So, someone you know has written (or is writing) a book and they’re looking for some feedback. Their premise intrigues you, or you are simply wanting to be supportive. Bless you, child. Truly and genuinely, bless you. Finding interested readers is one of many aspiring authors biggest challenges. And if you stick through to the end of an unpolished manuscript? Congratulations, you are in fact a unicorn.
As you begin to read those opening pages, panic sets in. This needs a lot of work. How do you even be a beta or alpha reader? Or maybe *gulp* you realize the story just isn’t for you. Don’t worry. We’re here to help.
First and foremost ask them what they’re looking for.
Before you even accept the opening pages, it is wise to ask a few questions. What kind of feedback are they looking for? Do they just want to see how it reads? Is there a character arc they need feedback on? *Do they want you to correct grammar, spelling, or punctuation? Knowing what the writer is actually looking for (and what type of feedback you’re confident in giving) can save both of you a lot of time.
A really good writer will have a list of questions prepared to ask their readers. Ask them for those questions before you start so you can consider them as you read.
*This one is SUPER important. Writers either really appreciate it or find it incredibly annoying. You could argue that a book needs polished grammar, but its one of the very last round of edits a writer does, so they may not even be thinking about it yet. That being said, if there are so many mistakes that its too distracting to enjoy the story, its worth mentioning. This might also mean you are better off as a Beta reader and not an Alpha.
Be honest, but don’t be rude.
Writers are creatives. That goes without saying. 🤣 We writers can be quite sensitive, especially when it comes to our precious creations. Keep that in mind as you’re giving feedback. Be diplomatic when expressing your issues if you have them. Avoid phrases like “you have to. . .” “always. . .” “you need to. . .” etc. Instead, stick to phrases such as “this didn’t work for me” or “I didn’t care for. . .” “perhaps you can. . .” etc.
For some, it may be difficult to give any feedback that might be even kind of negative. I know, it’s hard. But keep in mind, this is a professional relationship. We may call our manuscript our baby, but the harsh reality is it’s not. It’s more like our show pony because you don’t present your child to the world for entertainment. Unless you’re a psycho. In that case, you should probably call child protective services. A writer needs to know what works and what doesn’t work, and if you’re being diplomatic about your feedback and they don’t take it well, that’s between the writer and their ego. That’s a relationship you are not obligated to stay in. ✌
A note on the “compliment sandwich:”
This one is a hit and a miss, I’ve found, and Matti hates it! Sticking criticism between two statements of related praise can help a writer be more receptive to what you’re saying, but use this approach too much and it gets pretty annoying.
Since we’re on the metaphor of sandwiches, if the meat of what you’re saying is a downer, then your writer is going to spit it right out and not want to take another bite. Choose your compliments wisely and make sure it is genuine.
I hate receiving a compliment sandwich because I know what they’re doing. People dig for something nice to say to disguise the criticism. I don’t like it when people beat around the bush, give it to me straight. Let the compliments come detached and un-tethered so that I know they are genuine.-Matti
Take detailed notes.
Have a pen and notebook nearby or your preferred note taking app on your phone open. What were your impressions on the opening scene? What are your first impressions of the main character? When did you first start getting hooked? When did you first choose to put the manuscript down and why?
Every time you have a thought regarding what you’re reading, write it down. Have a question or something seem confusing? Write it down. Something make you laugh? Cry? Annoyed? Write it down. Smell some foreshadowing? Write it down. Find yourself skimming or mind wandering? You get it. Write it down 😂
An afterthought that just came to me: note your mood when you start reading because this can greatly affect your perception. If you’re cranky and annoyed, you may very well find yourself being more nit picky than usual. If you’re madly in like with your barista and they put a heart over the i in your name this morning, you might be too happy to notice any issues with what you’re reading. And if you’re in a mood and the reader’s words manage to pull you out of it, tell them! They eat that stuff up!
You’re the reader, NOT the writer.
You’re also not their mother or their teacher, so don’t be condescending. In fact, assume the writer knows what they’re doing more than you do. A funny example I heard once was “P̶e̶r̶h̶a̶p̶s̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶ ̶m̶i̶g̶h̶t̶ ̶r̶e̶a̶d̶ ̶a̶ ̶b̶o̶o̶k̶ ̶o̶n̶ ̶g̶r̶a̶m̶m̶a̶r̶. I’m afraid your unusual grammar usage didn’t work for me. I gather you’re trying this for effect, but I didn’t care for it.”
Okay, so maybe that was a bit too snarky, but I assume you get where I’m going with this. Don’t go into this as though you’re the leading authority on writing a novel. Phrases like “Put a comma here” or “change this to active voice” will rub the writer the wrong way. You’re the reader and in no position to be making demands. Your goal is not to change the writer’s opinions or even fix their work. Not even a professional editor will do that. Tell them what works and what doesn’t work.
Imagine you’re sitting across from the writer in a coffee shop giving them your feedback. Be respectful and genuine, but most importantly, be personal. And who knows, maybe you’ll get a shout out in their Acknowledgments page 😃
Writing a novel? Keep an eye out for Part Two: 3 Tips on How to Get the Most Out of Your Beta and Alpha Readers