Now, onto more about beat reading.
Perhaps you want to open yourself up to being a beta reader, or a friend of yours has asked you to become one for their latest manuscript. For some reason, you've agreed, even though you've never done this before and you have no idea what the hell you're doing.
Don't freak out!
There are a few things to keep in mind for the job you have agreed to. The first is that beta reading is voluntary. You shouldn't expect to get paid for it. You are doing it out of the goodness of your heart and a genuine desire to see your friend succeed. If you're not coming at it from this angle, perhaps you should decline the job.
Next, beta reading is not an editing job. Editor is a paid position, and it's not your job to comb through the manuscript looking for spelling, punctuation and grammatical mistakes. I mean, you can, if you feel up for it, but that's not really the function of a beta reader. Your job is to comment on the story and the characters, the timeline and perhaps even the flow of text and make sure that it makes sense; that the characters behave in believable ways, given what you know of them, and that the time of year doesn't change from on paragraph to the other in the same scene (and other such things).
The last thing that you much remember is that as a beta reader, your opinion on the manuscript is simply that; your opinion. A writer can take these opinions on board and change their manuscript accordingly, or they may disagree with you and so no implement any or all of the changes you suggest. That is at their discretion. Try not to get offended if that happens. It certainly does not mean that the writer doesn't value the work you've put in to beta reading for them. We do. Absolutely.
But this manuscript is not yours. It's the writer's. It's for them to do with as they will.
With that in mind, here are some things that I do and do not do when I'm beta reading. You may take these a guidelines for your own workflow, or you may decide to do something completely different.
The first and most important thing to do is be honest. Your job is to give your opinion on what you think would make a manuscript/story stronger. Some manuscripts are really rough when you get them (that's why it's called a rough draft, folks), and they may require a lot more work than the writer thought when handing the manuscript over to you. That's alright. It's your job to let the writer know.
That said, be tactful. It's entirely possible to be honest without eviscerating the soul of the writer you're reading. Do not be aggressive, or haughty, or condescending. I mean, unless you want to make your friend cry themselves to sleep at night.
Do explain why something doesn't work for you, don't just say that it doesn't work. That doesn't help anyone. Explain why something in the manuscript doesn't work. For example, I beta read a story where, at the end, the protagonist just trusts her new boss, despite being betrayed by her old boss and damned near killed by him. That didn't work for me, so I explained why. Whether or not the writer agrees and changes it is entirely up to them, and honestly it's not my business.
Sometimes it might help to offer suggestions as to how to fix a problem. I've offered ideas that are sometimes simple (like switching paragraphs to make it flow better and remove the confusion about timelines), or suggesting that a writer insert a paragraph or change up a sentence (with examples) to clarify meaning. I do so fully knowing that they might not take my suggestions at all, and I always present them as something to consider doing rather than something that must be done.
For this reason, all of my notes are done in 'comments' (MS Word) rather than in-line changes. In-line changes to me are too damned confusing to read, so I try not to inflict that on others. Even notes on punctuation, spelling and grammar are done in comments. This is very particular to me, though.
I despise in-line edits.
Do not rewrite the thing yourself. Ever. It is not your story. The way you would manage a particular plot point/scene/paragraph/whatever is not the way they would do it. Sometimes a writer made a very deliberate choice with regards to whatever you think is an issue, and they'd like to keep it that way for a very specific reason. It's alright if that doesn't work for you. Simply make a note that it doesn't, explain why, and maybe offer a helpful solution. But don't ever rewrite the thing yourself. Voice is important in writing. It's kind of an unconscious, unseen signature of the writer. Their voice is not yours. You must be conscious of this fact as you're going through your beta reading duties.
I cannot stress this particular point enough.
Lastly, do point out places that were really great, things that really worked for you, and why. These help the writer bear the weight of a bunch of criticisms. Criticism is hard to take, no matter how constructive or tactfully put, and so writing little bits of encouragement or praise where appropriate is helpful to keep the writer from giving up entirely, and it can also be instructive about the right way to go about things for future books. Praise in this way is just as valuable as constructive criticism.
There, that's everything I try to keep in mind as I beta read another's manuscript. I hope this was helpful to anyone who has been or will be beta reading. For the old pros, have I missed anything? Are there things you do or look out for while beta reading? Leave all your tips and tricks in the comments below.
Now I'm off to make story notes, and then to editing.