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What is a Beta Reader?

Apart from being a writer's best friend, beta readers provide a cross between edits and a critique. A beta reader does not edit a manuscript, but will note the errors for the author to fix. Advice and critiques are other services a beta may perform.

Establishing a Relationship

You've just partnered with an author; what do you do first? Establish with your author what each of you expects from the relationship. A solid understanding of expectations starts the partnership on a productive path and avoids misunderstandings.
Time Expectations
Is the author expecting a 24 hour turn around, while you're thinking a week? If not discussed prior to an exchange, turn around time can cause tension. Be honest with your availability and then add some padding, in case of emergency. Do not agree to time constraints you cannot meet.

Length of Partnership
Is the manuscript a novel or a short story? Ask what the author is seeking a beta reader for and avoid getting roped into a lengthy engagement unawares.

Content
Is the manuscript hardcore horror or sweet romance? You can beta read outside your usual genre, but it's best to have some familiarity or liking for the subject material. If horror bothers you, this could be a doomed relationship.

Requested Feedback
If you worked out all the other requirements, be sure to ask for specific feedback requests. These are topics the authors wants you to give extra attention, in addition to usual beta reading feedback. This should be included with the manuscript e-mail, so you can read the material with those requests in mind. An example:  Does my hook work to draw the reader in right away?

Beta Reading

You've come to an arrangement with your author and you received the manuscript and feedback request. What do you do first?

Read the requested feedback and then the manuscript. Try to enjoy it the first time. If an aspect jumps out at you, negative or positive, write it down. Personally, I use my trusty highlighter tool, which is quicker, but noting the instance is the important part.

Read Critically

Read the manuscript a second time with a critical eye. Highlight or note any trouble areas as you see them. This stage varies between beta readers. Some may read three or four times, each time for a separate purpose. You will likely discover what works best for you and develop your own method.

Add Notes

This is a long task requiring a beta reader's full attention. Note and comment each and every error or problem area you find. You may see several repeat errors, but it's important to note each one. The point of a beta reader is to find all the issues the author missed. If you are seeing it, the author did not. You will not have to explain more than one or two, but do note each correction necessary.

Technical

"Technical" aspects are more concrete than style. In most cases they are either right or wrong. I find it easier to begin with the concrete, which allows me more time to consider the softer aspects of style. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, tense, point of view and formatting are technical aspects.

Style

Style isn't often correct or incorrect. An author's style and voice can be underdeveloped or weak however. Especially with new writers, it's important to address necessary improvements. Characterization, plot, hook, word choice, etc are aspects impacted by style.

Style Suggestions

It does not aid the author to know his or her writing can be improved without an inkling about how to improve. As a beta reader, you will need to articulate why an aspect is weak and how it can be improved. Often this will include examples or suggestions to clarify for the author.

Uncertain Problems

You know there is something wrong, but you can't put your finger on what. Say that in your comments. Example:  [I can't quite put my finger on what's wrong with this sentence, but it's not quite right. It's a little long and doesn't flow right, but I'm not sure how to fix it. Maybe a rewrite is in order?]

An author will not expect you to be perfect, so give feedback based on what you think. Remember to be honest when you're uncertain. Don't lead an author astray by guessing then implying it's a fact.

Positive Notes

An author needs to know his or her strengths, in addition to weaknesses. Between paragraphs, or at the end of the manuscript, add positive notes. Identify any aspects you consider strong or otherwise appealing and point them out. Please note that it's possible to consider an aspect appealing but also advise an improvement. Remember to make the positives prominent however.

Criticism Notes

To keep criticisms constructive, it's important to focus on improving and not the failing. "Negative" notes should be reserved for issues repeated consistently throughout a manuscript. Example:  If the author is clueless about dialog formatting, make a note at the bottom. Give a quick tutorial or link to an informative article on the topic.

Requested Feedback Notes

I give my author requested feedback in a separate sections of notes. Remember to give the specified aspect more time. If you aren't strong in the area, brush up on it with a quick google search. It can help both you and the author to consider the topic more in depth.

Resources and Links

It never hurts to offer your author more research material on the topic of writing. When possible, give one or two credible link resources regarding areas the author needs improvement.

Formatting

You are interjecting notes into a file, and it's important that your author identify the notes easily. In accordance with that need, I recommend using formatting tools.
Color
A different text color will make your comments stand out. Use a readable dark color, like dark blue or dark purple.

Bold
Emphasizing all your comments with the bold tool makes them easier to find and read between the author's text.

Brackets
Brackets or parenthesis should enclose all your comments to separate them from the author's text.

Strike-through
Using a strike-through tool helps indicate words slated for deletion. It's a universal sign to cross out words that is understood at a glance.

Other
You can insert your own commenting symbols or formatting as needed. Remember to explain the meaning in your beta key.

Beta Key

In order for your author to understand your varying notes, it's necessary to make a key. Explain what each formatting tool means. Keep it simple however. If you use a dozen different colors and symbols, your author will become frazzled. Include it in every beta file so the author can reference the key as needed.

Sample Beta Key

1. All my notes are surrounded by brackets and bold.  [Example.]

2. Words, letters or punctuation that should be inserted into your text are surrounded by brackets and are without explanation.  Example[.]

3. Words, letters or punctuation I feel should be deleted are marked with the strike-through tool.  Example.

4. Sections of your writing I particularly liked, and my comments about it, are in green.  Example.*

5. All other comments are in dark blue.  [Example.]*

*Examples should reflect your formatting, but I cannot duplicate color examples in a DeviantArt text box.

Sample Beta Notes

We know what goes into a beta reader's file now, but what exactly does it look like? This is a quick example I put together:
"He's busy until nine,[.]" h[H]e [The speech is its own sentence and the action tag is also its own sentence. Use a comma only when you follow with 'he said' or some other speaking tag. An action tag is a new sentence otherwise and requires a period.] crossed his arms over his chest, guarding the porch[. - Always remember to punctuate the end of a sentence.]

It would be her porch one day and she'd make sure he never set foot on it again. She simply had to be patient. Crossing her arms, she does [did – remember to stay in past tense.] just that. Five minutes dragged by with the cretin [I like how you label him 'the cretin.' It works with establishing his character, or at least her dislike of him.] staring down at her. Her pulse kicked up a notch. [This is a good example of pov but this sentence is dangling on the paragraph. With the length of five minutes, it seems random that her pulse would increase. Try placing it earlier or later (when something happens) and working it seamlessly into the paragraph.]

[I noticed that most of your dialog is improperly formatted. I found this good tutorial for you to reference. It takes a few tries to get the hang of it, but after a while you'll get used to the rules and won't think twice. Dialog formatting:  (Insert link here.)]

*Deviantart does not allow color changes in deviations to emphasize positive feedback.

Rinse and Repeat

Even though you've beta read the manuscript, the author will often send in revisions. This is quite helpful for the process. A second beta read will allow you to address any issues you missed the first time. Also, if you suggested extensive rewrites or additions, new issues can arise.

More importantly, you will see if your author understood your notes. If you receive the revisions with few correct changes, then chances are you have a communication issue that needs to be addressed.

Repeat Errors

It may take your author several attempts to turn your corrections into habits. If issues persist, consider finding new ways to explain your corrections. Provide additional links to help your author.

If your author sends his or her tenth manuscript with little or no improvement, you may have an issue. At that point, either the partnership isn't compatible, or your author is using you for free editing service.

Do not jump to the conclusion that your author is simply using you, however. You might be a contributing factor. It's possible you are teaching your author in a way that the author finds difficult to learn. Sometimes partnerships are simply not compatible.

Discuss the issue with your author first. If a solution can't be found, consider breaking off the partnership amicably.

Do's and Don't's

Do not delete.
Never delete an author's words, even if you think the word or section should be removed. Do not do it because it's the author's right to make that decision.

Do use your strike-through tool to show what you think should be removed. Do add comments explaining your reasoning and suggesting improvements.

Do not rewrite.
Never rewrite the author's work. It is counter productive to the partnership to write for your author.

Do use examples for clarity's sake. Do give quick suggestions to give the writer somewhere to start his or her improvements. Because the process may overwhelm some writers, be clear that you are giving suggestions and not corrections on style matters.

Do not criticize the author.
Never insult the author. Focus on the writing and helping the author improve. The writer's personal habits, beliefs or skill level are not topics for a beta reader to belittle.

Do focus on instructing the writer how to improve his or her writing skills. Offer resources and advice when appropriate.


Disclaimer

Please note that your individual beta experience may differ. Personality, habits, willingness to compromise and a slew of other factors will determine your experiences.

For example:  A few authors may not like sugar coated corrections. On the other hand, some authors may require a more sensitive approach.

If you know yourself to be particularly insensitive, it may be beneficial to discuss the topic in initial communications.

I recently joined a group called #Beta-Readers and did some quick searches on the internet. I found several vague definitions for beta reading, but no guides.

I hope this tutorial helps more people understand and join in the beta reading process. :)

Useful Resources
:bulletblue: Companion tutorial for authors: [link]
:bulletblue: dA Group to find or be a beta reader: #Beta-Readers
:bulletblue: Someone you can note with questions: =thorns

If you have any questions about the tutorial or the beta reading process, which includes finding a partner, please don't hesitate to contact me!


Edit: If you are a savvy word processor user, please read through the comments for some wonderful tips about notes and track changes.
Add a Comment:
 
:iconrisendork:
RisenDork Featured By Owner Oct 12, 2014  Professional General Artist
This is the most comprehensive guide on "Beta-Reading" (or any kind of critical reading!) I've ever see posted on an artists' or writers' community website!  I belonged to a writing site called FanStory (have you heard of it?), which just seemed like a fun thing to do at first, but it is based on a competitive, money-mongering model (for one thing) that COMPLETELY ignores the quality and content of the feedback (which they erroneously call "reviews" -- oy!) that authors offer each other.  People would literally write things like, "I enjoyed your cute poem and I liked your blue background.  It was a cute poem that I enjoyed reading." Then the "reviewer" would randomly assign a rating number (1-6, 6 being "exceptional") to go along with the useless comment.  I tried to write feedback for others that contained the type of information you suggest and explain so saliently in your guide, but it almost always went completely unappreciated -- the authors were not by and large interested in learning from one another and editing their work, rather it was just a grinding mill for mindlessly cranking through as much drivel as possible each day, and for getting "credit" in the form of "virtual money" for quantity with no regard for quality.  It was just about the most demoralizing situation I've ever been exposed to!

Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I found this tutorial very inspiring and heartwarming.  Thank you!  
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:iconbattlefairies:
BATTLEFAIRIES Featured By Owner Jul 26, 2014
Oh my this is extremely useful!

One question though, that I suddenly find myself with: how does a beta-reader deal with believability issues? It's subjective, afterall. As with other aspects that tie in with style and personal taste, I've often felt like I was imposing my own style on the author of the text I was beta-reading... This bothers me a lot, because that's not the kind of beta-reader I want to be, or would want for myself.
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:iconthorns:
thorns Featured By Owner Oct 6, 2014   Writer
It is subjective and you should consider the context within the piece and the intended audience. Once you've done that and still think it has believability issues bring it up with the author. You can give examples of alternative text and you can give jumping off points so the author can ultimately develop the solution that works for them. (Suggestions and examples can also highlight what you think is an issue because something like "I dont believe this would happen" doesn't explain specifics so the author may misunderstand etc.)
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:iconbattlefairies:
BATTLEFAIRIES Featured By Owner Oct 6, 2014
That makes sense. Thanks!
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:icondebmck:
DebMcK Featured By Owner May 12, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
I don't know if it's because this post is outdated, but I've been told beta readers are much more critique than edit as opposed to a cross between. They're more a focus group before the real deal. I was wondering why my first beta asked me to give him a format where he can make changes.
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:iconthorns:
thorns Featured By Owner Oct 6, 2014   Writer
That is very much so up to you and your partner. Do you want to edit grammar on a first draft? Not really. (Just one example.) The important thing is to discuss what each person expects so if you want crit you don't receive just a once over on grammar.

There is no membership card or one way to beta read. You aren't doing it wrong unless you ignore a partner's expectations. 
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:iconelleneri:
elleneri Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
This is highly informative. I'm looking forward to actually putting it to use.
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:iconthorns:
thorns Featured By Owner Jul 27, 2013   Writer
Excellent! I'm so glad people find it useful!
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:iconhalf-empty-glasser:
Half-Empty-Glasser Featured By Owner Nov 10, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks for writing this guide - it's very informative!
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:iconthorns:
thorns Featured By Owner Jan 3, 2013   Writer
I'm glad you found it useful!
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