Basics of Beta Reading

The hardest part of running our review contest a few weeks back was coming up with reasonably objective criteria for judging the entries. The main problem was that we wanted contestants to focus on the helpfulness of their reviews, but “helpful” is largely a subjective term. Feedback could go on for pages without saying anything helpful, or it could take up a couple of paragraphs but change the writer’s whole revision game plan.

If you’re new to beta-reading – or if you always approach it feeling as if you’re stumbling around in the dark – here are some basic tips to get you started.

Don’t do line edits (unless asked). Unless you’re giving feedback on a final draft – or if the writer has asked for them – line edits aren’t that helpful. I say this as a person who used to go back over my draft and do line edits whenever I was stuck. Think of it this way: if it’s an early draft, all that time and energy spent on line edits will be wasted. With mass revisions and rewrites on their way, those nitpicks are going to be cut anyway. And then the writer is going to need brand-new line edits. It’s a waste of your time and theirs.

That said, if there’s a persistent issue – for example, improperly formatted dialogue – feel free to say so and point the writer in the direction of resources that can teach them to correct it themselves. For dialogue formatting, I use this handy Tumblr post.


It saves me the time and energy of explaining things myself or correcting every line of dialogue in the story, and it spares the writer in question having to read my long-winded explanation.

Look at the big picture. If you’re not doing line edits, what should you critique? In early drafts, you want to focus on big-picture elements of story: plot, setting, characters, pacing, etc. These are the things the writer needs to fix first. It doesn’t matter how beautifully written a novel is if the characters are flat and gaping plot holes abound.

If you’re not sure how to get started, ask yourself questions to figure out what you liked and didn’t like.

  • Which scenes were boring or confusing?
  • Which scenes felt rushed?
  • How did you feel about the characters?
  • Could you picture the setting?
  • Did the plot make sense?
  • Did the plot feel forced?

Once you sort out how you feel about the story, you can use that as a basis for your feedback.

Be specific. Consider the following.

Do I use this gif too much? Impossible.

Here’s some feedback to compare.

  1. The story feels rushed in many places.
  2. The chapter with the fire feels rushed.

Notice the difference? If you’re a writer, the first example doesn’t help much – if anything, it sounds like you’re going to have to start rewrites back at square one, because the whole story is rushed.

While pacing through the whole story might be off, it’s more likely that there are certain scenes and chapters that move too quickly or slowly. As a beta reader, your job is to point out which ones. Don’t say, “There were a lot of points in the story where I was bored.” Say, “I was bored by the scene with the wizard.” Give the writer specifics – not only about which parts you liked and didn’t like, but about how you felt. “Didn’t like it” is less helpful than “bored by it,” “angry about it,” or “annoyed with it.”

Be sure to mention specific elements of the story – a certain setting, a certain character, a certain scene – and specific feelings you had about it to give the writer the most helpful feedback.

Dig deep. Time to explain why you felt the way you did! Pointing out which parts of a novel you liked and didn’t like – and specifically how you felt about them – go a long way toward helping the writer figure out their issues.

However, it’s even better if you can explain why you felt this way about this element of the story. “I was bored by this scene” is good, but “I was bored by this scene because it took too long to get to the rescue” was better. Take every point you want to hit – “this character felt flat to me,” “this scene was too rushed,” “this setting was boring” – and add “because…”

Why did this character fall flat for you? Why did this scene leave you winded? Why was this setting boring? The writer might not have developed the character enough; they might have zipped through an important scene that you wanted to last longer; they might have described the setting far too much or not nearly enough.

You don’t have to pinpoint the problem, but getting in touch with why the story affected you the way it did will help the writer write a better story. If the writer gets opposing opinions about different parts of the story, they’ll have an easier time figuring out which feedback to incorporate into revisions. It’ll also help you become a better beta reader: you’re thinking more in-depth about the story and your reaction to it, which will make feedback come easier in the future.

Keep in mind that all these rules could go out the window depending on what the writer asks for. If the writer does want line edits, go for it! Maybe they’ll ask specifically for feedback on one element of the novel – the plot, or the characters, or the setting, or the pacing – but aren’t interested in feedback on multiple elements just now. Maybe they’ll ask for feedback on something deeper and more subtle, like theme and symbolism.

This post should provide a basic guide for general feedback, but when it comes to beta-reading, the writer’s requests take precedence!

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