I’m currently waiting for feedback on my latest novel from my wonderful beta readers. I use them with all of my novels, as well as my novellas. Sometimes it’s just one or two betas. Other times, like this one, it’s a larger group of readers. The group can include another fiction writer. Especially at the start of a series, I find input from another writer can be very helpful.
Two of today’s three excerpts, by Joe Moore and Jodie Renner respectively, look at beta readers and how to help them give feedback which will help your novel become better.
Since many of us also give feedback on other writers’ novels, today’s third excerpt, by P.J. Parrish, provides advice on giving feedback. The full posts date-linked at the bottom of their excerpts, and are worth reading in full.
A beta reader is someone whose opinion you value, who’ll take the time to read your manuscript in a timely manner, and who’ll give you an honest assessment of your work. For starters, I would mark off your list of potential beta readers anyone who is related to you, works with you, or lives in your immediate neighborhood.
Should you utilize a beta reader(s)? It depends on whether you’re working on your first unpublished manuscript or are further along in your writing career. Most beginning authors are searching for anything that will build up their ego and confidence, and keep their hopes alive. And most new authors have manuscripts that are littered with flaws and mistakes—it’s part of the learning process. Weak or unqualified feedback from others can cause a new writer to become confused and/or discouraged. And their hopes and dreams can be crushed by negative feedback. Or their egos are so artificially inflated that negative criticism can cause friendships and relationships to crash.
At the same time, established authors know the value of real, honest, sincere feedback and will react in a professional, business-like manner. Beta readers are a solid tool toward writing a better book.
In recruiting beta readers, try to line up at least three to four that are willing to take the time to not only read your work but give you constructive feedback. It’s also good to mix male and female readers. In general, try to find age-appropriate readers that are familiar with your genre. A female teen may not give you the feedback you’re looking for if your manuscript is male action/adventure. If you write YA, a retired senior citizen might not be the best choice, either.
Try to choose beta readers who are not acquainted with one another. And they don’t have to be your best friends. In fact, casual acquaintances could work better since there might not be a hesitation that they will hurt your feelings if they don’t like what you’ve written. There’s a good chance they’ll take the whole process more seriously than a relative or close friend.
Don’t ask your beta readers to line edit your manuscript. Tell them to ignore the typos and grammar issues. What you’re interested in is: Does the story work? Does it hold together? Are the characters believable? Can you relate to them? Are there plot contradictions and errors?
Beta readers differ from members of a critique group in that they measure the WIP as a whole whereas groups usually get a story in piecemeal fashion and focus in on a chapter at a time. Most critique groups also deal with line editing.
So once you round up your bevy of beta readers and send them your WIP, then what? Start by listening to their feedback. If your beta reader has a problem or issue, chances are others will, too. And most important is when numerous readers raise the same issues. That should be a red flag that there’s a major problem to address.
Other tips: Don’t be defensive. Sure, we all love our words—after all, they’re hard to come by. But comments from your beta readers are meant to be helpful and constructive. Don’t take offense. Take what they say to heart. Think about it for a while. Consider that they have a valid point and are not trying to tear down your writing.
Joe Moore—June 26, 2013
To avoid generic (and generally useless) responses like “I liked it,” “It was good,” or “It was okay,” it’s best to guide your readers with specific questions. Here’s a list to choose from, based on suggestions from novelists I know. If you’re hesitant to ask your volunteers so many questions, you could perhaps have them choose the ones that seem most relevant to your story and writing style. And of course, if you first use these questions as a guideline during your revisions, the responses from your beta readers should be much more positive, or of a nature to take your story and your skills up a level or two.
- Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?
- Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when it’s taking place? If not, why not?
- Could you relate to the main character? Did you feel her/his pain or excitement?
- Did the setting interest you, and did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you?
- Was there a point at which you felt the story started to lag or you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next? Where, exactly?
- Were there any parts that confused you? Or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts, and why?
- Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details?
- Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likeable?
- Did you get confused about who’s who in the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Are any of the names or characters too similar?
- Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded artificial or not like that person would speak?
- Did you feel there was too much description or exposition? Not enough? Maybe too much dialogue in parts?
- Was there enough conflict, tension, and intrigue to keep your interest?
- Was the ending satisfying? Believable?
- Did you notice any obvious, repeating grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? Examples?
- Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not?
And if you have eager readers or other writers in your genre who are willing to go the extra mile for you, you could add some of the more specific questions below. These are also good for critiquing a short story.
– Which scenes/paragraphs/lines did you really like?
– Which parts did you dislike or not like as much, and why?
– Are there parts where you wanted to skip ahead or put the book down?
– Which parts resonated with you and/or moved you emotionally?
– Which parts should be condensed or even deleted?
– Which parts should be elaborated on or brought more to life?
– Are there any confusing parts? What confused you?
– Which characters did you really connect to?
– Which characters need more development or focus?
Jodie Renner—June 16, 2014
A few other things I’ve learned about giving criticism:
Resist the urge to fix the problem. Unless you really have the solution, it’s not a good idea to offer up the answer to another writer’s problem. You don’t know their book; you’re not inside their head. You might be able to tell them they have wandered off the trail and that you, as the reader, feel lost. But it is not up to you to show them which is the RIGHT trail to the end. They have to find their way.
Watch your tone. Being snarky is, unfortunately, encouraged in our culture today. (I was curious about where the word “snarky” came from so I looked it up. It was coined by the Star Trek actor Richard William Wheaton in a speech he gave before a bunch of online gamers.) If you are asked for input, don’t be mean. Kindness is in short supply today and writers are like turtles without shells — easy to crush.
Don’t take out your frustrations on someone else. Hey, you’re having a bad day. Your own book is falling apart. Your plot has more holes than a cheese grater. Your Dell died and your geek can’t do a data retrieval. Don’t vent your anger on someone else’s baby.
Don’t boost your own ego. Some people like to show how powerful or intelligent or knowledgeable they are, and use criticism as a way of doing that. They are puffing themselves up, challenging others, going all Alpha dog. Nobody likes a bully.
Let the person react. Giving a person a chance to explain why they wrote something the way they did helps their ego a bit and often, as they explain, they see where they can improve. It also makes you look fair.
Be empathetic. You’ve probably had the same problems the other guy is having. So tell him. Be vulnerable and relate how it was hard for you to understand motivation or the three-act structure. Walk in their shoes.
Don’t focus on the person. One of the hardest things beginning writers have to learn is to not take criticism personally. A rejection letter is never about you; it is about your book. So if you’re critiquing something, you might think, “Boy, this guy’s a lousy writer” but never say it. It only makes the other person angry, defensive or hurt. Plus, it makes you look like an ass.
Okay, so you’re done reading a friend’s manuscript. Or you’ve been doing your part in the weekly critique group. You’ve been kind, you’ve been constructive, you’re offering up suggestions that you think might cause a light bulb to go off over the other writer’s head. And then….
They turn on you. They say you don’t understand their genre. Or that if you’re missing the plot points. Or that they intend for you to hate the protagonist. Or that second-person omniscient is the only way the story can be told. I call these folks the Yeah Buts. “Yeah, but if you keep reading, things will get clearer.” “Yeah but if you read more dystopian Victorian zombie fiction, you’d understand my book…”
You can’t help a Yeah But. Sometimes, they don’t want to hear anything except how great their stuff is. Don’t get angry. Don’t take it personally. You did what you could. Smile and walk away.
P.J. Parrish—September 10, 2019
There you have it, advice on working with beta readers, and on providing your own feedback on another writer’s novel.
- Do you use beta readers? Have you found them helpful?
- If you use beta readers, do you provide them with questions to answer, or things to look for?
- Have you given feedback on other writers’ novels? How do you approach doing so?