I’m fairly new to the “beta reader” game, and I am loving it so far! It’s been a great experiment. One of the main things I’ve learned is that it’s up to the author to direct the feedback. If you just say, tell me what you think, you are unlikely to get a response that meets your needs.
As with sex and money, you gotta ask for what you want out of a critique.
Which brings me to the most important question to ask of a beta reader. Before you can dig in to any critique or workshop any part of the story, the writer and beta reader need to agree on who’s there and what’s happening. So it’s important to direct your beta reader, Summarise the characters and plot for me, please.
In my creative writing classes, we’ve had many conversations in which we spend a bunch of time arguing over what is even happening. And because the writer was banned from speaking, they couldn’t clarify. You realise pretty quickly how important it is to ensure that everyone can agree on basic plot points. If I think the dad poisoned the uncle, and that’s why he went upstairs to rest, my critique is going to be different from the person who thinks that the uncle’s high blood pressure has lead to a heart attack. And those critiques will both be different from one who didn’t even notice that the uncle went upstairs. Literally just asking people to summarise what they read will reveal your weak spots.
If you ask for a description of the main characters from your reader, you will get a rich critique of where your writing has been successful, and where it has failed.
If I think a character is feeling guilty because of their mother’s death when they were a child, and my reader tells me that they think my MC is impatient for their food to come, that tells me that I probably need to bump up the character’s interiority. I need to texture out their mental landscape so that the reader is picking up on the details of my character’s soul.
DO NOT leave it up to your reader to choose what to tell you. That’s like being handed a cheque for a million dollars, and using it for toilet paper. Having someone to read through your story is such a gift, and they will only see it for the first time once. And don’t worry; your reader will still tell you what they’re thinking. We writers are a pig-headed bunch; we will say what we want to say, no matter what.
(Technically, some of this falls under the category of “alpha readers” rather than “beta readers,” but I say a reader is a reader, and we’re not gonna try to name a gift horse in the mouth.)
If your reader’s summary is super-different from what you thought you were writing (and especially if you get the same response from many readers), go back and try again. You may also want to ask one or two readers about what could be changed to make it read more like you want it to. But that work will mostly be yours. Once you have adjusted it, show it to your readers again and ask for a second summary. Ask, Did your perception of characters or events change from your first reading?
As tempting as it may be, don’t try to justify the critique or wave it away. Don’t try to tell yourself, my character hides their pain well. Treat your beta readership as the gift that it is, and resist the urge to justify your choices.
As you fine-tune your piece, you can ask for more directed feedback such as, Is this scene hitting the emotional beats? Is tension increasing? Do the characters’ choices make sense for their personalities? And all that other good stuff. As your reader gets more familiar with your style and your work, you’ll be able to do a super-deep dive.
Don’t worry; that will all come in time. But first, figure out what the heck’s happening.
Featured image was created by the author using canva.com.