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 It depends on whether you’re working on your first unpublished manuscript or are further along in your writing career.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?
❖ Do you use beta readers? Have you found them helpful?
❦ Yes. And yes, mostly. Unfortunately, one beta reader lost about half of the hard copy manuscript and said only that it was “interesting.” OTOH, a beta reader caught me having Swiss students applaud a professor. They rap on their desks, instead.
❖ If you use beta readers, do you provide them with questions to answer, or things to look for?
❦ I usually include a sheet of guidelines similar to those above.
❖ Have you given feedback on other writers’ novels?
❦ Yes, a few times.
❖ How do you approach doing so?
❦ I usually do two read-thrus, a fast one to grasp the story line, and one to note details and missed opportunities. I often do a page-by-page record of the tension level, looking for better places to put chapter breaks, or better staging, or more thematic character behavior.
Thanks for your comments, JG. I winced when I read that a beta reader lost half of a hard copy manuscript. I had a beta reader not give me any feedback on one book. That was fine–it showed that book wasn’t for them. One reason I always have at least two beta readers, usually more.
Fascinating point about the Swiss rapping the desk instead of clapping.
Also, your approach to reading for feedback is a useful one. I try and do something similar.
I use one beta reader, send her only a finished chapter at a time. She’s been with me since before publishing the first novel in my mainstream trilogy (<2015), and has a huge reading background in the classics due to homeschooling. Her comments are ALWAYS welcome though I argue back if I think she missed something.
I write with her in mind; she catches my tone – and I don't feel a chapter hit its mark until she calls me an evil woman (usually for torturing one of the characters), often accompanied by understanding that it needs to be done.
She is amazing, essential, and says she wants to keep going until the third volume is finished – even though she is now married, and has 1.5 kids and a full-time job. I'm in awe of her energy. She says I'm a master class (she's a writer). We've never even seen each other – but text or email as necessary. And she posts pictures – adorable little boy, wedding, etc.
She pulls no punches, but has always done it kindly. And yes, she'll give me first her reaction to the whole chapter – and then reads again and takes notes for details. She's doing well in her writing – with a mentor she was awarded in an online contest. I can't wait to see the results.
I don't know what I did to be so blessed. Twenty times each book. And I keep every word, with visions of a co-op book on writing and beta-ing.
That’s wonderful to hear, Alicia. An insightful, dedicated beta reader is pure gold in my experience. My wife is one such. She always reads in hard copy, and takes the time to do a close read with detailed comments and suggested copy edits, always emphasizing that these are just her thoughts. But she’s nearly always right.
I’m very glad you have that amazing beta reader.
My two critique partners are more beta readers than anything else. We’ve been together over 15 years and we’re more about finding flaws and holes. We do everything electronically, one chapter at a time as we finish them. I’ve occasionally used outside beta readers, but haven’t found them to offer more than my crit partners. I lean more to ARC readers now, and request reviews.
Wow, Terry. Fifteen years and counting for you and your two critique partners. Thoughtful input that finds those pesky flaws and holes is invaluable.
ARC readers can be valuable for getting more outside looks at your writing. That’s a great tip.
Great post, Dale. Thanks for pulling these articles from the archives and setting up today’s discussion!
1. I do use beta readers. I write teen fantasy and need a younger perspective than my own. I have found them to be very helpful, but hard to find and keep engaged. (See below.)
2. I do send my beta readers a list of what I’m looking for. In fact, I’ve used Jodi’s list with a few changes, or listed things that I are top priority.
3. I have beta read for other writers. I’ve tried to use the instructions or priorities they have requested. If they haven’t provided any instructions, I use Jodi’s list.
My biggest challenge with finding beta readers is the age group. Teens are very busy with school and sports and on and on. About the only way to pin them down is to work through a school teacher or a gifted-and-talented coordinator (the best). And even then it is usually voluntary, and some students don’t have the time.
The other issue is with communication. I don’t feel comfortable with direct communication with students I don’t know. I try to always communicate through teachers or parents, and they’re always busy and overloaded.
If anyone has suggestions today on working with young beta readers, I would love to hear your ideas.
Thanks, Dale, for this discussion. Have a great weekend!
Finding teen beta readers is a definite challenge. I don’t have any tips, save maybe checking with the children’s librarian at your local library and seeing if there’s a teen group there that you might be able to speak to about writing, and then you could mention that you are always looking for beta readers.
Good luck! Hope you have a fine weekend.
Try homeschooled kids. There are lots of them in my family and they’re all finished with their school work by noon. There are probably homeschooling groups in your area you could contact, and they could let their members know of the opportunity. If anyone is interested, they could contact you. These kids are intelligent, inquisitive, and have learned to think independently.
Steve, I have a 12-year-old grandson who would be interested. If you are, let me know.
Dale, thanks for a great compilation of tips about beta reading.
As Joe mentions, a critique group is helpful but reading a manuscript piecemeal makes it difficult to judge the overall tension, pacing, character and plot arc, etc. That’s why I now depend more on beta readers, although I still belong to critique groups.
Jodie’s excellent questions have been served as my guidelines for years b/c they’re specific, comprehensive, and thorough. Depending on the particular beta (some are writers, others are strictly readers), I pare the questions down to the big picture: did the story keep your interest? Did it lag in places? If so, where? Did the timeline confuse you?
Kris does a terrific job explaining the fine art of making suggestions, I beta read a lot of mss. Instead of saying “This doesn’t work”, I always try to offer an alternative way to rewrite the problem passage or develop the troublesome character. “What if you try XYZ instead?” is usually better received than “This sucks” (even if it does!).
Good betas are gold. I always acknowledge them in my books, give them a signed copy, and take them out to lunch if they’re local. If they’re far away, I owe them lunch and hope to pay those debts in person someday.
Thanks, as always, for commenting, Debbie. I’m with you and Joe about the challenges of reading a novel piecemeal–my original introduction to this post included that, but it was cut in the interest of brevity. My last critique group used to meet monthly at a local pub. If we had a novel to tackle, we’d have read the whole thing the month before the meeting, and then tackle it that night, each of us giving our comments in summary.
Working with beta readers, even if they are other writers, is a different dynamic in my experience, being via email for me, with written comments, as well as answers to my questionnaire. Critique groups sometimes can have a negative tension which is counter to providing honest, and helpful, feedback.
I love your practice of rewarding your betas with lunch!
Thanks, Dale for this post. Timely for me. Question to all: Do you provide a list of questions to the beta when you give them the manuscript to read? Or after they’ve read it? I ask because I wonder if having the list of questions ahead of time impacts instinctual feedback vs. getting zeroed in on something before they begin the read, if that makes any sense.
On the other hand, I can see how not having a list of questions would invite the vague “interesting” comment that someone mentioned above, which is not terribly helpful.
I’ve never done betas before, only had the typical critique of a chunk at a time done with my stories. And for a beta, I’d want them thinking like a reader, not a writer, which is why I wonder about when to give them the questions.
Great question, BK. My questions are fairly general–where did you stop reading, what confused you, made no sense, what did you enjoy, which character did you like, etc etc. I want to avoid anything specific about the plot or world. I feel it’s most important to help them shape their feedback in advance, by giving them essentially a framework of things to consider. They don’t have to answer any or all. I’m definitely looking for reader feedback, not writerly feedback, and emphasize that in my email “letter.”
Hopefully others can weigh in additional answers to your question.
Very timely, Dale! I’m presently beta reading for an author I’ve only known online, in classes, etc.
The manuscript is over 107,000 pages, but I’m enjoying the story immensely. It took me several chapters to figure out I shouldn’t be line editing . . . it was taking too long! So, now I’m just looking for big picture stuff, like timeline issues. She flips back and forth on the timeline and has made some confusing errors, so I’ve pointed that out to her.
Thanks for this post-it’s a keeper. Happy weekending to all . . . 🙂
You’re welcome, Deb! I’m thinking you may have meant 107,000 words 🙂 , but still, good for you to pull back and comment on the big picture issues. I’m sure the author will find your input valuable.
Have a great weekend!
Haha! Good catch, Dale.
107,000 pages would take me longer than my remaining lifespan!
Yeah to what Deb said. When I first started with a beta critique group, I was line editing like crazy. Nope…that’s not what they need. But the power to change another person’s writing is…etc etc.
Stick to the big pictures!
And thanks for including me today.
Good compilation post, Dale.
* Yes, I use betas and always find their inputs helpful.
* Normally, I just ask basic questions of them with the full MS (“What works, what doesn’t?”), etc., but this post will give me more pointed questions to include next time.
* I haven’t given feedback on others’ novels yet but am open to it.
I try to match my betas to the story: demographics, backgrounds, etc. For example, in one story set in Europe around the Mediterranean, I made a mistake that someone who I knew lived there caught.
Also… I sometimes need a beta with a specific language background. On my latest, I needed someone fluent in Spanish since I had Spanish laced throughout the story. And they needed to be fluent in Latin American Spanish not Castillian (because of the locations). And I found the perfect reader on the Goodreads Beta Reading group. She—and others like her—charge for the service, but it was very reasonable and well worth it.
Thanks, Harold. I like your approach of finding betas that might have a particular background that would provide extra helpful in their giving feedback, and likewise for speaking a specific language. Paid beta readers can absolutely be worth it, in my experience.
I’m part of a critique group. We actually just finished a ten week session of critiques. Because we’re a speculative fiction group, we’re all very big picture conscious and dedicated to structure, so we often comment on where there are too many chapters of the same type in a row, or about the strength of certain plot points.
This year I definitely asked questions, where I didn’t so much in the past. It’s really helpful, since you’re writing in drafts, to have someone ramble on about how I don’t have enough description when I’m focusing on emotional resonance is absolutely not helpful.
As a critiquer, my first priority is big picture stuff. If there’s too many mistakes or weaknesses, I don’t put in in-line comments (a new member this time was like that). Same on the other hand, I won’t put in comments just for the sake of comments.
When do you spring a list of questions on your beta reader? Before the read or after? A good question and a hard one to answer. My opinion: As much as possible, the read should be fun. Analytics, depending on the reader, tend to decrease the fun.
Qns that are general (e.g., Was the book exciting?) tend to not zero in on problem sequences. Qns that are narrow (e.g., Did you think the alligator wrestling scene was too gory?) take the focus off overall reader reaction. What to do? Consider some of the following:
(1) Get as many beta readers as possible.
(2) Use different Qn lists for different readers.
(3) Pose the most general Qns in writing in the reader package.
(4) Ask the more specific Qns orally (a) as you pick up the beta report or (b) in writing afterwards. [Option (a) is preferable, if convenient.]
(5) Minimize the number of Qns. For me, somewhere between six and twelve seems about right.
(6) Generally, saying what you want (e,g, “Let me know how you liked the characters.”) is broader and better than asking an actual Qn (e,g, “Who was your favorite character?)
Great information from the TKZ Words of Wisdom. And very timely — I’m preparing to send out the ms for my fourth novel to beta readers this week.
Do you use beta readers? Have you found them helpful? Yes, I’ve had between three and seven beta readers for each of my novels. They’ve been a mix of readers and writers.
If you use beta readers, do you provide them with questions to answer, or things to look for? I haven’t provided a list of questions before, but Jodie’s list convinced me I should do so this time.
Have you given feedback on other writers’ novels? How do you approach doing so? Yes, I’ve given feedback and try to be constructive and encouraging.