. Both of them had previously had bad experiences, where the writer got very defensive and annoyed when they made suggestions. Don’t be that writer. It’s what your betas are there for.
The little things
It’s all well and good spotting the big things that don’t work, like a side character not adding anything to the story or your characters lacking personality, but your betas will spot tiny things, too – things you would never have spotted yourself. In Rise of the Sparrows, one of the horses changed gender halfway through! You’d think it’s obvious and that you would definitely spot something as clearly wrong as this, but you won’t. Your mind knows which way is correct, and fills in the gaps for you.
Stay true to your voice
There are some things you need to change, no questions asked and no arguments made. If, for example, your horse changes gender, you fix it (the only exception being if your horse had a legitimate sex-change – if that’s the case please be in touch, I want to read that book!). If your character does two things at once which are impossible to do at the same time, you change it. If, however, a beta doesn’t like some of the choices your characters made, think about what you want to do. Remember, this is your book. Every writer has a different style, and you need to be careful not to compromise your own unique voice.
A lot of the feedback you receive won’t leave room for doubt, but question whether every change they suggest needs to be applied.
Chances are, no matter how much you change to please your betas, there’ll always be someone who doesn’t love everything about your novel. You can’t help that, and you need to accept it. It’s fine, I promise. Just make sure that, when you don’t change something, it’s for a good reason and not just your ego getting in the way.
Strength in numbers
I had ten betas who went over Rise of the Sparrows for me. It was a lot of work, but it allowed me to do one thing I couldn’t have done with just one or two.
If you have one beta reader and he doesn’t like something, what do you do? And what if he really doesn’t like something? Whether this one thing needs to be changed or not can be difficult to decide if you only have the one opinion – but what if you have ten betas, and only one who doesn’t like chapter eleven? This gives you the freedom to ask your other nine readers what they thought of said chapter. Maybe some of them even mentioned that it stood out to them because the descriptions were especially vivid!
Getting several opinions is a huge help, and going back to ask for clarification or specific feedback can’t hurt.
I asked my betas to send me their feedback as they were reading my book, rather than wait until the end and then send me everything. Thanks to this I could ask for their opinions on potential changes when the chapters were still fresh in their memory. I worked especially closely with three of mine, who I sent new chapters I added or paragraphs I’d rewritten, and we continued to work on those parts until I was happy with them (and they no longer burnt my beta’s eyes).
You’ll receive a lot of feedback, and it won’t take long before it looks overwhelming. I organised all the feedback I got into a new document, sorted by chapter and colour-coded, so I knew at one glance what worked well, what definitely needed changing, and which suggestions needed more consideration before I did anything. I coloured everything I had changed, or knew I wouldn’t change, in grey, so by the end of my edit everything was either greyed out or green (for all positive feedback) Everything I’d missed stood out easily!
Be clear on what you want
Chances are not all of your betas will have done this before. If they haven’t, it helps them massively if you include a small list of things you’d like them to look for. Beta reading can be a daunting experience for them as much as it is for you, and having a short list of instructions can help your readers do what you need them to do. If there’s anything specific you want them to look for, tell them!
If You’re the Beta Reader
Honesty without rudeness
I had just over ten betas for Rise of the Sparrows, and they’ve given me a vast range of different feedback. Some of them were very detailed and right to the point–e.g: on page 35, spellt should be spelt–but others gave me a lot more detail.
We hope that, while you read our book, you’ll begin to feel for our characters, the world we’ve created, and that you’ll begin to feel passionate about everything that happens. However, if you come across something you don’t agree with, there are polite ways of pointing that out to us. There’s a big difference between I didn’t like how Diana responded in chapter 32, I don’t think it suits her character and No, no, NO! This is NOT acceptable! Change it! Both reactions tell us the same thing; you didn’t like it. Don’t think that you need to go all out for us to take your comment seriously. You don’t need to coddle us with your feedback–your honesty is the whole point–but I think it’s important to think about wording, too.
Tell us about everything that stands out to you. You might think that something is obvious, that one of the others must already have noticed the same thing, but you’d be surprised how many things slip through. One small mistake that seems obvious to you might easily slip past the others. I had one rather big mistake which only a couple of betas picked up on!
The writer you work with might even give you a list of things to look out for. If they don’t, ask anyway – they might have something you can use for reference.
Treat it like any other book
Of course we want you to find everything wrong with the draft, but for the most part we want you to read our book like any other. Point out anything that stands out to you while you read, but if you analyse every sentence for structure you likely won’t enjoy it, and you might even get fed up with it.
Positives are important, too
All the flaws you find are going to be a huge help to us, but don’t underestimate the good bits. Knowing where our strengths are is just as useful, and when we’ve just received a long list of things that need changing it really makes our day to hear that chapter fourteen was fantastic!
Be honest with yourself
If it turns out that the book isn’t for you, that’s fine. If something comes up in your personal life and you can no longer commit, we understand. Don’t feel bad for dropping out, or for admitting that you don’t like the book. We’re aware that not everyone is going to love what we do, and we don’t want you to force yourself. You can’t like every book you read. Your family comes first. Shit happens. We understand.
Don’t be offended if we don’t implement every suggestion
You do the writer you’re working with a huge favour, and trust me, we appreciate it, but please be aware that we likely won’t implement every one of your changes. This isn’t because we don’t fully appreciate your work, but can be due to a number of things. We might simply not agree with a suggestion you made–one of my betas wanted more animals to feature, but that’s just not what my book is about–or we might feel that a suggestion would change our style too much into yours. Often we might apply a suggested change in theory, but change it to fit our style better. We do take your ideas very seriously–we wouldn’t have asked otherwise–but please remember that you’re not our only reader. We have to stay true to our voices, and some feedback simply doesn’t allow that.
I hope this post gives you a better idea of what to expect from your beta read! If all this advice is a little overwhelming right now, there’s one simple thing you can keep in mind: You as the writer don’t get to be defensive, and you as the reader don’t get to make demands. It’s as easy as that!
If you have any questions, please ask away – I’ll be around for a while to answer as best as I can.
Thank you so much, Rochelle, for having me!
Previously she has written another book but soon came to realise just how terrible and unworthy of your time it really was, and decided to practice this writing-thing a little more before trying again. That time has come now, so she hopes you’re ready!
She’s obsessed with books and all things stationery, has a proud collection of over twenty notebooks, and squees every time she buys a new notebook, pen (hmmm, fountain pens❤ ) or highlighters.
In her free time she reads a lot of fantasy and sci-fi novels, plays a lot of video games and researches things like human sacrifice traditions and the end of the universe. Purely for professional purposes, of course.
Her cat, the Sellybean, has become a mascot to this blog and her writing, and is probably sitting on her notes/laptop/chewing her pen as you read this.
Above everything else she hopes that you will enjoy this journey with her, and hopes to hear from you soon!