A few months ago, I discussed how there are four essential edits that every author should perform on their manuscript. While the author can do half of these edits by themselves, two edits need the input of other people: editors and beta readers. Authors shouldn’t expect editors to ask what to look for during their review, but most beta readers might not know the types of useful feedback the author is seeking with their review. It doesn’t hurt to provide beta readers with a little guidance on what to be looking for when they read the author’s manuscript.
The benefits of beta readers are due to the fact that they aren’t necessarily professionals reading your work. They won’t have the background to tell you if you’re using too many dangling participles (like your editor should). Instead, they have the “layman” view of someone who would pick up your book and read it for entertainment purposes. Consequently, the beta readers should be able to identify three of the big problems that a manuscript can have that might make future readers fail to finish the book. They can also identify the parts of the manuscript that work and that you’d want to keep during subsequent edits. I like to call these the “ABC+” of beta reading:
- Annoying/Awkward: For many readers, a book changes from being entertaining to being irritating when the characters or plot become annoying. Perhaps it’s a verbal tic in one of the characters’ dialogue. Maybe it’s a plotline that doesn’t advance anything. Similarly, there are occasional bits of prose that might pull a reader out of the immersive reality of the book because it’s written awkwardly. There might be a phrase or conversation that can make sense in an author’s head and when they read it on the page, but when someone else with a fresh perspective reads it, they should identify if it’s not working for them. Beta readers should be searching for these rough spots so the author knows what to polish in future iterations.
- Boring: If it becomes “work” to read through a book, it’s likely due to the plot becoming boring. If you spend too much time in exposition, you might lose your readers due to boredom. Even if you have a fantastic, action-packed ending that you think is great, nobody would know it if they put your book down too early and never picked it up again. If you’re lucky enough to have dedicated beta readers, they can sometimes push through these boring parts and let you know where you need to “trim the fat” to make your manuscript a tighter and better-flowing work.
- Confusing: When an author creates a world on the page, a lot can depend on how easy it is for a reader to understand that world. In the genres of fantasy and science fiction, there can be a lot of unique and creative ideas presented through the author’s writing. However, if this new world doesn’t make sense, you might lose your readers. Similarly, if the characters in your book don’t act consistently—even when taking into account the growth gained in a character arc—then some readers will likely find this illogical change confusing (and perhaps even annoying). As with the previous two elements of beta reading, sometimes the author can be too close to their writing to notice these flaws. The astute beta reader will identify these areas that are confusing and let the author know that a little more explanation might be in order.
- + The Positive: Most authors will have scenes that they loved to write. Perhaps it’s the eventual romance between the two main characters. Maybe it’s the climactic action sequence. Whatever it is, if the beta readers also like these moments, it helps to let the author know that they were on-target with their writing. Any little bit of encouragement helps the author through the drudgery of editing. From mentioning how a particular line of dialogue made them laugh to how a succinct description was spot-on, beta readers are often the first people to tell the author how great their work will be.
Now, other authors might have different criteria for their beta readers, and sometimes there’s a specific spot that they’ll want some particular focus on, but I think these four elements can help beta readers be effective in providing feedback on an author’s manuscript. After all, with something to search for, the beta readers will pay much closer attention to the book itself and perhaps notice something that needs to be polished that they wouldn’t have normally seen if reading it with no guidance.