How to Get the Best out of Beta Readers

Welcome to the second post in a series on beta reading! I love beta reading, especially for science fiction or fantasy, and I believe the practice not only worthwhile but necessary. (If you would like to have me beta read for you, feel free to contact me using the form at the bottom of the page or through the comments.)

You may be gearing up to recruit beta readers – but what should you do when you have volunteers?  These tips are meant to get your noggin rolling and help you craft a good beta reading experience for your friends, family, and other volunteers.

Today’s Tip – Ask Good Questions

While I love beta reading and do detailed analyses for fun, most of your friends and family will be reading as a favor to you.  The easier you make their job, the more likely they will be to complete it.  Sometimes people will put in-line comments that are very helpful, but other times you’ll receive your lovingly crafted file back with one of a couple sentences at the end: “It was good” or “I wasn’t a fan,” some of which is determined by how much they like you as a person.

By placing questions at the end of the chapter, you do a couple things:

1) You direct your reader’s attention to items that you’re concerned over
2) You make it easy for your reader to interact with you by explicitly showing them what you want

Even if you get people like parents to beta read a book, offering questions to answer will help your readers return more useful information with less effort on both of your parts.

What Kind of Questions are GOOD Questions?

A good question is one that asks about specific information yet leaves enough open room for the reader to truly comment on your writing.

I recently had a fantastic beta reading experience, and I asked E. Kathryn, author of Fire’s Hope, if I could talk about it here. I thought her questions were posed very well. She left between five and eight questions at the end of every chapter, referencing events (primarily) in that chapter. If you join the bandwagon soon, you too can beta read for her.

Some examples of good questions inspired by my recent read:

Were the fighting descriptions easy to follow?

This type of question helps the reader consider writing style without seeming too ‘high school English class.’ Fight scenes, especially, have a tendency to focus on weapons, powers, and movement, which can get tedious or confusing to read. This type of question will ensure a scene is up to snuff.

One thing to keep in mind is that the more specific the scene you point out, the more likely the reader is to respond with information you need. Is there dialogue you’re concerned about? A transition of scenes? A sudden occurrence? Ask about those certain places you’re unsure about.  Feel free to point out specific paragraphs, especially if you’re able to put links in your document (as with MS Word).

Do you have predictions about what will happen next?

When your story is plot driven, it is especially important to make sure that the proper elements are set up to build plot twists and, eventually, the climax. E. Kathryn did a good job directing me to think about the trajectory for specific characters or items, and I replied to her with my predictions. If I replied with something completely out of left field, she now has the option to either scale back her surprise factor or ratchet it up.

You want to have a certain amount of your book predictable, but not too much. Keeping up with reader predictions will help you gauge the creativity of your story as well as how well you’ve built plot twists.

Do you think the main character’s angry attitude in the middle of the chapter undermines his role as a “savior” archetype?

This is an excellent question. It makes the reader think symbolically and simultaneously about character growth. I liked how it asked about an opinion on the main character and his ability to seem believable as he carried out the actions necessary to drive the story.

Character growth is essential for most stories, and there may be times where you feel your character’s actions are strained. Think about what you want from your character, and ask if that came across. If it didn’t, you may need to think more critically about who that character actually is or consider changing the scene to get what you wanted across.

What was your favorite/least favorite character/scene/setting element?

This is an easy question to ask, and anyone is capable of picking out a favorite (or defending their reason to avoid doing so). If your goal is to sell your book, you should hope that people do have favorites.

Least favorites, I find, serves more to allow the reader to vent; there’s always going to be something wrong with a story, and it’s often easier to find what’s wrong when you’re going in with a judgmental eye. It would be great if your readers take these questions seriously, because then you might get information about where potential buyers would stop reading prematurely.

How Often to Ask Questions

This is ultimately up to you, but at the end of chapters works well since a reader can answer during breaks. You can also have larger chunks of multiple chapters, perhaps in each of the pieces that you send, with a single set of questions.

One thing to be careful with in your questions is how much you want to spoil in the story. Make sure you read them over and consider if it’s going to give away romantic tension, plot twists, or other information that a reader without the questions wouldn’t have access to.

Good luck with your writing!

Want a good beta reader?

Not to brag, but I’m fairly good at beta reading. I’m confident with grammar, excellent at catching plot holes, and very experienced with science (for you science-fiction writers). Hit me up if you have something you’d like honest feedback on, especially if you have specific (and good) questions!





11 thoughts on “How to Get the Best out of Beta Readers

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