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!
This is great, thank you so much for sharing!
Excellent “checklist” tool for writers as well as readers. Thank you!
You’re so welcome!
This is awesome! Thank you so much! You know your stuff!
Right on target. This offers an excellent roadmap for both write and beta reader. Note that the writer is not required to “correct” every issue, but only those that are actual errors or issues the writer immediately, or with some pain and reluctance, recognizes as valid and useful.
[I would also note that you do a disservice to any reader if you completely ignore undeniable errors—not opinion but actual typos and mistakes such as poor grammar, inconsistency, etc. I loved working with a writing partner a few years ago, but she would hand me new drafts that still contained problems I had already marked—sometimes the same exact errors of grammar. She also handed off her ms to beta readers without making those corrections. I wondered why I was reading.]
Good points. And I’ve encountered that phenomenon of uncorrected problems, too–so puzzling.
Thank you for sharing this, Heidi! Very helpful.
Glad it will be pressed into action!
Great template. Brilliant idea. Loved this!
This is a wonderful set of guidelines. Thank you.
My pleasure. You’re all my tribe.
Thanks so much for this! Very helpful!
Glad you can use it!
Great article! I have eight beta readers, and late last year, I treated them to a sit down, five-course meal, open bar, Champagne, after-dinner drinks, and delicious wines paired with each course. I gave them beautiful personalized gifts, told personal stories about each of them, and I shared something about my relationship/friendship with each. They got to do the same. We had contest for favorite/worst line, scene, dialogue, etc. We had a ball. I appreciate them, and their hard work. All are on board for this year’s final round of edits and revisions. I am blessed to have them!!
And they are blessed to have you! Wow, Melody, what an extraordinary process–you’ve sure set the bar.
Thank you, Heidi! While we can’t pay our beta readers as we would like, just letting them know how much they mean to us is good. Even a random note makes a beta reader feel appreciated.
What a great idea! So generous and appropriate. Sounds like a grand time.
This is very useful, thank you for sharing!! I hope you receive wonderful, productive feedback from your beta readers.
Thanks Julie. Hope it does good things for you.
Thank you for so generously sharing this useful set of guidelines.
I just want it to go out in the world and work hard for writers.
Thank you for this article!
You’re so welcome.
What an excellent guide for those who don’t have a good idea of what you’re asking them for. First time I’ve seen something like this. Very valuable. Thank you.
Thanks Judy. Hope you’ll find it useful!
I’ll be using your piece as a craft link in my memoir class at Creative Nonfiction! Thank you
Well that’s thrilling. My best to you and your students!
This is better than the NY Book Editors beta readers guideline questions. It’s a great article, which I’ve linked here, but I like your questions better because they are especially suited to memoir whereas theirs wasn’t. Thanks for sharing this with all of us. I’m going to use it! Here’s that link: https://nybookeditors.com/2017/10/what-you-need-to-know-about-working-with-beta-readers/
Thanks a million, Polly! And for the link, too. I’m thrilled that you’re planning to use it.
This is excellent. I hope you don’t mind, but I copied it to a Word document to use with my beta readers. I have one suggestion if you deem it helpful. Under “The best way you can help,” I’m adding this note:
On a Word/LibreOffice file: If you put the cursor on a part you wish to comment on and then click ctrl>alt>c you’ll be able to leave comments in the margins.
(I didn’t know this until a beta reader told me how they did it. And I work with LibreOffice instead of Word, although it seems not many people do.)
I did not know that! Thanks, Rick.
[…] a list of beta readers—people you trust whom you can swap whole-manuscript critiques with. Be generous with your own […]
Thanks for the link, Shirin Yim Leos!
Best definition of the role of a beta reader I have seen. I will be forwarding to anyone who will be beta reading for me
It makes me happy to know it will be hard at work in the world! Thanks, Joe.