You know how it goes: You’re out somewhere public with your offspring, minding your own business, when someone approaches you and says, “If that were my child …” and rambles off some unsolicited advice. Yes, the person who feels that, within several seconds of observing you, they have your life all figured out AND they can manage it better than you can. I totally think positive thoughts to these people, smile a polite “thank you,” and go about my business. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I like to assume that they are really, really working from a place of concern in their hearts. But deep down I’m probably rolling my eyes at their interference.
Flip it around: Someone wants advice—and they’ve asked you. (Which, in polite society, is known as the only time one should ever offer any type of advice.) What if, more specifically, you’ve been asked to beta read an author’s newest, or even first, work? Then, my friend, you are going to have to reach for your steel-toed ballet slippers: You are about to pirouette across someone’s soul. Why a pair of dance shoes? Because you will need grace and balance in order to mark the author’s manuscript. The steel toes come in handy for kicking yourself into gear, making sure that you are blatantly honest while still being kind. The steel reinforcements might also be necessary for getting the author to realize that, yes, some of the words must go. Like ten percent of them. Or more.
The thing is, every word in that document has bled out through the fingertips of the author. They are little word babies that the author has nursed into full-fledged sentences and nurtured into (hopefully) a cohesive world of alternate reality. Giving up word babies can be hard. But, as a beta reader, you owe it to the author to pick out the redundancies, the unnecessaries, the faults. Authors need to know when your eyes glaze and your brain drifts; they need to know when you’re confused or if you have stumbled into a hole that will blow apart their entire manuscript. That balance thing I mentioned? It’s really nice to use it now, in how you phrase your comments to the author. You want some good things marked, too—parts that you loved or made you feel something due to the author’s word choices and thought process. It is important to be thorough and specific. A book that is not properly beta-read (coinciding greatly with having proper editing) is not going to reach its full potential of amazingness.
In all of this, the author holds responsibility as well. The feedback you receive from your beta readers reflects your audience’s response. If something is a true sticking point or an actual error, it needs to be fixed. If you ask for help and then get defensive about a reader’s suggestions, your opportunity for growth as a writer instantly shrinks. Plus, you will lose the insights that can only come from someone outside of your head. Of course, you have the right to protect your word babies. If you get feedback that does not suit you and is not an actual error, you can smile your polite “thank you,” and go about your business. Beta reading is an opinionated thing; you might have to don a suit of armor to shield yourself from unnecessary steel-toe attacks. But, if more than one beta reader points something out, you should take the advice under consideration. Seriously. Even if, deep down, you’re rolling your eyes or feeling your heart wilt a little, this is not unsolicited interference; this is you on your journey to the Best Novel Ever. You’ve got this, and your steel-toed ballerinas have your back. I know this because I know some of the best betas out there, and they really, really are working from a place of concern in their hearts.