How to Get the Best Beta Reader Feedback

How to Get the Best Beta Reader Feedback

You finally finished your novel. You squeezed the words out of your brain and onto the page even when they didn’t want to go. You went back over each chapter five times, killing your darlings and polishing your prose. Now what?

It’s time to share your work with someone. You need a fresh set of eyes to tell you if you’re headed in the right direction. You know the work too well to identify the problem spots otherwise. You’re ready for beta readers; the mythical creatures who improve your manuscript ten fold.

If you’re like me, your plan probably includes sitting back after you send out your manuscript and biting your nails until that first dread response comes in. If you do that, you’re likely to find yourself scratching your head when it comes time to make the next editing pass. A good beta reader’s feedback is worth their weight in gold but, to get the best results, you need to tell your beta readers what you’re looking for.

What kind of feedback are you looking for?
Does the plot flow? Is it paced properly? Do the characters sing or do they fall flat? And where have I left giant gaping holes in my plot? Most of what you want to know can be easily categorized:

All those typos that have bred in your manuscript despite your best efforts? Your beta readers aren’t going to have any trouble finding them. If you’ve used the wrong word or mixed up a meaning, you can bet you’re going to be informed, even if you don’t want to rely on your beta readers to catch this kind of stuff.

But there are a ton of other mistakes you probably haven’t anticipated that your beta readers are going locate. Maybe one of your characters has a surprise hair color change halfway through the book. Maybe you accidentally gave two minor characters the same name. Maybe you fiddled with the movement of time and contradicted yourself on which direction time actually flowed. (If you haven’t guessed, these are all things I’ve done.) You definitely don’t want these little details to slip through the cracks.

Plot Holes
Every writer’s arch nemesis (aside from the aforementioned typos). Did I give the reader all the information they need to understand what’s happening? Have I sprinkled in enough foreshadowing that nothing comes out of the blue? Or is the major twist in my story blindingly obvious? How solid is my world building? If there’s something you’ve failed to explain, your betas are sure to seek more information. My beta readers are particularly good at noting things I’ve overlooked. I once gave my characters the ability to teleport, then put them in a situation easily solved by teleportation – except they didn’t use it. Of course, after my betas pointed this out, I made certain to clarify why teleportation didn’t work in that situation.

Ironically, I find my beta readers aren’t concerned about the same things I am. I once got an enormous amount of feedback about a character’s name when I was far more concerned with the circumstances of her conception. It never would have occurred to me to worry about her name – until my beta readers pointed out the connotations.

Character Development
I believe that plot comes from characters, not the other way around. You want to have well-developed characters, but you don’t want to include huge backstory info-dumps that bore the reader and sidetrack the story. I tend to err on the conservative side with my early drafts, which means that my betas almost always ask for more. But it’s good to find out what your beta readers think of your characters because it will help you tweak the story. If your beta readers are attaching to the characters you want them to, you know you’ve developed them well. But if they find a character boring or flat, you know you need to give them more development. Feedback from my most recent work in progress indicated that I made one of my main characters a little too much of a knight in shining armor, so I was careful to give him some flaws in the next draft. Other characters were falling prematurely out of the action, so I made sure to make them more prominent.

Awkward Passages
Surprisingly, this is the hardest feedback to get. Everyone can be guided to give you detailed feedback about the story and characters, provided you ask the right questions, but not every reader cares to comb the manuscript deeply enough to point out where you’ve written something poorly. I find I get the best feedback in this area from other writers – and English teachers! Awkward passages don’t always fall into the mistakes category – they can be perfectly sound sentences grammatically but read as off, and if someone is reading largely for plot and story, they might not think to make note of an awkward passage later. You don’t want a sentence to trip a reader enough that they have to go back and repeat it, because that takes their attention away from the story, but it’s almost impossible to catch all of these on your own.

How do you get them to tell you?
When it comes to mistakes or confusion, you don’t have to give your beta readers any special prompting. If they see a typo or an obvious error, they’re going to let you know. Though it is a good idea to thank them so they know you appreciate the feedback. And I can’t help cracking jokes about the silliest ones – like the time I wrote she read right into the wall.

To get targeted feedback, I’ve started sending a questionnaire with my manuscript. I will note how far people should read before taking a look at the questions, then put a page break so that there are no accidental spoilers. I usually have questions for several key points in the novel so that they can answer the questions as they go (though many wait until the end to fill it out).

If there’s a character or event you’re worried about, be sure to ask your betas about it. I will usually ask how they felt about the event and if it bothered them or took them out of the story. For general plot and development checks, I include questions like, what character did you find most interesting? I also usually ask what character did you find least interesting? The answer to the first question will inevitably be the character the reader liked best; but the answer to the second should not be the character they liked least. Disliking a character usually means they’re actually well written (or a reader wouldn’t care). Asking about interest rather than affection has allowed me to identify characters slipping through the cracks and tweak them to fit their designated roles better.

To check consistency, it helps to ask if a character has acted in a way that doesn’t suit their personality. You don’t want your characters acting oddly just to advance the plot. It’s also helpful to repeat the same question at different points in the story; the character my betas found most interesting might change by the time they reach the end of the book. Perhaps that uninteresting character came back into focus or perhaps something that happened along the way changed their opinion. It’s good to know these things because if the reader’s reactions are inconsistent with your intentions, you know you have more work to do.

As for getting notes in the manuscript itself, the best solution is to show your betas what you’re looking for. Whenever one of mine expresses an interest in marking the manuscript, I’ll show them screenshots of notes I have made while beta reading for other writers. Sometimes a simple highlight with the comment awkward is all you need to smooth the bumps. I’ve found that people are hesitant to indicate an issue if they don’t know how to solve it, so I try to make it clear that the solution is my problem anyway.

If you don’t want to use a questionnaire, or if it didn’t give you quite enough information, you can also arrange a face to face meeting with your betas after they’ve finished to discuss their thoughts and feelings. Meet for coffee or, if you live far away, arrange for a skype session and let your beta talk about their experience. I like to have some questions with me just to make sure I cover everything. And of course, their answers to your questions might lead to more questions!

Here are some examples of questions I include with my manuscripts:

  • At what point did you feel like the story had really begun?
  • The first time you opened the file, where did you stop reading?
  • Were there places you found yourself skipping ahead or skimming?
  • Is there a particular scene or setting which stuck with you the most?
  • What character did you find most interesting?
  • What character did you find least interesting?
  • What has been your favorite moment so far? (or at the end, their favorite moment from the whole book)
  • Have you encountered anything that parallels an experience or observation in your life?
  • What makes you keep reading?
  • Was there any point where you felt a character acted in a way that didn’t make sense for them?
  • How did you feel about X event?
  • What are your thoughts on the ending?

How do you get your beta readers to hone in on the feedback you’re looking for? What kind of questions do you ask?

One Reply to “How to Get the Best Beta Reader Feedback”

  1. Great tips. I also give my beta readers a questionnaire. I write kids books, so having the questions helps the kids give feedback. I also aim to keep the questionnaire to a single page otherwise it’s overwhelming for the kids.

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