Gentle Letdowns – Beta Reading Something Awful

02112018 don-t-need-this-1529905Sometime in your career, if you decide to be as free and helpful as you can, you’ll run into it: a book that’s either so bad or so not-your-type that it melts your soul to read it.

I have read some fantastic beta books (E. Kathryn’s Fire’s Hope was one of them!), but I’ve officially just finished something I almost couldn’t handle.  I nearly put it down for good several times.  I wanted to stab small mammals every time I set my eyes to it.

I learned a lot by getting through this book, and I hope you’ll be able to glean kernels of advice from my mistakes experiences!

Know Your Limits

I beta read for free right now because I am being paid in the experience.  At some point, I may feel confident enough (or requested enough) to start asking for payment. Because I’m doing these for free, though, I have learned there needs to be an internal line that I will not cross again.  I have to put an actual value on my time.  A book that is bad enough to put down early may be better reworked by the author before someone tries reading again.

hell no

If you beta read, go in knowing how bad you’ll need to feel or how bored you’ll need to be in order to quit. If your requirements are pretty tight, consider letting the author know beforehand.  If you reach this internal boundary, embrace that decision. Don’t look back.

Give Constructive Advice

analysis blackboard board bubbleOver the past few months of critiquing and beta reading, I’ve realized that railing on someone’s work helps no one.  I’ve also learned that when a reader gives no positive feedback, it can be harder as an author to believe what they say is meaningful or true (even though it’s not their job to give positive feedback!).

When something is awful, point out what is done right, even if it is hard.  With this last book I beta read, I had sincere difficulty doing so, but I tried giving at least one good comment on chapters that were long and relevant enough.  At a point I lost the ability to keep up with what was going on, so I tried to ask questions more than point out what was wrong.  If you find the good, you will come off as more believable, encouraging, and professional.

Avoid Words like ‘Stupid’ or ‘Awful’

I am super guilty of the above.  I once said someone’s character seemed stupid.


After I received similar comments on a character from one of my betas, I realized those types of comments can be easily interpreted as ‘This character was stupidly designed’ or ‘You, as a writer, are stupid,’ neither of which are probably intended.

Using words that have little wiggle room for qualification can make your statements go from constructive criticism to seeming like stabbing, personal vindictiveness. Instead of ‘this character seems stupid,’ you can say, ‘this character’s decision didn’t logically follow from the prior events.’  Instead of, ‘This passage was awful,’ you can say, ‘This passage was confusing, and I’m concerned that a misinterpretation could cause some people to feel offended.’  It takes effort, but those kinds of statements are more specific, helpful, and don’t sting nearly as much.

Be Truthful About Your Experience

With this latest beta read, I wanted to give up after the second chapter.  I wanted to give up after every single sitting.  I struggled with the question:

Should I tell them?

Luckily, I also recently went through the beta process.  One of the things I am most genuinely worried about is if the readers who said they liked it actually thought it was a steaming pile of poop.  I have hired an editor now, and I can’t help but worry if doing so was a mistake; if the book doesn’t have publishable qualities, why should I waste the money on the editor?  Why should I continue to waste time on it?  If my readers lied, I’m out a good passel of money and a WHOLE LOT of precious time.

Anyway, if it is bad, I would have rather someone tell me from the beginning that it needed significant work.  I would rather know that it might be easier to start from scratch.  I would at least want to know that someone severely disliked it and almost quit (or did quit).

Here’s what I decided to say:

Because I’m beta reading, I will finish this book; however, if I were just reading for my pleasure, I would quit here.
Some good points I’ve noticed:

(gave 3 points)

The primary reasons I would stop reading:

(gave 5 points)

And I hope that was good enough.

Have you ever had any terrible beta reading experiences?  Tell me about them in the comments, especially if you had a clever way to let someone down.

9 thoughts on “Gentle Letdowns – Beta Reading Something Awful

  1. booksofb says:

    Extremely well thought out and well written. I know this is written from a beta reader perspective but it’s just as relevant to all us day to day book blogger reviewers. I just finished Empire Of Silence and it wasn’t a good read for me but it has its merits. I’m struggling a bit trying to pull together a balanced review. This really helps. Cheers, Brian

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      Hmm… interesting thought! I’m realizing now that I have slightly different criteria for self-published vs. traditionally published work, mostly because I feel like self-published is usually going to hit closer to the heart if you do a bad review. You do a lot of great reviews – do you think having different standards is ok?

      • booksofb says:

        I do think that applying a different set of standards makes sense – for no other reason than that a beta read situation is far more personal and is partly a coaching / teaching conversation. What I can relate to as a reviewer of traditionally published works and what I believe would be universally applicable is the need for both balance and courtesy. I feel that’s important not because my review would reach or be meaningful to the author but because those two qualities reinforce the validity of the critical comments I’m providing. Even with the least satisfying, most poorly written books I read – I can normally find positives and, in the spirit of fairness, those should be called out. I’ve always believed in courtesy as a nearly non-negotiable virtue – it’s owed to almost everyone. I’ve stopped paying attention to reviewers who indulge in the practice of expressing rude or cruel sentiments. I find it says far more about the reviewer than the work under review. I related to those aspects of the post and it was a useful reminder for me at an opportune time. I started a review of Empire Of Silence last night and began with some relatively harsh statements. Thankfully, I have the chance, when I return to the draft tonight, to put more balance and nuance into the draft. Does that all make sense?



  2. joanne the geek says:

    I’m beta reading a book myself at the moment. Luckily I’m finding the book quite interesting. I’ve been pointing out grammar or typographical errors and a few inconsistencies, I have a few issues with the main character, but overall it’s fine.

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      Almost every book I’ve beta read has had at *least* a core of something good. Most of them even make me feel excited because they’re so creative! I’ve done several novel beta reads, though, and I knew something awful had to be coming.

  3. Sophia Ismaa says:

    I think if beta readers and book bloggers united, there could be a way to request payment for reading and should a reader of blogger wish to do it for free then they would have that choice. I’m trying to think of a business plan here…

    And I agree, you need to know what your limit is, time is too precious to be wasted on a not so great book. And I completely agree with direct and clear constructive criticism as a method… although, I think if a part of a book is deeply offensive, I would just call the author out.

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      There are places out there where you can beta read for money – the problem is that, like with everything, you’re competing with other people offering the service. It comes down to marketing yourself.

      With authors I find online, I often find the misconception that beta reading isn’t work, or that the fun of reading the book is payment enough. The weird dynamic makes for an interesting economic conundrum!

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