HOW TO GIVE CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM – Five Rules for Being a Beta-Reader


Has anyone ever asked you to read their novel-in-progress? Didn’t know what to do or say? Or did you read it and they seemed unsatisfied with your feedback?

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This appears to be a growing issue as more and more people are able to legitimately self publish through online distributors. It is an issue which has affected me personally, as many of my friends and acquaintances are authors with published works. Needless to say, I would like to speak to them again, but some of them release works which I feel have some major flaws and, as an impartial reviewer, I need to mention this.

I feel I should start by saying I believe constructive criticism is one of the nicest things one can do for another; it demonstrates that you care about their work, shows you took time to think analytically about it, and implies you want them to succeed. SO without further ado, here are five simple tips for beta readers:

  1. First of all, find out what the person wants; editing, beta reading, or just a general critique. This will help prevent confusion for you, and allow you to decline if needed, or if you feel you lack the skills to do the task they ask.
    The other reason you should ask for what your author friend wants is to determine whether you can commit to providing what this person wants. Can you edit an entire manuscript? Do you have the time to read an entire novel?
    If not, SAY SO. Don’t commit to this unless you plan to read through every boring ass inch of their nonsensical English-as-a-second-language monstrosity. They put in the time to make it; be up front with them if you don’t have the time or energy to devote.
    Believe me, there’s nothing worse than beta readers who quit after the first few chapters, then claim, “Oh, I don’t have time!”
  2. Now onto the critique proper. Read what you’ve been asked to and make some notes. Whether it’s a single section or the whole book, read the entirety of what you are offered and follow the author’s instructions as best you can (I will sometimes give copies to beta readers with a bookmark and ask them to leave it in the book when they stop reading. If they haven’t ‘found time’ to read then the work is boring and the bookmark tells me what part they stopped on, giving me a clue as to how I can fix it).
    While you’re reading, make some preliminary notes. Mainly, you want to record your reactions to or first impressions of anything.
    Some people suggest reading the material twice. I’ll only do this if I’m line-editing and need to re-check a section. Think of it this way: how many target audience members are going to read this book twice in immediate succession? If the author fails to make their point in one go, it’s something that needs to be addressed.
  3. Check your notes and then interpret what you’ve read. What did it mean to you? Did it mean nothing? Say so! Did it remind you of something else? Mention that.
    Next, make a list of things you liked and disliked about the work–and it’s VERY important to include things you liked: Telling authors what works allows them to write more stuff that works.
    When you do this, be precise as you are able. Write why you did or did not like this part. Highlight the specific thing which affected you. The more detail you give the author, the better they’ll be able to improve their work and fix mistakes. And if you can’t nail down what made you feel so strongly about a point, say so! A little je nes cest quoi never hurt anyone.
    Lastly, avoid language like “but” after giving praise. By definition, it contradicts the nice thing you said, thus negating it.
  4. Go down your list of dislikes and, for each one, include a suggestion as to how the author can remedy it. Cut it, shorten it, lengthen it, add something else before it, use other words—any of these suggestions and more. The author may not accept your ideas, but they might help him gain a fresh perspective on how to solve the problem.
    Do not. Under any circumstances. Reply simply, “It was good!”
    The least helpful thing you can do is tell an author their work is perfect. Nobody’s book is perfect. It’s okay if there was nothing in the book you thought was bad. But giving them a bland response with unspecific praise is worse than handing them an itemized list of their faults as a person written in excrement.
  5. Understand that your critiques and ideas may not be used in the author’s revisions. That’s okay; it’s not an insult to you. A book is a meticulously crafted effort and an author HAS to control each and every word that goes in it. If your vision for the book and theirs don’t add up, that’s okay, too. Respect that by trying to publish this work the author is putting their reputation on the line–not your reputation.
    Now, if your author is ungracious with you for your critiques, remain calm. Do not argue the points, simply remind them they asked you for your honest feedback. Either way, try suggesting other readers who might be helpful.
    Remember: Authors, even the good ones, are not perfect people and it takes a hell of a lot of balls to put something as personal as your life’s work in another’s hands. Give them some credit for being gutsy enough to write a complete novel.

If you follow these simple rules step by step, you can be sure your writer friends will go to you first with their new manuscripts.

Did I leave out any tips? Any juicy stories to tell about beta reading? Let me know in the comments!

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5 thoughts on “HOW TO GIVE CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM – Five Rules for Being a Beta-Reader

  1. This is very timely for me, I just finished reading a book from a very shy author and am now preparing notes for her. Since she seems a bit secretive I’m not sure if my notes crush her little writing spirit or not. The best I can do is be honest and give my oldest opinion.

    • Honesty is what it’s all about. It might take your author time to process what you’ve said. I remember in one of my college writing groups getting wildly differing opinions on my stories and just not knowing what to do with them.
      Years later I looked some of them over and a lot of the notes, even the contradictory ones made sense with enough time to process.
      In the next week or so, I’m planning acorrolary post: How to Accept Constructive Criticism.
      Thanks for the input!

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