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?
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if I wrote a scene—from anything—at another point in time. Would the dialogue be the same? Would the outcome be different?
I like to make myself writing schedules for the week, mostly because my brain is an obsessive planner and it needs to know that it’ll be kept busy. However, things happen. Schedules change. Health gives you a giant middle finger. I’ve gotten better with the changes here and there as I get older. I used to go into mild panic attacks whenever I didn’t get all my things on a to-do list done, or if I had to switch things around. Not anymore, thankfully. Sure, the guilt is sometimes still there, especially if I put off writing, but at least it isn’t a full breakdown.
But I do wonder what the outcome of my work would have been like if I’d actually written the scene/chapter/whatever when I was supposed to. Would it have been shit because I was tired at the time? Would it have been amazing? Have I missed out on genius?
I tend not to rewrite entire scenes. I usually just fiddle around with it until I’m happy, then move on to the next. Maybe I ought to start… See what’ll happen when I write the same scene at different points.
Maybe I’ll do that. Time to find a prompt and write it at two different points during the week.
Has anyone else had similar thoughts? Or actually done my little experiment? What was your outcome?
When I was fourteen, I wrote my first fantasy epic. It had heavy paranormal elements and featured a sort of teenage-romance between the heroine and the villain. Since the initial draft, it’s been rewritten twice (fully rewritten, not just scenes tweaked and played with), and I suspect I will rewrite it again, maybe in a few years, to get it right where I want it to be.
When I was eighteen, I’d just started my undergraduate degree. I’d given up on my writing for a little while, preferring a social life and uni prep to anything else. Before that, I was primarily working on fanfiction, and unlike many writers, I didn’t reach out for beta readers to help me with my stuff. I’d always been confident in my writing, and I learned as I went at the time, improving a little bit with each story.
One afternoon while my roommate was in class, I pulled up my first book, in its third draft, and started reading. And it wasn’t bad. Decent even, for the level of writing I was at. However, I also knew at the time that I wasn’t disciplined enough to finish the book anytime soon, and I decided to seek some outside help. What I was essentially looking for was someone to give me deadlines that I could meet, and I wasn’t sure where to start.
Looking back now, I can’t believe I did what I did. I can’t believe I couldn’t just make myself write. I don’t think writers are generally all that good at forcing themselves to stick to deadlines, but the successful ones among us get it done—so it’s not impossible.
Anyway, back to eighteen year old procrastinating me. I wasn’t too sure where to start my search for a deadline-setter, but I knew editors and writers were a natural combo. Throwing caution to the wind, I researched editors in my city. To my surprise, I found one locally who catered to students and working professionals alike. At the time, I hadn’t even considered hiring someone to work remotely with me. Maybe I was worried about someone stealing my million dollar fantasy novel with vampires and witches—but more realistically, I wanted to talk to someone face-to-face so that I could see their disapproving stare in my mind’s eye when I wasn’t keeping up with our schedule.
I got in contact with this editor through his website. I’m pretty sure I gave a rambling, incoherent explanation of what I was looking for, and he emailed me back asking to meet me so we could talk in person. What followed was an interesting, awkward, and intense meet-up with a somewhat shy editor who didn’t really understand precisely what I wanted, even after I explained it.
In the end, we decided that I’d send him my stuff, and then go from there.
I was excited. It was like my authorly journey was kicking off again, and something might happen this time.
We met up again a few weeks later, after he’d had a chance to read my stuff. And he loved it. He raved about my characters, my plot, my fantasy world—it was beyond thrilling. I’d never had someone tell me face-to-face that they enjoyed my work, and it was a huge ego booster. It was then that we had to decide what we wanted to do from there. After discussing where the plot was headed, analyzing my fantasy world in extensive detail, we decided that he would edit a chapter or two per month—for the small fee of $200.
Two. Hundred. Dollars.
My draft wasn’t even technically finished, and I was a university student in her first year who wasn’t working yet. My first year was just to focus on school, and apparently I thought it was acceptable to spend almost five months giving this guy $200 each month for him to tinker with a chapter as soon as I finished it.
After a while, I just couldn’t afford to pay him anymore. He was fine with it: we dropped the fee down to $75 a month, but even that ended up being too much for someone who wasn’t working and was spending her money on eating out and bar nights. Ahhh youthful idiocy.
When all was said and done, it was like I hadn’t actually spent any time with an editor at all. Sure, he fixed little things here and there, and he pointed out inconsistencies. We met up once every month just to chat about the book, which I definitely liked… But once we stopped meeting, I stopped working on the manuscript. Instead, I eventually went back to fanfiction because it was safe and easy, and generally gave instant gratification with reader reviews popping up immediately.
In fact, I still haven’t touched that manuscript. With two books published and several more on the way, I’m pretty sure I lost the edits that particular editor made—and probably close to $1500 too.
Don’t get me wrong: this editor was a great guy. Totally friendly, personable, really concise and on-point with his feedback… but I clearly wasn’t ready to do anything with my manuscript. I couldn’t be bothered to read up on critique partners and beta readers, nor did I actually take the time to look for someone online whose fees were actually affordable to me. Instead, I went with the first person I found, and it went financially downhill from there.
I’ve got a couple of fantastic people in my editing corner today, but I hope new and young authors interested in self-publishing take my experience as a cautionary tale. If you can’t afford it, don’t do it. If you aren’t done your novel, DON’T hire an editor unless you have the time and money (and thick skin) for someone to be super involved in your writing baby from the beginning—when, really, you probably aren’t even sure where the story is headed. Read a lot. Ask for advice from fellow authors. Don’t, for the love of god, fork out $200 a month on a manuscript you haven’t even finished yet.
Should you be tempted, remember the wise words of Steve Rogers: