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The Good, Bad and Ugly of Beta Reading

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

In order to be an effective beta reader for your friends or clients, there are certain aspects of “the job” that you will need to accept. In this post, we’ll cover the good, the bad, and the ugly.

As an author that is seeking help with their WIP, the greatest priority for a beta reader is HONESTY. Look, you don’t have to be Simon Cowell or Gordon Ramsay in your delivery, but your authors need you to be honest—constructively—so they may become better writers and consequently, tell better stories. A common technique between beta readers is the “sandwich method,” in which a reader will sandwich the criticism between two compliments. This way, the author doesn’t feel too disheartened, and the reader can convey their thoughts honestly and kindly.

Make sure to point out plot flaws, and offer solutions or ideas. Prepare the author for the questions you want to answer for them - good, bad and ugly.

The Good

  • Remember to tell the author at which point(s) you found yourself immersed in their read? And if you don’t know, it’s the, “I have to find out what happens next” points in the book or the “I can’t put this book down” points. TELL THEM these first and foremost.

  • Secondly, always explain to the author which character(s) were your favorite AND why. It’s all well and good to say you loved the characters, but authors like specifics when it comes to feedback. What did you like about them? Why would you go to battle to keep all of their scenes in the final manuscript?

  • In that same vein, do you think some characters have earned more “play” in the books as readers will like them? Report and recommend this, as authors sometimes are too close to recognize this in their own work. Oftentimes, readers will connect with a certain character the author had just thrown in at the last second.

  • Make sure to tell them what the most memorable thing was about the book. Which scene? Some scenes stick with you or hit you hard emotionally. Point them out.

  • Ok, here’s the fun one… what did I use your crystal ball on—and it came true!? Is the writer too predictable or are you too good at guessing climaxes? It’s an important distinction, and one that could make or break the manuscript.

The Bad

  • Just as important as what you like the most, is this—where were you confused? And be specific. Remember, you want to help the author improve their writing. Did a character come out of nowhere? Does a fact listed in the manuscript actually not make sense? Is there a scene that doesn’t fit in the flow of the story?

  • What about the author’s writing was difficult to read? Sometimes, the author’s writing style doesn’t appeal to you, but was there something “jarring” about their wording? Could something be phrased differently? Does their paragraphing live up to par? Do you feel like you have to go back and re-read at points?

  • So here’s a fun one—which character needs more fleshing out or backstory? Does Jeremiah Pennyworth have nothing going for him except a name? Mention this to the author. Or which characters seem flat or two dimensional.

  • And finally, what about the book was problematic? Were there plot holes or missed opportunities?

The Ugly

  • So here’s one for the “sandwich” method—what parts did you start to “skim” through or jump ahead? Was it because you didn’t like the story? Character? Make sure you include a “why” the author lost you.

  • What precisely about the book annoyed you as a reader? Not the plot, but was there anything that made it “hard to read”?

  • Was the book problematic in a different way? You know the one. An insensitive author has trundled into a societal “no-no” and needs to be corrected before the manuscript is published. The last thing a reader needs is to be offended when they only expected to be entertained. Beta reading can save a reader and author from facing these problems.

  • Did you ever put down the book because you didn’t like something? This could be very helpful to an author.

The Fun (Ok, I cheated and added a section. Sue me, Clint Eastwood…)

  • What emotions did the book bring out in you as a reader and explain them and where they were.

  • What scenes were your favorite because of the emotion?

  • What other books did this book remind you of? Listing a book as a combination of two bestsellers is a powerful marketing tactic. For example, Caraval by Stephanie Garber was marketed as a blend of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Stardust by Neil Gaiman.

  • Did any parts of the book remind you of your life or someone close to you, making it relatable? Sometimes, your favorite book will be the one you relate to the most.

  • If you had to remove a character, who would it be and why? Is there an unnecessary character? A character you love to hate or hate to love? Killing our darlings is often the worst thing for an author, so any help a beta reader can lend in this task is always appreciated.

  • What was the best scene? Favorite scene?

  • What made you as a reader keep reading and or finish?

Final Thoughts

Beta reading is a fun and, at times, challenging task. Above all, it’s important to be honest with the author. Try not to be condescending in your criticism, but more constructive. The author will thank you for your kindness and professionalism. Now, go forth, brave beta. You are now armed with reviewing knowledge! Let us know your thoughts in the comments below how you like to manage your beta reading. Until next time, happy writing.

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