Lighting the Path: Getting the Best from Your Beta Readers
February 10, 2022 § 38 Comments
By Heidi Croot
They’ll respond with a quick “yes” because they’ll want to please you.
Then the inevitable panic will bloom in their eyes. A vigorous throat clearing across the phone line. A dust-up of confusion in their email.
“Um, what is a beta reader supposed to do exactly?”
Of the eighteen people I asked to test-read my memoir manuscript—fellow writers, psychotherapists, friends, and family members (including my aunts and uncle who appear frequently in its pages…read about that here)—only three knew from experience what they were saying yes to.
The rest needed help. And I was eager to provide it, knowing the more they gained clarity and confidence, the more I stood to reap constructive insights.
Hence the “Beta Reader Guidelines,” a one-pager I developed to guide willing but inexperienced people in what to notice and mention as they turn my pages.
Below, my template, which I offer to Brevity Blog readers and fellow striving writers to adapt and use as you see fit, with my heartfelt good wishes for the success of your writing project.
Heidi Croot lives in Northumberland County, Ontario, Canada, and is working on a memoir. Her corporate writing has appeared in numerous trade publications, and her creative work in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Brevity blog, Linea magazine, Writescape, the WCDR anthology Renaissance, and elsewhere. You can reach Heidi at twitter.com/heidicroot.
What is the Role of a Beta Reader?
Thank you for helping me work out the kinks and make the book better!
First thing to know…
This page is meant to offer a menu of suggestions, in the event you’ve never been a beta reader before and are unsure how to proceed. Pick and choose what resonates or go entirely your own way.
Second thing to know: please respond by…
…a month after receipt. If this is not possible, please let me know quickly so I can find a replacement.
The best way you can help…
- Be a finder, not a fixer. The beta reader’s job is to highlight problem areas (nothing is sacred); the writer’s job is to fix them (but by all means, share ideas if they occur).
- Be honest and straightforward. A useful technique is to offer feedback in the form of questions.
- Pay attention to your body as you read: it will signal enjoyment or frustration.
- Choose how to send me your feedback: You can a) mark up pages in the manuscript; b) use an online revision tool; c) write a note with your comments and page numbers; or d) call or zoom.
As you read, please mark where…
- you have to read something twice to get it
- the dialogue doesn’t sound natural
- the facts are wrong (e.g. dates, timelines, behaviour theory)
- something is repeated, redundant, contradictory, sloppy
- you notice continuity problems (e.g. inconsistencies in how people, places, beliefs are described)
As you read, please mark where…
- your attention stalls, you’re bored, you’re skimming pages (because it’s saggy and dull; you’re asking why is this section even in here; you’ve lost that “what’s going to happen next” feeling)
- you’re especially engaged by a sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter: it stands out, you laughed or cried
- you feel a spike of annoyance, such as when something…
- is hinted at, or dangled, but you’re made to wait too long
- doesn’t seem to fit with what has gone before; e.g. is out of character
- is misleading
- lacks fair-mindedness; e.g. is unnecessarily judgmental
Your thoughts about the narrator
- What is her prime goal? Do you have a good sense of what she wants and fears early enough in the book?
- Why do you trust or distrust the narrator?
- What makes you like or dislike the narrator?
- Over the course of the book, how does she change, how does she grow, what does she learn?
- Is her “voice” (tone, style, use of language, personality) consistent throughout?
- What is your big-picture impression of the book?
- Did the first chapter “hook” you; i.e. make you want to keep reading?
- Did the last chapter satisfy you?
- Did the book show you something new, did you have an “aha” moment, do you think about certain things in a different way?
- Does this book remind you of anything else you’ve read?
- Would you recommend the book to a friend (i.e. someone who enjoys memoir)?
I appreciate your time and look forward to your feedback!