If you’re a writer working seriously on a manuscript, chances are you found out pretty early on about the whole beta-reading phase of the process. Not only will we each have to go through the pain of finding good beta readers for our work, but we’re sure to be reciprocating the favor several times. People approach the beta process differently, leading to all kinds of methods and all kinds of results—some not very pretty or useful. The thing is, by the time each of us gets to the beta-reading phase, we’ve likely burned through most of our pairs of fresh eyes. There might only be one person left to give a true, unbiased test read, so why would we want that chance messed up by the process of it all?
I have thoughts about what the whole beta process should entail and these days, I’m not afraid to let my beta readers know what I expect from them. I’m going to share the M-E Beta Method with you now.
1) Be clear on the time frame. Tell the writer when you’ll have time to read the manuscript. Don’t accept, only to have the manuscript sitting there for 6 months while you occasionally read a chapter here and there. If you said you’d beta, then beta. If you can’t follow through, tell the writer that. If the manuscript is meh and you dread picking it up, well then consider that you’re not the right person to beta, or maybe you are, and the writer needs to know your reading experience isn’t a good one.
2) Read once, and only once. Pretend you’re a real reader. This manuscript is supposed to be ready to be tested, so test it. Don’t get wrapped up in the fear of missing things, or trying to dissect every scene. Just read, once. The writer will only have one chance with her readers, and you’re testing to see if it’s ready for that—or close to ready anyway.
3) Read fast, or at least, read consistently. Does reading one chapter a month really make up a true reading experience? Refer to #1, and agree to beta during a set time frame, where you know you can take it on and get it done. You’re not copy-editing, so don’t sit there and strain to find those typos. If you see the missed words and bad grammar and want to point them out, then fine, but a beta is not a copy-edit and a writer shouldn’t expect you to do both.
4) Jot everything down in the moment. This is the most important step. Every little thought is important because you’re giving the writer the one thing they don’t have: perspective. Let’s say for two paragraphs, something in the writing gave you this feeling, in other words, grabbed your attention. For example: I don’t know why, but I feel like something bad is gonna happen to the TV. It’s being mentioned so much, and the guy loves it. I don’t know. Feels like it’s setting up for something. Let’s say you don’t write this down as you’re waiting to see what happens, then six chapters later, nothing’s happened to the TV; your present self, the one who now has the insight of knowing where the story went, will rationalize that you saw something that wasn’t there. You might think it’s insignificant now that the plot progressed and a character died. Who cares about the TV, right? Except that TV thing might actually have been distracting to readers, and it served no purpose. The writer probably had no idea it had that effect, holding your attention for no reason at all. Jot everything down as you go—Ha! I laughed here, or Didn’t you say that already in the last chapter? I can’t remember… or I really don’t like the mom right now but I don’t know why. She says “honey” too much—and don’t worry about what’s important or not.
5) Think about larger themes, and the story as a whole. When you’re done, mull the whole experience over. What are you left with? How was it? What if you were going to write a book review about it? Was the beginning sort of sluggish and made it hard for you to pick the manuscript up to continue? If you have suggestions for ways to fix issues you picked up on, mention them. Sometimes a problem might seem so huge to the writer—I gotta replot the whole thing!—when to the reader, a small change would fix all. Comment a little on voice, characterization, plot, and pacing if you can. If it’s in dire need of a copy-edit, make sure to let the writer know! If the writer is all set to start querying agents with this manuscript and you don’t think it’s ready for that, mention it. They asked for your opinion, so give it.
Just read the thing, and use your writerly insight to articulate your reading experience with a little more focus. You’re supposed to be test reading a manuscript that’s as polished and revised as the writer could manage on her own (along with the insight of critiques along the way). Obviously, it probably wouldn’t be ready to be shelved at the book store, but it should at least be pretty enough to warrant being looked at by professionals. It should feel like a real book. Lots of writers start looking for betas just because they hit The End. That’s a waste of time for everybody, and in those cases, what I’ve done is read the first few chapters and sent notes back on the foundation, detailing the major concerns and letting the writer know why I believe there’s more revising to be done and why it’s not worth continuing on with the beta.
The beta-reading stage is about pretending this is a real book you’ve got in your hands, so be a reader and make sure your process leaves the writer with as much insight into the experience as possible, that way they can feel confident about taking their manuscript to the next level—whether that’s an agent, a traditional publisher editor, or to a professional freelance editor in preparation for self-publishing.
M-E Girard is a writer of contemporary fiction—mostly young adult fiction, usually queer fiction, and always about girls. She is working on her first young adult novel, whose title keeps changing. M-E was a fellow of the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices in 2013. She is all over social media, and always trying to make blogging a more regular thing. She lives not too far outside of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.