Monday, April 25, 2011

Questions for Your Beta Readers

by Jodie Renner

Since I'm a freelance fiction editor and craft writer, most of my posts here will be advice, tips and resources for aspiring novelists, with an emphasis on thrillers, romantic suspense and mysteries.

So you've written your first draft? Congratulations! What's next? A future post of mine will go over the revision process, but for now, let's skip ahead to after you've revised your first draft once or twice. Don't shoot yourself in the foot by sending it off to an agent too soon, or self-publishing it yet. That's the biggest mistake of unsuccessful novelists - being in too much of a hurry to get their book out when it still needs significant revisions and final polishing. To start, get some input from volunteer readers familiar with your genre, then do some revisions based on the feedback, and finally, get a thorough copyedit, preferably by a professional freelance editor.

First, get some trusted colleagues or acquaintances to read your story through (or even the first few chapters) and tell you what they think of it so far. But don't ask your parent, child, sibling, bff or significant other to do this “beta” reading, as they probably won't want to tell you what they really think, for fear of jeopardizing your relationship. So how do you find your beta readers? Perhaps through a critique group, writing class, workshop, book club, or online networking such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc.
Be sure to choose your pre-readers from people who already read and enjoy your genre. In the case of a YA novel or children’s book, look around for be age-appropriate relatives, neighborhood kids, or the children of your friends – or perhaps you know a teacher or librarian who would be willing to read some or all of it aloud and collect feedback.
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. I recently polled some author clients and friends about this, and here are their lists of useful questions for your “beta” readers or critique group.
YA and children’s fiction author Michael Broadway (Cornell Deville) contributed these questions:
  • Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning?
  • Was there a point at which you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next?
  • Could you relate to the main character? Did you feel her/his pain or excitement?
  • Did the setting pull you in, and did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you?
Friend, co-blogger and suspense-mystery writer extraordinaire, LJ Sellers, suggested these questions:
  • Was the opening compelling? At what point did you first stop reading?
  • Did you relate to the character? Did you come to feel you knew the character?
  • Was there anything that confused or frustrated you?
  • Was the ending satisfying? Believable?
Here are some questions and thoughts contributed by my client, author Robert Beatty:
“When I ask someone for what I call “Story Reading,” I want the reader to give me his or her detailed impression and thoughts as he/she is reading the story. I want to know what he/she is thinking and feeling as he/she reads the story. I ask questions like this:
  • What scenes/paragraphs/lines did you really like?
  • What parts did you dislike or not like as much?
  • Where did you get bored?
  • What parts resonated with you and/or moved you emotionally?
  • What parts should be compressed?
  • What parts should be elaborated on?
  • What parts are confusing?
  • What characters do you connect to and like?
  • What characters need more development or focus?
Ideally, I want the reader to make many notes in the text as they are reading so that I can tell what they are thinking and feeling at each point. I literally want to be reading their mind. This allows me to know whether I’m connecting, communicating, and having the impact I intended. Some people are very good at giving me their thoughts and feelings as they go along. Besides asking “lay people” to read my stories critically, I also use freelance editors for the above kind of feedback, in addition to copyediting and/or proofreading.”
-          Robert Beatty, author of Sapo, Lioness, and Richard’s Laws of Motion.
To the above questions I would add:
  • Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when it’s taking place?
  • Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likeable?
  • Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, etc.?
  • 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 sound natural to you? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded artificial?
  • Did you feel there was too much description or exposition? Not enough? Maybe too much dialogue in parts?
  • Did you notice any obvious, repeating grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors?

What about you writers out there? Do you use beta readers? If so, how do you guide their reading? Do you have any questions or suggestions to add that have helped you focus their reading, so you can get a good handle on the strengths and weaknesses of your novel? We'd love to hear from you!

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER. Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. I rely on beta readers for feedback on all my novels, but I have to point out that beta readers sometimes have completely divergent opinions. The author has to have his/her own vision of the story and stick with it.

  2. Very good point, LJ! The old "too many cooks spoil the broth" principle. So true. Consider their input, but as the author, you always have the final word! That's how I feel when I'm editing for someone. I hope they'll seriously think about my comments and suggestions, but ultimately, as the author, it's their call.

    If three or four people say the same thing, like "the beginning didn't grab me," then it's time to really consider addressing that issue or perceived weakness.

  3. Great post, Jodie. I'll be using this to compile a list of my own. I'll be looking for beta readers in a month or two and it'll be good to be clear about expectations for all of us. Thanks!

  4. Thanks, Peg.

    Another approach, if you writers aren't ready to have people read your whole novel, and your volunteers are busy, is to just "set them up" with the basic premise, plot and main characters, then have them read specific sections that may be giving you trouble. Of course, they'll have to know the context to be of any help.

  5. Great post! A lot of the questions go along with the list I've been compiling, but there are others in there that are valuable as well. I'm going to be engaging a new beta reader when my story reaches its midpoint, so it's great to have the questions:)

  6. I submit my chapters as finished to my two crit partners. One is great about overall story. The other is a computer programmer by profession, and he will nit pick everything. I don't have to direct them in their reading, but they're not beta readers. They're quick to tell me what they like, don't like, and we can discuss possible solutions.

    Once in a while, I might wonder if a specific scene is working, and I will ask if they have problems with it. On the other hand, often I don't say anything at all until after I've read their comments, just to see if they noticed it.

    And, as LJ said -- ask 5 people to read a book and you'll get 5 different opinions. Finding your writing 'chops' is part of the learning curve.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  7. Great advice, Jodie. As an author who uses beta readers, I'm able to pull valuable information from this, which I can use in the future. Thanks for the post!

  8. Glad to hear my list of possible questions is helpful, Drew!

  9. I once asked Larry Millett, who wrote a series of recently reissued Sherlock Holmes books for his top tip. "Be careful whose opinion you seek," he said.

    You and LJ touched on this, Jodie. Choose your beta readers carefully. The best will give you honest feedback, won't worry about hurting your feelings, and have read widely in the genre. They're highly opinionated and back up their critique with specific examples. I also think it pays to use different beta readers for each book.

    This was a very useful post, Jodie. Many thanks.

  10. Excellent points, Judith. Thanks for enhancing the topic! As is often the case, the comments here are adding a lot of great tips to the post! There's no better advice than the wisdom based on personal experience and mistakes.

  11. Fantastic advice! I'm anxious to share this with my fellow authors now as we've just been discussing beta readers and what we can expect. Perfect timing! Great post. Thank you.

  12. I've actually thought of submitting my focus questions to our beta-readers, but I didn't. Should I have???

  13. Not knowing the context of your situation and your question, Elizabeth, I would still say, yes, give your beta readers a list of questions to help focus their reading. That will prevent useless comments like "I liked it."

  14. Great post. I never ask enough questions it would seem. Thanks for this, it will help a lot!

  15. Great post! Thanks!


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