Last year, I searched for and read lots of blog posts about beta readers. I took their advice to heart and read some more. I understood how important beta readers are to a writer. I discovered the kinds of feedback I should seek from beta readers. Then I asked some close friends to beta read my manuscript.
Not all of them were fans of my genre, but I only needed high-level, big-picture comments, I thought, so that didn’t matter. Not all of them were writers, but that didn’t matter either, I thought, because I wanted feedback from a reader’s perspective. They would understand that the manuscript I gave them was an early draft, and they wouldn’t get sidetracked with editing issues, I thought. They each eagerly accepted the challenge and promised to read right away and give me the feedback I craved.
At that point, I realized that waiting for comments on a manuscript can be maddening and having multiple works in progress is a very good thing. But I didn’t have another work in progress, so I waited as patiently as I could. When I socialized with those friends, I promised myself that I wouldn’t nag anyone. I consistently broke that promise, asking how much they had read so far, what their first impressions were, if they noticed any “problems.”
After that scenario repeated a few times, aware that I was being annoying and tired of getting vague answers to my vague, open-ended questions, I did more online research. I tried to nail down how to phrase questions that would get me the answers I needed, so I paid greater attention to the lists of beta reader questions other writers had developed. Ah-ha! I decided to create my own comprehensive list of questions, and use it to quiz my beta readers.
The three and a half page questionnaire I developed was a work of art! (Beta Reader Feedback) My seventy-eight questions fell into eleven categories: General, Opening, Conflict, Plot, Setting, Characterization, Dialogue, Point of View, Show vs. Tell, Grammar/Spelling/Format, and Style. While most were simply yes or no, there were a few requests for some simple elaboration, plus an opportunity to craft an essay-style response to “Please share other thoughts, comments, and criticisms.”
You know who your friends are by how they respond when you not only ask them to beta read an early draft, but then annoy them with frequent questions, and finally present them with what amounts to a final exam in My Manuscript 101. I learned that I have some truly FANTASTIC friends! I also learned that my three and a half pages of seventy-eight questions are a pretty darn good checklist for a writer during the creative process. Reminders to keep the dialogue fresh, avoid melodrama, and be aware of pacing and conflict are a good thing whether you are working on a first draft or a fifth one.
So, choose your beta readers carefully, and give them time to enjoy your manuscript. Choose some who are not close friends, for they are inclined to be more honest sooner rather than later. They may not be familiar with terms like “head-hopping,” or “deep first-person POV,” or “dialogue tags,” but know how to ask specific questions and don’t settle for a vague “I liked it!” Make sure they know you need to hear what didn’t work as well as what did. Most of all, don’t make them take a test after they’ve done you a favor. Choose a handful of specific questions to ask each beta reader that you can build on and will allow you to have a productive conversation. But only ask them after they have finished the entire manuscript.