On Sunday, June 2, 2019, my Memoir in a Year students reached a major milestone: they completed the first drafts of their memoirs. Our final spring class on Thursday, May 30. 2019, included a one-hour writing marathon. Bent over notepads and laptops, tongues pressed to the sides of their mouths, these tenacious writers filled the room with a river-dance-like flurry of fingers typing on plastic keys. Two students, who had already completed their drafts, beamed as they spoke of the exhilarating moment when they held copies of their finished manuscripts.
Over the summer, these students will let their manuscripts rest while they serve as beta readers for each other. We’ve spent the past month preparing for this phase of the writing process.
When deciding to become a beta reader, there are two conversations you must have before taking on a manuscript. The first conversation is with yourself. While you don’t have to be a writer to serve as a beta reader, you must know what skills you bring to the table. Make a list of the genres you like to read and why you enjoy them. Make a second list of books and genres you don’t like. Steer clear of anything on the second list or be prepared to make yourself miserable.
Next, ask yourself what you know about the genres you love. Can you identify the two voices in memoir and tell when they’re working well together? Love horror, romance, sci-fi, or fantasy? What do you know about reader expectations in these genres? Knowledge of genre expectations can help you decide whether a manuscript is mislabeled or needs further revision.
Once you’ve considered your interests, think about your strengths as a communicator. Are you good at giving praise? Do you know how to clearly and respectfully broach a problem? What do you say when your attention flags? Not sure what to do? Allegra Huston’s article The Two Basic Rules of Editing has some great suggestions.
Finally, examine what you know about storytelling. Do you know what belongs in a setup? Can you identify plot points? Are you a whiz at writing dialogue? What about structure? Are you willing to learn about these things in order to communicate more effectively with a writer? Mastery of these skills is not mandatory for beta readers; however, some writers are looking for beta readers with a writer’s eye. If that’s not you, simply pass on the project.
In my class, my beta reader pairs are required to do the following:
- Highlight the strengths in the manuscript and ask questions when they reach points of confusion
- Mark the moments when the manuscript comes to life and points where their attention fades
- Flag items that might be tangential or in the wrong place
- Write a brief letter that includes a synopsis, a summary of the manuscript’s global strengths and areas of greatest concern, and responses to questions posed by the writer
This is a more sophisticated form of beta reading than many writers require; however, I urge you to try some of these exercises. Writing a synopsis for someone else’s manuscript will make it easier to write one for your own. Summarizing a manuscript’s strengths and areas for revision will help you think globally about the writing process. And, who can’t get more practice with praise and asking questions?
Once you’ve finished your internal conversation, it’s time to interview the writer. The initial conversation should be brief and cover a few key points:
- What is the writer’s timeline?
- What are the writer’s goals for this review?
- Is the writer looking for a reader’s perspective or a writer’s perspective?
- What kind of feedback would be most helpful (a conversation, an editorial letter, in-text comments, a summary of your thoughts)?
- In the past, what feedback has not been helpful? (Some writers find editing marks made with a red pen to be punitive. Other writers hate receiving line edits during early drafts.)
- Ask the writer to briefly describe their project. There are really only three things you need to know: the genre, the length (more than 95,000 words suggests the book might need major editing, and a comparable published manuscript.
After this initial conversation, decide if you’re a good match for this project. While there are many benefits to literary citizenship, it’s better to say no if the writer’s expectations or timeline don’t align with your skills or schedule. Also, if the comparable for this project is a book you hate, it’s likely this manuscript isn’t for you.
If the initial conversation goes well, prepare for the handoff. Set expectations regarding your preferred format and method of delivery. It’s okay to ask for a hard copy of the manuscript if that provides you with the best reading experience. If the writer wants in-text comments, MS Word is your best bet. Tell the writer to attach any specific questions or concerns about the manuscript to the last page of the book so your experience of the writing isn’t influenced by the writer’s concerns.
Read the manuscript as quickly as possible. A concentrated review of the manuscript will help you understand the story’s narrative arc and your experience of it. Once you’ve finished reading, write up your notes and schedule a follow-up meeting to share your results. If you’re exchanging manuscripts, consider bringing a small thank you gift or treat for your reader as a token of appreciation.
Serving as a beta reader is a gift and a commitment to a writer’s work. It shouldn’t be taken lightly, but don’t confuse it with complete altruism. It’s likely your beta reader duties will teach you more about the craft of writing and your own work than any review of our own manuscript. Have any doubts? Check out this essay by Jeremiah Chamberlin.
Next month, I’ll share some strategies for managing beta reader feedback.
Next month, I’ll share some tips regarding follow-up meetings and how to address feedback provided by a beta reader. I’ll also post some pictures and thoughts from my incredible Memoir in a Year students.