April 4, 2013

Three Tips for Being a Better Beta Reader

Magnifying glass over a book with text: 3 Tips for Being a Better Beta Reader

The Golden Rule of “treat others how you’d like to be treated” applies to most aspects of our lives—including our author life. One of the best things we can do to find beta readers for our work (at least among our network of author friends) is to offer to beta read for others.

Inside the beta reading relationship, the Golden Rule applies to the feedback exchanged as well. As someone who has been fortunate enough to have had many beta readers over the years, I know that not all feedback is created equal.

We might implement 80% of the suggestions from one reader and only 10% of the suggestions from another. How likely are we to reuse that 10% reader again? Not very. Unless that 10% is brilliant, it’s not going to be worth our time to reciprocate and continue to beta read for them.

That question can be reversed too. When we read for others, are we closer to being a 10% reader or an 80% reader? If we provide poor feedback, the recipient is less likely to encourage an ongoing “beta buddy” arrangement, just as we’d do in their place.

So to maintain a group of willing beta readers, it’s in our best interest to ensure our feedback is truly helpful. Like the story of Goldilocks, we have to find a middle ground where we’re not too harsh or mean, not too soft or timid—but just right.

Even more importantly, we have to provide feedback that helps the author improve their story, not the story we’d write. Here are three tips for how to increase the helpfulness of our feedback and become a better beta reader.

Tip #1: Focus on Making Their Story Better

The right kind of feedback makes us invaluable to other writers. They’ll be excited to read our work in exchange. Some of my readers’ feedback is so good that I not only instantly see the problem they point out, but it also makes me eager to dive into revisions. That’s good. *smile*

So what makes feedback “good”?

My number one tip is that we must work toward making their story better. We shouldn’t focus our comments on how we’d do it.

How we’d do it is irrelevant. Our voice is not their voice, our goals are not their goals, our themes and worldviews are not their themes and worldviews.

The only exception to this rule is when something about their writing isn’t working for us. Maybe the writing is passive, maybe the characters lack motivations, etc. Then—and only then—can we provide an example and say, “This doesn’t work for me because of xyz. Maybe something like abc would be stronger.”

Tip #2: Suggest Changes Only When the Writing Doesn’t “Work” in Some Way

Just because the writing is different from how we’d do it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. For all we know, the impression we’re left with is the impression they wanted.

Once, a reader of mine made tons of word choice suggestions to my manuscript because they assumed I didn’t intend the impression I’d created. However, I’d used those specific words for subtextual foreshadowing of a major plot point later in the story, and now I felt bad the reader had spent all that time on irrelevant suggestions. They could have saved a lot of time by giving one comment along the lines of, “Words like a, b, and c are creating an impression of z, and I’m not sure that’s what you wanted.”

If the writing works, suggested changes like word choice or sentence structure aren’t helpful. Unless the writer asked us for line-by-line, copy-editing-level feedback, we’re more likely to mess with their voice than to provide useful information.

If the writing doesn’t work, we should focus on why it doesn’t work for us. Separating our thoughts on whether a section doesn’t work or if it’s just not how we’d word it can be tricky sometimes. So we should ask ourselves why we want to change the writing.

  • Does the current wording take us out of the story (confusing wording, voice/characterization seems off, too repetitive, slow pacing, no conflict/tension, etc.)?
  • Are the stakes, goals, motivations, etc. unclear or weak?
  • Do we not like or care about the characters?

If we can’t come up with a reason, we should leave it alone.

Tip #3: Always Give a Reason for Suggested Changes

The only time I make a change and don’t give a reason is when I find a missing word. Those are fairly self-explanatory. *smile*

Every other suggested change has my explanation of why. With that reason, the author can judge whether my suggestion comes from me not getting their voice, misinterpreting something, being confused, etc.

If we don’t give a reason, crossing out their writing and replacing it with our own is disrespectful. On the other hand, if we have a real reason, even nitpicky things like suggestions about word choices and sentence structures are helpful.

Leaving a comment like “I’d use x word instead of y word” isn’t a reason. Again, we must respect their voice.

In contrast, “I don’t think the character would use x word (would they even know that word?). Y seems more like their voice” is a real reason. The author now has enough information to decide whether to make the change or not.

We know what qualifies as a “real” reason. We’d want to know if the wording is confusing or caused others to stumble. We’d want to know if a section is too wordy or slow. We’d want to know when a character is too whiny or harsh. In short, we should give the type of feedback we know to be more helpful.

Give the kind of feedback we’d like to receive. There’s that Golden Rule again. *smile*

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Do you have other tips for giving good feedback? What feedback have you found most helpful? What feedback isn’t helpful to you? How much does the quality of feedback you receive affect whether you reuse a reader? How would you rate yourself as a reader?

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Beta readers should also be honest.

Seriously, one reason I use my friends as beta readers is that they will actually tell when when they dislike a story or couldn’t get past the first few scenes. We then discuss to figure out why—maybe it’s just an issue of their taste, maybe it’s an issue with the story—and then we go from there.

For example, one friend of mine can’t stand vampires. Another can’t stand unreliable narrators. Most of my work has one of those things. That means they will dislike most of my writing and stop reading early in, but that doesn’t make them incapable of offering excellent feedback on what they do read, as in one of them helping me notice that a particular narrator was too paranoid and whiny.

Joanna Aislinn
Joanna Aislinn

Excellent suggestions, Jami. As a reader who happens to write, I find it quite the challenge to separate from “my way” of getting the words across. (Hopefully, practice makes progress; that translates to I like to think I’ve improved. ;)) I like all the points you mentioned, but the one about giving feedback to improve the writer’s vision for the story stands out best.

BTW, I HAVE to comment on the thoroughness and diligence and time you put into your previous package of posts. Slowly working my way through them, there is so much to be digested. I’m amazed and overwhelmed at how much you put out there for the rest of us. Thank you, and may good and blessings follow and lead you as well.

Enjoy your day!

Rhenna Morgan

All fantastic points, Jami (as usual). My favorite is number 2.

Melinda P.

Hi Jami!
Thanks for these great tips. I know I’ve been guilty of these in the past. Now that I know how they are pitfalls, I can work to be a better beta reader!
Your tips are always so helpful!
Melinda P.

Melinda S. Collins

LOVE these tips, Jami. So spot on! I’ve been personally trying to get better at being a better beta reader and critique partner. I’d have to say that in times past, I probably wasn’t as good as I needed to be for my writing friends, and that may be mostly because I was so “new” with being a beta reader and/or critique partner. BUT, I have definitely gotten more confident and therefore much better at this. I recently responded to a fellow author’s cry for help who needed her pages ripped. Which I did even though it made me nervous as hell–LOL! But the fantastic response from the author after she got my feedback let me know that I’d found my confidence and my “groove.” Quality feedback with constructive reasons behind *why* something isn’t working is #1 in terms of whether a beta reader and/or critiquer is re-used. Another plus in that decision is whether or not I learned something new from the reader. Ex: I make a decent amount of pop culture references (I can see you’re not surprised, Jami. 🙂 ). That was something a particular author didn’t like doing in her own work, so instead of removing the reference entirely, she highlighted and attached a link to a blog post on why pop culture references may not be a good idea. Whether I followed the advise was up to me, but still, I learned something. And the same happened when I received your feedback … I learned…  — Read More »

Stephanie Scott

Good points, and something that takes a few tries to get right. That difference of what I would write and what will keep their voice and their story strong is the probably the biggest quality of a strong reading relationship.

Julie Glover

Fabulous advice! I’ve had both helpful and unhelpful betas. Someone telling me that they want a character to be completely different or they want a happy-go-lucky, walk-off-into-the-sunset ending (when that’s totally not my book) is not helpful. Like you said, that is what THEY would write, but I didn’t.

But I also don’t like a general “it’s good.” I can’t improve anything with that feedback. So yeah, I’m happy with a beta ripping my pages to shreds, as long as they give reasons why it didn’t work for them. Spot on with this post, Jami. Thanks!

Taurean Watkins

This is certainly true. I really do my best to be the beta-reader I want to have, someone who’s honest but respectful of my genre, and the more niche your genre is, the harder that is to find. I think because I had some less than joyous beta-reader experiences I early on, I really make sure what I bring up is really important when I’m the beta-reader for someone else. BTW, I’m glad my advice on your query was helpful, Jami. Unless I’ve already had a particular lesson drilled into my head, I’m not as helpful with the technical stuff (When to use a semicolon versus making short sentences out of a longer one), but I know when emotions in character ring true, so it’s key to have beta-readers who are stronger in areas you’re weakest, and vice versa, so you both get news you can use, in a way that encourages you, without being misleading just to spare someone’s feelings. What Jami’s saying about how feedback is delivered and inferred is VITAL! I had many a beta-reader who while pointing out things I needed to know, the way they put it didn’t exactly encourage me to redo it. You don’t have to go demonic drill sergeant on someone to make your point. While many writers I know take well to that approach, I don’t, though some changes (That I do agree with once I know WHY they’re being suggested) are harder to make than others. Thankfully I did have…  — Read More »

Buffy Armstrong

I know I’ve been guilty of some of these things. I’m always trying to do better. It’s difficult. You have to make a judgment call on how much in detail your read should be. If someone is giving you a 3rd or 4th draft, it’s best to get down to the nitty-gritty and give feedback on everything – sentence structure, voice, word choice, etc. If someone is giving you a first draft, I think it’s better to give feedback on the big picture stuff –characters, story arc, etc. The question remains: Have I picked apart too much or have I not done enough. Hopefully, my judgment will improve with time and practice. As a beta reader, you’ve got to do a bit of a juggling act. You have to point out what’s not working at the same time you need to stay positive. I’m very fortunate to have beta read for things that I enjoyed. I don’t know how hard it would be to have to tell someone that nothing is working. As writer, I prefer to get back honest feedback. Even if that feedback is harsh. I may sulk and feel sorry for myself for a few days, but if even one or two of those things are useful to me, I figure the momentary wound was worth it. I’d use that person again if for no other reason than keeping my ego in check. 🙂 As an aside, I’ve read for people who didn’t bother to run the…  — Read More »


I think I’ve gotten better at being a beta reader too. At first, I was afraid to suggest any sort of word or sentence changes, because even though I thought a sentence might be confusing, I couldn’t guarantee that it wasn’t just a difference their voice vs. my style. So I would say nothing. Now I have abetter feel for such things.

It also helps when you and your CP have been together for awhile.


Jami, thanks for that great information. I’ve never been a beta reader. I’ve also been wary about letting my friends read my work, because I never get anything critical back. Just nice things and wondering when it’s going to be ready in its final form. I did let Linnea Sinclair look at part 1 of my time travel “Whirlwind.” The best thing she did was let me know that my heroine was not sympathetic in the beginning. I fixed it and it worked much better. I can see where beta reading is essential, but I’d be at a loss as to where to begin it. Thanks much for your help!

Maryanne Fantalis

I agree with ChemistKen that it helps when you’ve been working together for a while. Then you have a sense of each other’s style and tendencies as well as authorial voice.

I like to read all the way through a manuscript once before I make any comments that I would give to the author (I may make notes to myself). That way, I have a sense of where s/he is going and what his/her purpose is, and I won’t make comments on page 40 that I have to negate on page 140. It takes me a lot longer to read and comment doing it that way (just ask my poor partners!), but I feel like I do a better job, and I think they do too.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Nice post! I especially liked your point about how critiques should be to make their work better, not how you would write the story. One of the most important things I’ve learned about writing and fiction is that there are so many different types of stories, different styles, different goals, that you can never (or rarely ever) say that novel X is “superior” to novel Y. E.g. X is one with complex world-building and plots, like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. Y is one with a simple, straightforward and fairytale-like telling, similar to the Wizard of Oz. Just because someone personally prefers more complex plots doesn’t mean the Wizard of Oz is “inferior” to HP and LotR, because there will always be people who prefer the more straightforward stories. There will always be people who like both too. So I would be wrong if I told the Wizard of Oz style novelist to “work in more subplots” because their story is not intended to be that kind of story! Another related example from my experience is how some people prefer simpler, more economic prose (like Hemingway’s); some prefer more verbose and 19th century-esque or more flowery prose (like George Eliot or Ralph Waldo Emerson). So I think it’s unfair for a reader to request a writer to make their language more descriptive when that’s not what they’re aiming for. Stories don’t have to engage the “five senses” and have a “very vivid sense of setting” to be good!…  — Read More »

Taurean Watkins

Don’t feel too self-conscious about your long comments, Serena, mine are often longer, and like you, minimalism is NOT my thing either. (Though for a children’s writer like me, that can be an issue, but I won’t go there here…)

That said, I’d probably get more feedback on some of my social stuff I could be more short (length wise) in my opinion.

Cindy Dwyer
Cindy Dwyer

Great advice Jami. FANTASTIC. I once had a critter say, “This chapter just didn’t work for me.” I totally agree that statement needs to be followed up with a reason. If not, the writer can only assume the problem was on the reader’s end.

Kassandra Lamb

Great post, Jami! I’ve bookmarked it for future reference.

I would add that giving positive feedback for what you really liked is also important. That eases the pain of the negative feedback and also tells the author, “Don’t change this! It works!”

Linda Adams

I’d also add “Stay Open Minded,” especially if you’re a writer and critiquing. I decided that writing my story in omniscient viewpoint was the best thing for it. But when I posted online for a series of critiques, about 10 writers came in with closed minds to omni. I got comments like “I don’t like omni” (um, you were volunteering to do the critique. Why didn’t you stop if you didn’t like the viewpoint?); “You’ll never get published if you use omni”; and my personal favorite: “I’m sure you know you’re story, but here’s how you’d do it in third.”

No one commented on the writing itself because they got so focused on the rule! It was so bad that I eventually wrote an article about how to critique omni:

But there are a lot of things that “break rules” like flashbacks, dream sequences, second person that may turn up in a story. Stay open minded. Does it work in the story? If it doesn’t, how can it be fixed to work? BTW, doing stuff like this also makes us better writers.


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Great suggestions, Jami! I hope to put these to good use next time I’m critiquing for one of my writing buddies. 🙂


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