*Note: This blog is for those using FREE beta readers, as in.. favors from friends or friends of friends. If you are paying beta readers, many of these points will not apply. But you’re not paying for beta readers, are you???
- That Which Should Not Be Named
The first time I asked a couple of people to beta read my book, I sensed their hesitation. I wasn’t sure if this was because they thought I was a terrible writer (because as a writer, I ponder this question Every. Single. Day.) Maybe they didn’t want to devote time to what could be an awful read. I knew they liked to read, after all. That’s why I chose them.
Then one friend said, “I don’t think I’m qualified to beta read.”
To which I replied, “I just need you to read it and give me feedback on things like plot and character and such.
“Oh!” she said. “I can do that!”
And I realized the problem. The term “beta reader” implies some prowess of critical reading that only a professional would have. But the fact is, beta reading is giving an overall impression of the work. Maybe just scrap the term unless your beta reader is in the writing world.
I told my friend. “Just imagine you’re one of those reviewers on Amazon.com who leave detailed and scrutinizing criticism of the books they’ve read. (And your feedback might save me a few scathing reviews someday)” Now, if I could just get my hands on a few of those Amazon reviewers! They would tell it like it is! Which leads me to my next point…
- Don’t Ask Your Mother
Mothers Make Better Fans Than Critics
Mothers Make Better Critics Than Fans
Either way, your mother (whether she be adoring or unpleasable) will never be your target audience because she changed your poopy diapers and listened to your lisp until you were 5. She is too close to you and your work. (Maybe she is even IN your work a little.)
There are exceptions of course. Isabel Allende has a closet full of correspondence with her mother over her writing. Boxes and boxes of pages marked in red pen. This makes me anxious and jealous at the same time.
But, as a general rule, your mother is too close. Just as your husband/wife/best friend/child are probably too close. And think about them here too. Just imagine the pressure if they have to tell you they don’t like your main character!
Choose outside your circle. Pick the reader because they are who would ultimately read your book. (More on this in a minute) And choose people who don’t feel they would damage a relationship by being completely honest with you. And if you choose your mother, have her be an add-on reader, not a beta reader.
- Who Would Read Your Book?
If your wife reads sci-fi books and you’ve just written a historical fiction novel, she might not give you feedback that will serve your story. The best advice I can give is to choose quality over quantity with regard to beta readers.
Having 3-5 people who read prolifically in your genre is far better than 15 people who normally wouldn’t read your book at all. The feedback you receive from this latter group will be contradictory, and confusing. Because they are not your audience!
- Good, Old-Fashioned Paper
Now, it will be tempting to NOT print your 350-page novel x 5 readers = a sh** ton of paper. “The waste!” you say. “I could send it as an email and they could read it from their phone/iPad/computer.” And you would be right… and wrong.
Yes, this writing gig has you going through lots of paper and lots of expensive printer ink. But these are virtually your only costs. So suck it up, buttercup. Print the novel, put it in a binder and deliver it, via mail or in person, to your reader. It’s just more professional.
I say this for two reasons…
For your reader. Paper is easier on the eyes, has space for notes and is easy to find your place. There is something more visceral and present about reading from paper and turning the page and turning it back a few pages if something doesn’t make sense.
For you. When someone reads a book electronically, it is more convenient, efficient. A few pages at the doctor’s office waiting room, a few in the car waiting for school to get out. But is that the kind of half-attentioned reader you want? Someone who can virtually hold a conversation simultaneous to reading your blood, sweat and tears?
You know what kind of response you’ll get from these readers?
“Um. It was pretty good. Yeah.”
You want specifics? Thoughtful criticism of your characters and feedback on your chapter transitions? You better have their full attention. And you might get notes too, which are great.
- Give Direction – As In, A Questionnaire
Beta reading is a sweet spot of criticism. Your work is not half-baked anymore but it’s not ready to publish either. (Or maybe it is. Maybe you’re uber gifted, in which case beta readers are a waste of your time.)
This stage of criticism requires that your reader not scrutinize the work too closely, or read it too glibly. Their job is to read the whole story and tell you if they liked it, what they didn’t like, what annoyed them or slowed them down. But your reader doesn’t know that this is their job… unless you tell them.
Here is a checklist I use. This list is part my own creation and part cannibalized from lists I’ve found on the Internet. I tailor it each time I use it and you will want to use a tailored list for your readers. You wrote a book, you can write a beta reading questionnaire specific to your work.
You’re welcome to cannibalize this list, btw.
————– Beta Reading Checklist ——————
Is the plot believable/realistic?
Did the plot drag anywhere?
Did you find yourself slogging through a certain spot to get to the next part?
How did you feel about the pace from the beginning to the climax?
How did you feel about the pace from the climax to the ending?
Is there any over-telling/over-explaining in the story?
Does one scene lead logically into the next?
Do the scenes flow smoothly from one action to the next, or did they jump as though something was skipped?
Is there enough downtime between intense scenes to allow it to build to the next?
Are the characters likable/unlikable depending on their role in the story?
Is there any character who you feel is not very dimensional or cliché?
Was there any confusion about the characters? Who was who?
Did you feel that each characters voice felt authentic?
Could you identify with the characters’ relationships?
Who did you like best and why?
Who did you hate and why?
Who got on your nerves and why?
Do any of the characters get in the way of the story?
Did the dialogue flow?
Was the dialogue hard to understand? If so, where?
Did you understand the language/slang/phrases or terms used?
Could you see the setting in the book clearly?
Did the setting ever get in the way of the story or slow it down?
Hope this helps. If you have any tips to add, I’d love to hear them. 🙂