What is Not Required of a Volunteer Beta Reader
Are you interested in getting into the beta reading game? Good for you! Authors rely on fabulous beta readers to help make their stories shine outside of their work with an editor and proofreader. Beta readers should act as regular readers, offering feedback from the perspective of a reader. Not another writer. Not a potential agent. Just a reader.
I’ve acted as a beta reader in the past (albeit not a great one recently because brain), and I’ve also read a lot of ads for beta readers and postings offering beta reading services. I just wanted to share some thoughts on what you, prospective beta reader, don’t need to do when you’re just starting out unless you genuinely want to.
You are not required to proofread someone’s manuscript. In fact, unless you are an actual editor or proofreader, I don’t recommend it. Sure, you can flag really obvious errors to help the author tidy a manuscript. I always appreciate that, personally. What you don’t need to do is nitpick and proofread the entire manuscript. Authors should hire a professional proofreader to do that. Also, if you don’t have experience in proofreading beyond a basic understanding of grammar, you might be giving authors bad suggestions. I’ve had that happen a number of times—a beta reader lectures me in the comments about a grammar issue that they are, in fact, wrong about for X, Y, and Z reasons.
Don’t do that. You aren’t being paid to do labor-intensive proofreading tasks. Flag what you want, but know the author should be paying someone to do that at some point before publication.
You are not required to write a six-page breakdown of the narrative. In fact, unless discussed ahead of time, you are not obligated to do more than point out what you liked and what you didn’t. I’ve seen some authors insist their beta readers complete a book quiz after. One author said beta reader pay was determined by how many questions they got right.
Nooooooooooooooo. You are providing a volunteer service. If you want to write six pages about what you liked, didn’t like, etc., do it. Don’t feel obligated. If a paragraph is all you want to give, then that’s that. Don’t feel pressured to spend hours beyond the actual reading crafting a response. Do whatever you want.
If you eventually want to charge for your beta services, then it might make sense to voluntarily offer a sample of your services (more intensive write-ups, for example) for a few potential clients to get your feet wet.
You are not required to research anything. If you are beta-ing a piece that takes place during the Russian Revolution, you are not required to do extensive background reading on the Russian Revolution so that you can attest to historical accuracy. That’s not your job. Theoretically, the writer should have their shit together enough to research the era they want to write in. If something seems weird to you based on your knowledge of the topic, flag it. Sometimes I head to good ol’ Wikipedia to make sure I’m not making a big deal out of nothing, but don’t feel like you need a Master’s degree to beta read.
On a side note, most authors are encouraged to find beta readers who are well-versed within their genre. I write paranormal romance. I prefer my betas at least be interested in paranormal romance so they can comment on tropes and redundancies. I do, however, like the occasional beta who has no clue about my genre. My Man is the farthest thing from a romance reader, but I like his thoughts on things because he can point out what seems logical based on normal human behavior. Something to consider when you’re looking for volunteer gigs.
You are not required to read content that you are uncomfortable with. Period. There’s nothing wrong with contacting the author and letting them know you have to stop beta reading because you’re uncomfortable with the content. That’s fine. At least they know and can find someone else to replace you.
You are not required to jump through hoops for the author. Seriously. You are doing them a favour by volunteering your time. Don’t be an asshole either, but don’t feel pressured or guilted into doing more than you signed up for.
You are not required to set the terms for a beta reading gig. The author should clearly outline what they would prefer you to focus on: a particular character, chapter, scene, theme, whatever. If no specifications are given, provide feedback on the book as a whole.
You are not required to engage in an endless back and forth with the author after you’ve given feedback. Sometimes authors need clarification, but you don’t need to chat for the next month about your thoughts. Clear up any misunderstandings and wish them luck on the project. You’ve done your job.
So, what are you required to do as a volunteer beta reader?
- Sign up for opportunities where you can work within the author’s timeline. If the author needs their manuscript back in two weeks and you’ll need a month to read, don’t offer to read it.
- Complete the book. Read it from start to finish. If you really don’t connect with it halfway through and it has become a monumental chore to read, let the author know, politely, that the book isn’t for you. That’s it. No hard feelings. But if you offer to beta read, you have to actually beta read. You can’t just disappear into an interwebs black hole, never to be heard from again.
- Be polite. The revision stages are tough for authors because while their book is precious, it isn’t perfect yet. You’re helping them succeed, but know that there is a person behind the screen, reading your words, taking criticism. Be constructive, not a jerk hiding behind a facade of “honesty”.
Does anyone else have any thoughts? What else is a beta reader not required to do?
3 thoughts on “What is Not Required of a Beta Reader”
Good article! I do a lot of beta reading and agree with all of it.
My only disagreement is a nitpick ;). “Flag what you want, but know the author should be paying someone to do that at some point before publication.” – I always feel the need to say if authors are going the trade route, they shouldn’t be paying anyone anything: money flows TO the author, never away. They might *want* to pay for a professional proofreader before they submit, but it absolutely isn’t necessary.
Good call! I both agree and disagree there. I think some betas go in and put a lot of pressure on themselves to basically be proofreaders — and that bit of advice is for those people in particular. When I was reading submitted manuscripts for my internship, a cleaner copy always went over way better than one full of little errors that a proofreader might have caught.
There are SO many manuscripts waiting to be combed through. Sometimes that little extra something is all that’s needed to get one through instead of the other to an editor’s desk. But that’s a whole separate discussion. For betas, they should know that either an indie author will have a proofreader clean it up OR someone pitching traditionally should, in theory, put it on themselves to make sure it’s as clean as possible, either with a proofreader or through critique reads — whatever works for their budget — before they submit. Pressure to proofread is off, sweet betas. Just do your thing!