Beta Readers

My editing is nearly complete and I have engaged my trusted beta readers.

Working with beta readers is one of the best things a writer can do to improve their manuscript. The opportunity to find out what readers think of your book before you send it out into the world is extremely valuable.

Beta readers are often friends or colleagues and they won’t want to hurt your feelings. If you just ask them what they thought they’re likely to say, ‘Yes, I liked it. It’s good.’ Nice as this is, it tells you nothing. Of course, we’d love our first readers to think this, but it’s a non-specific comment and not particularly constructive. Reassure your beta readers that your manuscript is a work in progress (even if you believe it to be finished) and tell them that you want to find ways to improve it.

In non Covid times you could perhaps organise the collating of feedback as if it’s a book club. Ask beta readers to read your book (give them questions to consider) then invite them for tea and cake. Listen and take notes. In group situations your readers will bounce off each other. During Covid it may be possible to arrange this as a Zoom meeting.

You need to provide instructions or guidelines for the kind of feedback you’re looking for. This is the most important part of the process and helps to ensure that you get detailed and useful feedback.

Be specific. Is it just proofreading or do you want more in depth thoughts? Your guidelines should outline specific aspects of your manuscript you want beta readers to focus on. This might include things like characters, plot, pace, setting, resolution. If you’re unsure about a section of your book, tell your beta readers your dilemma and seek their opinion. Alternatively, you may prefer to make your own notes. If your beta readers don’t mention these issues in their own feedback you can bring them up yourself.

Be sure to mention that any and all other feedback is welcome. You don’t want beta readers holding back from mentioning something because it isn’t on your list.

Questions to ask Beta Readers:

  • Do you like the main characters and why?
  • Do any of the characters feel cliched or stereotypical?
  • Does the dialogue sound natural and realistic?
  • Is it clear who is talking?
  • Does character development (character arc) feel natural?
  • Are there any out-of-character moments?
  • Is the world described detailed and authentic? Can you see it?
  • Can you see the action clearly while reading?
  • Can you see the characters clearly enough to describe them?
  • Does each scene flow naturally into the next?
  • Did you feel there were any areas that skipped over information?
  • Did you come across any scenes or sections that were superfluous?
  • Do any parts of the story drag?
  • Are there any exposition dumps (places where I over-inform the reader) that you struggled to get through?
  • Were there any points where you got confused? (plot holes or inconsistencies) Can you pinpoint where?
  • Did any parts make you feel emotional? Did they make you laugh or cry?
  • At what points did you get bored?
  • What did you expect would happen at the end? Were you happy or unhappy with the resolution?

Advice for Beta Readers:

Be honest. We all want to encourage our friends but: if you had to force yourself to finish the book; if the dialogue made you cringe; if you had to reread sentences or paragraphs because they didn’t make sense; then say so.

Be specific. Try not to include too many vague statements like, ‘I enjoyed this part’ or ‘this section didn’t really work for me’. Explain why you feel something is or isn’t working. If possible, provide suggestions for improvement.

If you have time, read the manuscript through twice. Two passes allows you to read once as a reader and the second time with a more critical eye.

Make notes as you go, on what you’ve noticed and where it occurs. This will save you time when you write your report.

Remember that you’re beta reading, not editing. Don’t worry about pointing out every typo or misplaced semi colon. Focus on the big picture.

If you do notice recurring grammar or punctuation issues, make a general note so the author is aware of them during their next self-edit.

Don’t give false praise. This can be hard, especially if you’re friends with the author, but praise which isn’t genuine won’t do them any favours. Honesty is the best policy.

Some examples of useful feedback from beta readers:

  • I like your main character, but I found his stupidity irritating. How did he not see he was being used? I felt it a bit unrealistic.
  • You change POVs a lot, jumping from one character to the next. It was hard to keep up with who was thinking what.
  • All three of your main characters have names that start with B. I found that a bit confusing.
  • You introduce 10 characters in the first three pages without any distinguishing characteristics to separate them. I need fewer names and more descriptions so I don’t get confused.
  • In the first chapter, you said the main character’s last name was Smythe, but later you say it’s Smith. You might want to do a search and replace to make them all the same.

Also give positive specific feedback. Writers love to know when something works.

  • I love your description of the mountains. I felt like I could actually see it in my mind.
  • I thought your dialogue was excellent; it sounded completely realistic.
  • The twists and turns of the story kept me guessing and the ending was a complete surprise. I never saw that coming.

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