With more authors taking the indie route, the term “beta reader” is getting tossed about more and more. But, what is a beta reader? What does the task entail? Here is the information I provide to prospective beta readers to help them understand their duties. (Link to downloadable pdf at the end.)
What is My Job as a Beta Reader?
As a beta reader, you will identify what type and tone of story the author is going for and shape your feedback to help the author realize their vision for the story.
You are the author’s extra set of eyes. You will highlight areas that need improvement and give (gently) honest feedback to weed out story issues before the manuscript goes to an editor.
2. Make note of the issues you find, question to see if that’s what the author intended, and offer suggestions for fixing it.
3. Use the Track Change option to mark your comments and corrections directly in the manuscript.
4. Be honest. If a joke doesn’t work, let the author know. Don’t brush off things that are awkward, factually incorrect, or out of character/theme/flow. It’s better to question and suggest than let something potentially problematic slide.
5. Be specific and descriptive with your feedback. Give the author something solid to work with. It helps if you give a brief explanation of why you’re making a suggestion so the author is more open to consideration.
6. Be kind. You want to avoid making the author feel defensive or hopeless. Try to “sandwich” critiques with praise or phrase them as a question/suggestion.
7. Leave editing for spelling and grammar to an editor. If you see inconsistencies in spell (ie. UK vs USA spellings) or a repeated editing related issues, make a note for the author to go through the manuscript specifically for that issue.
8. Meet the deadline. The author is on a schedule and it takes time to incorporate beta notes into a revised draft, so please be sure to have your notes back to them on or before the deadline they’ve laid out.
The author may not take all your suggestions, but at least you’ve done your job by providing giving them a good foundation for their revisions. Once you’ve sent them your notes, let it go and trust the author to do what they believe is best for their story.
A while back, I wrote about How I Found My Beta Team for Eyes of the Hunter and promised to share the guidelines I provide my beta readers with to help them give me useful feedback. This is that post 🙂
When looking for beta readers, I target honest and dependable people who enjoy the manuscript’s genre. I also make sure they are familiar with both good writing techniques and important elements to the craft.
To make sure everyone is on the same page, I need to know exactly what I want from my beta readers. Then, I make sure that they know by providing them with a clear list.
Below is the basic letter I give my beta readers, which I tailor per project and person. You can also download the template for the Beta Reader Checklist [pdf] for future reference.
Dear Beta Reader;
Thank you for being part of my Beta Team! I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to help me make improvements to [Book Title]. Please, don’t worry about grammar, spelling, and punctuation issues; an editor is helping with those. The feedback I’m concerned about centers on continuity, character development, dialogue, flow, and completeness:
Is the story interesting?
Does it make sense?
Any plot holes?
Does the story flow?
Is the continuity okay?
Did I miss any important information or opportunities?
Do you get a solid feel for the setting and people?
Do the characters unfold well?
Do any of the characters need more development?
Is the pacing okay? Does it lag anywhere?
Is anything clunky or awkward?
Are there problem areas that need more attention?
What worked for you? What didn’t work for you?
… And, of course, anything else you feel I should know.
Specific concerns I have for this book are:
[Specific feedback needed]
Please, be as specific as possible with your answers. Your honest comments will go a long way in helping this story be a success. I need your notes by [date]. I look forward to reading them and thank you, again.
There’s some discussion about trigger warnings on books. Should you include them for your book? The answer is “Maybe”. Let’s take a look at what kind of content may require trigger warnings.
In aprevious post, I explained trigger warnings and why you may want to include one in the description of your book. You can read it here.
I understand that there are some readers who go overboard, wanting warnings for ridiculous things or not reading the book description to see a warning and then complaining there wasn’t a warning. Some warnings might limit your marketing options with libraries and schools. Things like this can make authors feel like they’re in a no-win situation or overwhelmed by the struggle to decide whether or not you need a trigger warning.
I’m not suggesting every story or scenario needs a warning. Your genre and blurb should give readers a general idea of what to expect. And, a well written story will give the reader a lead up to disturbing events, assuming the reader isn’t so engrossed (or oblivious) to notice. But, your genre and the indication of mature content is not always enough. I’m asking you to consider adding trigger warnings – or at least making it clear in your blurb – if your story includes any of the following:
If you write Young or New Adult books, there are additional issues that need to be considered. For example, the words stupid and dumb are generally deemed “normal” or “lesser offenses” by older audiences (and authors), however today’s society considers these words slurs.
Young and New Adult
Sex (even consensual)
Descriptions and/or pictures of medical procedures
Descriptions and/or pictures of violence or warfare
Death or dying
Shaming, hatred, and -isms (ie. racism, fat shaming, anti LGTBQ+ views etc.)
Scarification (body modification created by cutting, scratching, etching, or burning designs, pictures, or words into the skin)
It’s time we discuss what a trigger warning actually is and why you may want to consider including one in your book description or blurb if you include certain types of incidents in your story. (Spoiler – it has nothing to do with your reader being dictators and everything to do with respecting your audience.)
Conversations are cropping up more and more in writing groups where an author ponders if they should include a trigger warning on their book and half a dozen folks jump in with things like:
“Life doesn’t come with warnings”
“Warnings on books are spoilers”
“I’m tired of snowflakes wanting to be protected from words in a book!”
“They should know to expect [insert terrible thing] when they read [insert genre]”
“Bad stuff happens to people every day”
… and my pet peeve; “That’s censorship!”
I’m fed up with authors spouting “life doesn’t come with warning labels” and “trigger warnings are for delicate snowflakes”. Let’s take a look at some of these arguments against trigger warnings.
I beyond annoyed with authors equating trigger warnings (ie. Warning: Contains violent sex and domestic violence) with censorship (ie. “Remove this content from your book or it will never be published!“). You’d think people who write for a living would know the difference between a request for common courtesy and a dictator seizing control.
Including a trigger warning isn’t censorship. No one is asking you to remove those parts of the book – which is what censorship is. Most readers assume you added them for a good reason and respect that decision.
Genre or “Mature” Notice Should Be Enough
Authors need to understand: Writing in a certain genre or saying there is “Mature” or “Adult” content, does not automatically equal rape and abuse. Most adults don’t mind mature content – sex, language, and even some violence. But a shockingly large number of adults have been brutalized in their past. They have a very real need to know if there is triggering content, such as rape, domestic violence, and child abuse. They must know in advance so they can either watch for it and skip the scene or forego reading your book completely (while feeling positive toward you).
When someone who has been traumatized comes across triggering content unawares, they can have panic or anxiety attacks, and suffer nightmares and flashbacks – for days.
You Can See It Coming
I hear so many people saying, “But you can see things that might trigger you coming up”. Most times, yes. But, even if you skip the triggering scene, the character spends the rest of the story dealing with the aftermath of the incident: recall, flashbacks, nightmares, overwhelming emotions, etc. that could trigger your reader and there’s no “lead up” to prepare a person for that.
I Have PTSD and Don’t Need Trigger Warnings
Here’s something the psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors often forget to mention:
Trigger topics are a broad paintbrush. There are certain
overlaps and commonalities in types of triggers, but everyone’s triggers are different.
Just because something doesn’t trigger you doesn’t mean someone else with PTSD from a different cause won’t be triggered. This is also true for people with phobias and other disorders.
People Are Just Delicate Snowflakes
Calling a reader is a “snowflake” (or any other slur) because they need a trigger warning is flat-out hostile. Why be a dick to potential clients and reviewers? Remember: Word of Mouth can make or break your reputation.
As someone who requires trigger warnings, I can say with sincerity:
I am not a delicate snowflake. I am a deeply feeling person who was horribly brutalized. I am a determined individual who spent years clawing her way through PTSD to “normal” (or as close as I can get) so I can be a functioning parent, partner, and member of my community.
I tell you from personal experience: It’s hell to have old horrors dragged up from the depths because someone didn’t have the courtesy to warn you about something in a book you were reading for pleasure to escape “Real Life”.
I don’t want to give up reading your books because there “might” be something lurking there to drag me back into the Darkness. I don’t want spoilers or chunks of your work removed. I simply want to know if the “mature content” means
1) Characters having sex and cussing their faces off while shit blows up around them, in which case: Good! I can deal with that. In fact, it will help me process my own emotions and “own my shadow”.
2) The main character is going to be victimized. In this case; Polite pass for my own well-being and the benefit of those who depend on me…. But, I will look for your other works and share a link to your book with people I know who might like this one.
Wouldn’t you like the same courtesy shown to you?
So, what is a trigger warning?
A request for trigger warnings is your readers asking that you respect them enough to give a heads up about how dark things are going to get. This can be done without giving details or spoilers.
You are being asked to do this so your reader can make a conscious and informed choice about your story. You are protecting your reader from inadvertent harm; showing them compassion which will garner a favorable opinion of you. They may not read this book, but they’ll be on the lookout for another one by you, because you respected them.
More importantly, trigger warnings gift readers with something precious that was stolen by the people who hurt them: FREE WILL. You are giving others the ability to walk away from an experience that might hurt them.
A short sentence that gives a concise list of topics (ie. rape, domestic violence, child abuse) in your book that may trigger your reader into having flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, and other negative responses based on something traumatizing that happened to them in the past.
A courtesy and sign of respect afforded your readers to give them the option of being alert and skipping parts of your story or passing on your book.
What a Trigger Warning Is NOT
A detailed description of actions or incidents in your book.
A demand for you to remove or rewrite content in your book.
Looking for ways to get on Santa’s “nice” list? Maybe you’re looking for things for your Kindness Elf to suggest. Here are 5 Ways to Give to Your Community (without spending a dime).
This article was originally posted on Hubpages 12/09/13
What to Do When You Can’t Volunteer or Give Cash?
We always mean to do something to help improve our community, volunteer, or donate to good causes, but the time commitment or financial cost of helping others can knock the wind out of our sails. Here are five ways that we give without straining our budget or busy schedules:
1. Fill a Need at the Women’s Shelter
Women’s shelters are always in need of gently used clothes, socks and shoes for those who have fled without packing. They can also use gently used baby and children’s clothing, family games, movies and books to help pass the time.
If you don’t mind spending a few dollars, they always need toothbrushes and toothpaste, combs, and other toiletries that can be bought at the Dollar Store. Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving are always hardest time of the year, so little gift bags of toiletries and treats for the families spending their holidays at a shelter is greatly appreciated.
(Note: These things are also needed a men’s shelters, but so few communities actually have a safe haven for abused men … If you have one, please find a way to include them in your generosity.)
2. Books and Magazines
Bestow gently used books and magazines to your local library, doctor’s office and hospitals. But, not just to the emergency waiting room; all the departments have waiting rooms where people sit around for long periods of time, including the maternity ward where bed-ridden mommies need something to help pass the time.
Gently loved kids’ books are great donations for day cares and children’s clubs. Children’s wards and hospitals, Ronald McDonald House and other medical care facilities that focus on children would also be glad to have books and movies in good condition and age appropriate. Of course, a few family-friendly books and movies for the adults are also valued.
Surprise a Stranger
You could also surprise a stranger by leaving a “Traveling Book” or “Wild Book” in a clearly marked bag somewhere public, such as a local park, play ground, or restaurants. These are books left in the public for someone to find, read, and set lose again (aka Traveling Book) or to be found and kept (aka “Wild Book” ).
I’m regularly inundated with coupons from various sources; coupon packets in the mail from marketing companies, flyers in the newspaper, even coupons and samples from companies that produce baby-related items and foods. I’m not a big coupon user. I prefer to buy generic brands which are often much cheaper than a brand name, even when using with a coupon. However, I know other people prefer name brands.
Clip coupons and leave them at the local welfare office (if they have a coupon drawer) or even at the announcement board at the grocery store. Coupons for baby and children’s items can be given to local Early Year’s Centres, child care businesses, and even Health Units.
4. Baby and Children’s Clothing
Most of us generally try to sell our unneeded children’s clothing via local Facebook “yard sale” groups or consignment shops. You could also share gently used clothing with a family member or friend with a child who would fit them. Local woman’s shelters, maternity wards or Early Year’s Centres also appreciate gently used baby clothes. Of course, toys and educational items in good condition are also desirable.
It surprised us to learn that the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) where we delivered our daughter have a need for pajamas. Many parents, just like us, are caught off guard by their child’s premature arrival. And, just like us, many of them were from out of town without access to their baby supplies, including jammies. If you have spare newborn pajamas, hats or mitts, check with your local hospital to see if their maternity or NICU unit would like them.
Keep an eye out for posts on local Facebook groups about families who have experienced loss and need help. This is a great way to help out your community. If you have what a family needs and can spare it, give what you can.
There is also the occasional call-out for clothing donations to help the relief efforts for the victims of the latest natural disaster. Don’t be shy! Contact the coordinator and find out what they need. If you have it to spare, box it up to be collected and shipped out to help those in need.
5. Pantry Items
We all have items in our pantry that we meant to use but never got around to it. If the items aren’t too close (or past) their expiry date and are in good condition, donate them to the local food bank.
If you’re really ambitious, you can host a get-together (or event through your church or other favourite non-profit organization) that requires guests to give canned or dried goods in exchange for entry, with the goods going directly to your local food bank. If you’re a little less ambitious, but still like the idea of mixing it up with others in your community, attend a local event like this and bring all you’ve got to share from your pantry.
[UPDATE: Since originally posting this, I've learned more about food banks. Apparently, they get a lot of food they can't use because there is too much of the same thing or they're really odd food items most people don't eat. The Vancouver Sun published a great article about it here which explains how food banks are able to get really good discounts from partners with the cash donations they receive and how you can better help your local food bank. If in doubt, call and ask what food items they need most.]