I’ve written a couple previous articles on beta reading — specifically on how to be a good beta reader yourself, and on figuring out what feedback is the most useful and relevant to you. Giving and taking feedback are both good and necessary skills to have. But once you’re ready to show off your story, how do you go about getting feedback from your beta readers in the first place?
To recap; unlike an editor, a beta reader does not give expertise. Beta reading helps the writer to understand what it’s like to casually read their story for the first time. In short, the beta reading process is about understanding what your book is like from an outside reading experience. Authors have all sorts of hidden biases when it comes to their own work, ranging from a blind confidence in their ever narrative choice, to a nagging defeatist feeling that their work isn’t “good enough” no matter what.
This is why it’s good to have another pair of eyes — or five, or fifteen, or as many as you need — to give it another look-over. So the question goes; how do you help your readers best show you that fresh perspective of theirs?
Well, as many writers will tell you, asking questions can be a good start.
Are the characters believable? Who is your favorite, and why? Did you ever become bored, or have difficulty focusing? Did anything confuse or frustrate you? Did you notice any inconsistencies? Is there too much or too little description? Does the dialogue feel natural? Is the ending satisfying?
But don’t think that copy-pasting generic reading comprehension questions is all you should do; just slapping down a ready-made questionnaire for your beta to fill out at the end of every chapter can also have downsides.
One problem with questions is that they can be poorly asked. You might lead a reader to consider things that had never crossed their mind in the first telling — and therefore are irrelevant to what they actually experienced while reading. Don’t ask if your readers hated Johnny, because that might lead them to a conclusion (“Johnny is supposed to be hated”) which they haven’t naturally arrived at through the text. Ask them instead what their impressions of Johnny are. Then you’ll know for sure if the story conveyed what it was supposed to.
Alternatively, you can give them too many questions, and overwhelm them before they can gather their thoughts. Getting stumped on a questionnaire at the end of every chapter you send them can make a beta read as if they’re studying for a the quiz at the end. This makes them less likely to naturally process and enjoy the experience, which won’t help you get helpful answers.
As such, if you want to give your betas questions, then I recommend asking a few emotionally open-ended questions (five or under). If you have a specific concern that you want to address — perhaps you’re uncertain about the pacing, or the dialogue — then you can alter your question selection for a given chapter.
I also recommend leaving an open “Do you have any other thoughts?” question at the end, in case they have feedback that doesn’t fit the other questions. Even if the reader doesn’t have any other thoughts, I’ve found that many readers enjoy leaving kind messages there.
Alternatively, if you’re iffy about a questionnaire, then another option is to leave open-ended categories for them to leave their thoughts on.
The simplest format for categories is “positive feedback” and “negative feedback”. Since that’s pretty vague, you can create more specific categories, such as “plot”, “characters”, “grammar”, and so on. Some writers make categories for elements specific to their story, such as for the main character, or a particular aspect of worldbuilding. Like questions, you can tailor the feedback categories you offer to specific chapters.
Be aware that making too many categories can cause some of the same problems as a questionnaire, in that it might be overwhelming. The other downside of open categories is that, lacking a specific prompt, some reader might have difficulty deciding what they should address when giving you your thoughts.
And if the reader has thoughts that don’t fit into any of the categories, then leaving an open “miscellaneous” category is in good form.
Finally, you can allow the reader to make commentary on the document itself as they read. That’ll save them time fishing around in the document again to try and remember all the thoughts they had when they were first reading it.
Allowing a reader to make direct commentary means that they can suggest more specific changes, for good and for ill. Sometimes, they’ll help you find and weed out your bad habits. Other times, they may suggest formatting changes that you’ll have to undo when you get around to copy editing and proofreading.
Like with open categories, some readers might struggle without a specific prompt to help nudge them toward reflection. Most writers combine it with one of the above methods in order to mitigate that.
No matter how you do it, you need to accept that not every beta is going to have in-depth thoughts about every question or category you throw at them. Some will simply enjoy the characters as they are and have little to say beyond that. And that’s not always a bad sign. For instance, if a typically critical reader remarks that they were too mesmerized to leave comments on a chapter, then you’ve probably engaged them.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you to figure out what method and beta readers bring you the kind of feedback you need most. Remember that your beta readers are looking over your story for free and (hopefully) for fun, and remember thank them for their help!
And that’s my beta reader advice for today. If you find this helpful, then you can support me as a creator by buying me a Ko-fi or purchasing Shadow Herald, my debut LGBTQ+ Dark Fantasy! Thank you, and have a lovely day.