I've spent much of this past Golden Week vacation, more time than I could afford, really, beta reading for friends from the LDS Beta Readers writers' group.
One manuscript was a billionaire romance in early beta condition. It was very entertaining, and the story itself was rather well laid out. My primary suggestion was that I wished the pace had been slower. But slowing it down would require altering the premise significantly, potentially making it less interesting. Anyway, this author is experienced, and I am confident she will get this one on the market in good shape and good order.
Another was a tale of leprechauns, witches, dragons, and some other more exotic creatures, from a less established author. The tale was engaging and even somewhat instructive. It was significantly better than most of the fantasy that gets turned into published anime. I am procrastinating the feedback because I like the story and the execution, but I know I have to tell the author it's not very marketable as it is. I want the author to be able to bring this book to publication.
A third was a Regency period romance, a tale of innocent deception in the face of sibling rivalries that go too far. It is in a close-to-period vernacular, but the reader's modern vernacular shows through at distracting points. I like the story and the layout, but the execution gets in the way a little. And I am procrastinating this one, as well, although I think I know what to focus on, to encourage the author to finish.
I hope, eventually, to be able to post reviews of the published versions of these (and many others that I have beta-read since joining this group). They have great potential.
These are beta level, so execution issues (grammar, word choice, phrasing, some minor structure issues, etc.) are to be expected. This is always something of a quandary, because we have the instinct to offer editing services and opinions that the author has not requested, and that we cannot afford to give. And if we start offering unsolicited editing, it's easy to start trying to re-write.
But rewriting somebody else's work without permission is rather a breach of ettiquette and even a discourtesy. (Publishing such rewrites could even constitute a crime against copyright law, is how discourteous.)
Beta reading is a privilege with accompanying responsibility.
Now, if you understand the Japanese principle of wabi-sabi, you might understand my following comments on the privilege:
These are all unpolished gems. Very rarely do I get to do a beta read of a manuscript that does not need editing. Often, the various errors of execution make it difficult to get started into a story.
But once you get into the flow of the author's story, the rhythm of the author's voice, the story itself comes into focus, and finishing the manuscript is usually a pleasure.
Preparing a manuscript for market almost always requires "cleaning out" the rougher aspects of the author's modes of expression. Sometimes it requires cleaning out substantial parts of the author's vision for the story, and worse.
Editing a manuscript to make it marketable requires denaturing the story.
Think how it would be if all restaurant food were subjected to the same marketing processes as the McDonalds' menu.
Do I need to map this allegory? No? You do see it, right?
Sometimes, it almost breaks my heart to beta-read. Not because the writing is bad. I haven't yet seen a manuscript that is that bad, though I have seen some that need a lot of work.
Now editing can be done with light hand. Not all edited works are comparable to McDonalds' food. But market forces tend to motivate the heavier hand more often than not.
That means that, even if you do get a chance to read the novels I have beta read this week, you will not see the rough beauty I see. It will probably be polished and palatable -- easy to read. And it may have lost significant portions of the meaning that I enjoyed reading in them.
Sometimes, the difference I expect almost breaks my heart.
Do I recommend joining a beta readers group? It depends. They do require time -- and learning to read through rough writing.