I’ve been beta reading for aspiring authors for a few months now and have just received my fourth and fifth novels. Whilst I would never claim to be anything near a professional editor, I adore reading and am incredibly fussing. A winning combination for beta readers so I’m told! I've done a lot of systems beta testing over the years, where the whole point is to try and break as many things as possible, pick up every single flaw and call attention to them (smug grin optional), but that bull in a china shop approach doesn't fly when it comes to something as subjective and open to interpretation as a novel. It’s not the easiest thing in the world, to take something someone has poured their heart and soul into and critique it, but I spend a lot of time writing for work and I know that sometimes you don’t see what’s staring you in the face.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to beta reading, but I’ve had a few people contact me on Goodreads asking for tips. Beta reading, like regular reading, is an intensely personal thing, so I don’t pretend to be any great expert, but I thought I’d share what little beta reading knowledge I’ve picked up.
- I tend to read beta books on my tablet, that way I can had sticky note the PDF as I read with my immediate thoughts.
- First I read the book through and jot down any obvious things like plot holes, out of place dialogue, clunky exposition etc. I also scan for typos and grammatical errors, but that’s the pedant in me!
- Once I’ve read the whole thing, I critique the novel on the main things I look for in a good book/story. Here’s my worksheet, feel free to use as a guide if you wish!
- I revisit my feedback a few days later to add anything else that’s come to mind.
- The author then gets my sticky-noted PDF – usually edited a little as it will be an utter mess and my notes won’t make sense to a sane person – and my feedback overview.
What I look for
- Did you like the protagonist? Did you care/were you suitably invested in their journey?
- Was the point of view(s) suitable and well used?
- Did you get a clear sense of time and place setting?
- What did you think of the writing style? Is it suitable for the story?
- Does the opening contain a hook to make you want to keep reading?
- Are the characters/worlds suitably easy to grasp?
- Are essential elements of the story well explained? Are there any aspects which are confused or muddled?
- Did any elements of the story seem clichéd or too “deus ex machina”?
- Did the plot seem contrived at any point?
- Does the story stick to the rules that they have established (particularly important in fantasy novels)?
- What did you enjoy about the story? Were there any aspects in particular that grabbed your attention? What was your favourite part?
- Is the plot engaging? Were there any points where you lost interest?
- At what point did you first stop reading?
- Are significant plot points given the weight they deserve?
- Was there a good mix of showing vs telling? Or was there too much exposition?
- Was the story fresh and innovative? Does it offer anything new to the genre?
Characters and Motivation
- Does the protagonist have a clear voice and personality?
- Do their actions seem organic and believable?
- Was the antagonist well written? Do their motivations and actions seem believable?
- Do supporting characters add to or distract from the story? Were there any needless characters?
- Are the characters shaping the story, or is the story shaping the characters?
- Are the characters personalities and actions consistent?
- Was the dialogue well written? Was it believable and consistent?
- Did the dialogue enhance the characterisation?
- Who was your favourite/least favourite character and why?
- Was the tone consistent and appropriate?
- Did the story flow? Were there any points where it seemed rushed or dragged?
- Were any points too expositional?
- Are the chapter breaks in the right places? Do they leave you wanting to read more?
- Are the chapter breaks repetitive, like a character falling asleep and waking up, or getting knocked unconscious?
- Were there any subplots that you felt distracted from the main story?
- Were there any chapters or events which seemed out of place or unnecessary?
- Were there any plot holes or plot threads left unresolved?
- Were there any aspects of the novel that felt underdeveloped? Was there anything that you wanted to know more about?
- Did the main character change from the beginning of the book to the end? Is their journey satisfying? Do you feel they deserve to be where they end up?
- Is there anything missing from the novel?
- Would you buy this book from the finished manuscript? If not, why not?
- Don’t be afraid to be critical. Authors aren’t looking for someone to tell them that everything is perfect, they’re looking for a fresh pair of eyes to spot what they’ve been too wrapped up in the story to see.
- But don’t be too critical! There are ways of pointing out errors or clumsy exposition without being insensitive or downright mean.
- If you didn’t like something, remember to say why. There’s nothing worse than being told something you’ve done isn’t quite right, without being given any feedback on why that is.
- It’s not all bad news. Remember to focus on the positives too!
- I'm really lucky to have beta read some fantastic novels in the making, and not one of them has been a chore to read, but if you're just not connecting with the book, it's better to be honest than either not follow through on your promise to review or write up nonsense.
Any fellow beta readers out there? What are your top tips?