(This is the second post in what will be a three-part series on Writing Relationships. For Part I, on Stalking, click here. Most things in there apply here too!)

If you’re a writer and you’re not familiar with the world of beta readers, you’re gonna wanna get real familiar, real fast. Beta readers are the absolute most useful tool when it comes to writing, second maaaaybe to the computer you’re writing on. What are they? Beta readers are people who read your finished manuscript and give you notes on what works and what doesn’t. Basically, they’re unpaid editors donating their time and expertise to help you make your manuscript better.

Sound simple? It is and it isn’t. The etiquette of beta-ing can be tricky, and a lot of the “rules” come with time and experience. Fortunately, I’ve got both, so here are my thoughts on beta reading, along with some advice and a little Q&A.

Two things I have to say from the get-go, because so much about the rest is irrelevant if these aren’t carefully taken in to consideration:

1. As with manuscript stalking, the number one rule of reading someone else’s manuscript is this: Make sure you’re supposed to give critique before you give it. Sometimes people do just share for fun, and there’s nothing more unsettling when querying or being on submission than suddenly having someone point out all these things you’re not in a position to fix.

2. Along with that, do your best to gauge the thickness of the skin of the person you’re beta-ing for before you send notes. This is to both your advantage and theirs. Nothing makes a sensitive writer shut down faster than notes he or she can’t handle, and it’s not great for your personal relationship either. It’s perfectly acceptable to acknowledge that your styles don’t match and maybe you’re not the best fit. Just remember, if you’re one of those thin-skinned writers, you may not get to decide how sweet your future agent or editor is either, so it may be worth the practice! (But then again, I’ve been known to favor bluntness, so….)

OK! Now, let’s get on to actual beta reading with some Q&As:

Q: Where does one find betas?

A: Betas can be found everywhere – I’ve had manuscripts beta’d by people I’ve met in contests, people I’ve met on Absolute Write (a writers’ forum), people I’ve met in a writing class, and people I’ve met on Twitter.  And, of course, I’d be remiss not to mention CPseek.com and howaboutweCP.tumblr.com. It can be as simple as posting/tweeting what you need a beta for and exchanging e-mail addresses. Sometimes you’ll be required to swap, sometimes not. One recommendation I would strongly make when working with someone totally new is to start off by exchanging three chapters and seeing how you feel once you’ve exchanged those back. This also helps ensure that if you’re working with a deadbeat, you won’t have wasted hours of time critiquing an entire ms for nothing in return.

Q: As a beta reader, what should I be commenting on?

A: Excellent question! The answer is “pretty much everything, unless stated otherwise by the writer,” but since that’s a little overwhelming, here’s where you might want to start:

  • Pacing – Does the story have the right momentum at the right times to take you from point A to point B? Are there any places you feel the story lags, and any suggestions for what might be excess? If you’re not sure how to comment on this, think about it this way: At what point did you put the book down, and why? And a biggie – is the book starting in the right place?
  • Believability – Believability isn’t just about whether you believe the entire story could happen, but individual parts as well. Do you believe Character X would really say that, based on what you know about him? Do you believe Y would really let Z leave the room at that point in the conversation? Does that plot point seem like something that would really happen in 2013 or whenever?
  • Dialogue – Does the dialogue feel genuine? Age-authentic? Too sparse? Too overdone? Do any of the characters sound too alike?
  • Subplots – Are these strong, believable, and carried through the entire manuscript? Are there too many of them, such that perhaps they’re detracting from each other? Does it completely lack in subplot, making the manuscript seem very one-dimensional?
  • Characters – Do you like them, or are they at least compelling? Are they unique? Why/why not?
  • Transitions – Are the movements from scene to scene and chapter to chapter natural? Are chapters ending in the best way they should? Are they starting in the right places?
  • Distractions – Does anything about the manuscript just jerk you out of the story? Is it desperately in need of copy editing? Is there too much name-dropping? Too many pop culture references? Words repeated so many times they’ve inspired you to create a drinking game?

Q: OK, I finished! Now, what should my letter to the writer look like?

A: Good news – it doesn’t matter! You can do in-line critiques (notes on the manuscript itself, usually done with “Track Changes” in Word) or just write a letter that details anything and everything. All you must do is this:

  • Don’t be a jackhole. There are nice ways to deliver critique and unnecessarily harsh ways, and no matter how blunt you are, there’s no excuse for the latter. Remember that opinions on writing are subjective – in fact, you may want to reiterate that in your letter – and “I felt like the romance could’ve been stronger” is both nicer and more inarguable than “the romance could’ve been stronger.” Along those lines….
  • Don’t tell the writer how to do his/her job. You can make suggestions for how things might be implemented or how fixes might be done, but remember that this ms is the writer’s baby, in the writer’s voice, with the writer’s style. “I think you could up the tension in this scene if you got rid of Jake’s shirt” is fine. “You need to get rid of all your adverbs because adverbs suck” is not.
  • Include at least a few things that did work for you. There are a few reasons for this. One, it makes critique a lot easier to take if it’s preceded by compliments first. Two, because when the writer sees what did work, it might help inspire ideas for how to fix what didn’t. Three, because sometimes writers are iffy on their own storylines too, and seeing both what does and doesn’t work in the same e-mail might help them fix everything at once. For example, maybe the writer’s actually iffy on whether there should be two POVs. You don’t know this when you’re reading, but you happen to mention that you loved Jane’s POV and hated John’s. Just knowing you hated John’s might inspire the writer to try to fix John’s. Knowing you both hated John’s and loved Jane’s might tip the writer over into realizing this book is 100% Jane’s.

Q: I just got notes from a beta… and I hate them. They’re stupid. What do I do?

A: For starters, you say thank-you, no matter what. Even if the notes are terrible, or mean, or so off you want to laugh. THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR NOT THANKING A BETA FOR HIS OR HER TIME. If there is literally nothing you can work with, just tell them you really appreciate it and you look forward to getting to revisions. Beta reading is a completely volunteer situation; you don’t get to yell at a beta that he or she is wrong, or respond with a laundry list of why their notes make no sense. There is only “thank-you” and chalking it up to a bad experience you won’t repeat with that beta.

Q: I just got notes from a beta… and I love them! Now what?

A: Tell them! There’s nothing I love more than hearing when a writer agrees with my notes, or that they’ve been inspired by them to make certain revisions. Is it a little more work to back-and-forth with that writer? Yes, but in my opinion, it’s totally worth it. If you got even one great note from a beta, thank and tell him or her; those are the kinds of things that make it all worth it. That said, it is a time investment, and it’s not really fair to keep going back to the same beta with your thoughts and questions, so be conscientious on that front and make the effort to really compose everything at once. Especially because speaking on behalf of those who beta a lot? We may not remember the finer points two weeks later when we’ve read five manuscripts since!

Finally, though I already wrote them in my previous post on Writing Relationships, I’m going to reiterate these points here, because they absolutely apply with beta relationships as well:

  • Know with whom you are sharing. Found a beta in a forum? Make sure it’s someone who’s got more than a couple of comments to his/her name, someone who’s clearly got vested interest in not having his or her name smeared all over said forum as a plagiarist. On Twitter? Make sure they’re linked to people you trust.

A little scary? Maybe. But all things require some trust, some work, and some networking. And if you’re really lucky, you get to read some really great stuff, and maybe even end up with what’ll be the subject of the final part in this series, the glorious CP.