The role of the beta reader: react, don’t revise

The role of the beta reader: react, don’t revise

I’m always honored when someone asks me (as an individual) to “beta read” the book or article they are writing.

What does that mean?

It means that I’m sent the manuscript (electronically, nowadays), read it, and offer my reactions.

The intent is for that to help the writer sculpt what will eventually be published.

I’ve been involved a bit in a discussion of this process on Twitter (in this case, I’m at https://twitter.com/bufocalvin).

The question started with how to take the comments beta readers make, and I think there was also one asking about how to best be a beta reader.

I thought I’d take this post to explain my philosophy of it.

Up above, I said I “offer my reactions”.

As a beta reader, that’s important. It’s not my job as a beta reader to tell the author how to change something. That’s the job of an editor, and that’s a very different relationship.

It’s my job to act like a test audience for a TV pilot: let the author know what I liked, what I didn’t like, and (this is key) where I was confused or bored.

I am an instrument, a meter.

Beta readers’ comments should, in my opinion, always be anonymous. The author should not know who said what. The interest will be more in the aggregate, where independent readers get the same impression.

That’s not writing by democracy: it’s a data point. The author may choose to keep things exactly the same, but they may also find a different approach or cut  or add something.

It’s a bit like when a doctor writes a “duty modification” note for a patient. The patient may tell the doctor, “Could you write a note saying that my Significant Other has to come to work with me to help me when I have to use the restroom?”

The answer should be, “No.” The doctor can write a note saying that the patient needs assistance when going to the restroom, but they can’t dictate to the employer how they should spend their money. The employer might (and probably not incorrectly) think it would be disruptive to have a Significant Other in the office all day. The company might choose to spend money on a professional caregiver…or say, “Stay home. We’ll pay you your full salary at home until you are able to come back and work unassisted.”

As a beta reader, I should indicate that I liked a character, didn’t like a character, loved a scene, didn’t understand a plot point, like a particular line….I shouldn’t tell the author specifically how to fix those issues. The author has creative energy to “spend”…it’s up to them how they do it.

It’s very, very hard not to make those specific suggestions. It’s very tempting to say, “Hey, you should write a scene where these two go to a restaurant so people can understand their relationship better! Ooh, maybe give them a kid from a fling ten years ago!” You are writing at that point, telling the author how to change it. Instead, saying that, “I didn’t really get why Character A and Character B didn’t trust each other,” is the information the author (and perhaps the editor, if they are working together by then) needs.

Do I do that perfectly?

Nope. 🙂

I suggested to an author that they move a scene to the beginning of the book…it was a great scene, like a James Bond pre-title sequence, and initially, the book started with a lot of exposition.

When I say this is hard, it reminds me of the government’s remote viewing program. Project Stargate was made public: the idea was that personnel could be trained to “psychically” see distant situations.

Ingo Swann (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

who was known to the public, supposedly worked on the training program.

The hardest thing for people to learn, as I recall, was to not come to a conclusion about what they were “seeing”. A remote viewer could describe something fairly generic, like a “building” (although a cube might be better), but once they decide it is a hospital, their imagination could start filling in details which are incorrect.

The public conclusion was that Project Stargate wasn’t effective, or at least, not cost effective.

The higher functions of your brain earn their share of the blood supply by interpreting data and coming to conclusions (and making plans based on them), so it’s very unnatural to not come to conclusions about something, and to then look for a course of action.

That, though, is what you should do as a beta reader.

Why am I making such a big deal about this?

Did you ever have a book as assigned reading in school, knowing you would have to write a paper on it? Did you hate the book at the time, but when you read it later just for fun, you enjoyed it?

Approaching the book knowing that you have to write the paper means that you look at it differently. If you are beta reading thinking that you are an editor (or even more complicating, a proofreader), your perspective shifts significantly. What you say to the author will be skewed.

Also, if you make those suggestions for changes, it can really throw off the author’s mental/emotional balance. Writing is hard. Imagine that you are going to walk a tightrope. When you get up there, someone starts giving you all these specific things to change: “Turn your left foot out more. Tilt your right hand up ten degrees. Be careful about wobbling. Keep your chin up, but your eyes down. Lean left…no, back right, straight up and down!” Remember that this happens as you are walking the tightrope. Even worse, picture five people giving you advice at the same time…and they often contradict each other!

It reminds me of this EDS ad, which I was first actually shown in my day job:

YouTube video

This may get easier in the future as artificial empathy continues to improve. Artificial empathy is the ability of software to tell how you are feeling (it combines sensory data with artificial intelligence, and a background knowledge of how human emotions manifest physically). Eventually, as you read that manuscript, something (perhaps your “auggies”, augmented/virtual reality hardware) will track your eyes, pupil size, respiration, and so on, to give real time feedback on how each paragraph is affecting you emotionally.

We aren’t there yet, though. 🙂

None of this is meant to discourage authors from seeking suggestions….it can be quite fun and useful to get ideas, especially from other authors. The main point is that’s different. Editorial suggestions should not be anonymous. There should be a back and forth, a discussion of why that proposal is being made.

So, that’s my take on beta reading. I know not everybody will see it that way, and I’m interested to know what you think. Feel free to let me and my readers know by commenting on this post.

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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

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One Response to “The role of the beta reader: react, don’t revise”

  1. Harold Delk Says:

    No need to post this, but another good article on reading at:
    https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2019/02/08/reading-in-the-age-of-constant-distraction/?utm_source=pocket&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=pockethits

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