Monday, June 16, 2014

15 questions for your beta readers – and to focus your own revisions


by Jodie Renner, editor & author; @JodieRennerEd

So you’ve completed the first draft of your novel? Congratulations! Now it's time to start the all-important revision process. Be sure not to shoot yourself in the foot by sending it off or self-publishing it too soon. That’s the biggest mistake of unsuccessful novelists – being in too much of a hurry to get their book out, when it still needs (major or minor) revisions and final polishing.

To start, put it aside for a week or more, then change the font and print it up and read it in a different location, where you don't write. Or, to save paper, put it on your tablet and take it outside to a park or a (different) coffee shop to read. That way, you can approach it with fresh eyes and a bit of distance, as a reader, rather than in too close as the writer. Using the questions below to guide you, go through the whole manuscript for big-picture issues: logistics, characterization, plot, writing style, flow. Try to put some tension on every page, even if it's just minor internal disagreement. Remember that conflict and tension are what drive fiction forward. As you read, correct minor errors and typos that jump out at you and make notes in the margins and on the backs of the pages. Then go back to the computer and type in your changes.

Now it's time to seek out 3-6 avid readers to give you some feedback. It's best not to ask your parent, child, significant other, sibling, or bff to do this “beta” reading, as they probably won’t want to tell you what they really think, for fear of jeopardizing your relationship. Or they may be so critical it actually will hurt your relationship! Your volunteer readers don’t need to be writers, but they should be smart, discerning readers who enjoy and read your genre, and are willing to give you honest feedback. 

So how do you find your beta readers? Perhaps through a critique group, writing class, workshop, book club, writers’ organization, or online networking such as Facebook, Twitter, or Google+. In the case of a YA novel or children’s book, look around for be age-appropriate relatives, neighborhood kids, or the children of your friends – or perhaps you know a teacher or librarian who would be willing to read some or all of it aloud to students and collect feedback.

To avoid generic (and generally useless) responses like “I liked it,” “It was good,” or “It was okay,” it’s best to guide your readers with specific questions. Here’s a list to choose from, based on suggestions from novelists I know. If you're hesitant to ask your volunteers so many questions, you could perhaps have them choose the ones that seem most relevant to your story and writing style. And of course, if you first use these questions as a guideline during your revisions, the responses from your beta readers should be much more positive, or of a nature to take your story and your skills up a level or two.

1. Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?

2. Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when it’s taking place? If not, why not?

3. Could you relate to the main character? Did you feel her/his pain or excitement?

4. Did the setting interest you, and did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you?

5. Was there a point at which you felt the story started to lag or you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next? Where, exactly?

6. Were there any parts that confused you? Or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts, and why?

7. Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details? 

8. Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likeable?

9. Did you get confused about who’s who in the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Are any of the names or characters too similar?

10. Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded artificial or not like that person would speak?

11. Did you feel there was too much description or exposition? Not enough? Maybe too much dialogue in parts?

12. Was there enough conflict, tension, and intrigue to keep your interest?

13. Was the ending satisfying? Believable?

14. Did you notice any obvious, repeating grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? Examples?

15. Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not?

And if you have eager readers or other writers in your genre who are willing to go the extra mile for you, you could add some of the more specific questions below. These are also good for critiquing a short story.

- Which scenes/paragraphs/lines did you really like?

- Which parts did you dislike or not like as much, and why?

- Are there parts where you wanted to skip ahead or put the book down?

- Which parts resonated with you and/or moved you emotionally?

- Which parts should be condensed or even deleted?

- Which parts should be elaborated on or brought more to life?

- Are there any confusing parts? What confused you?

- Which characters did you really connect to?

- Which characters need more development or focus?

Once you've received feedback from all your beta readers, it's time to consider their comments carefully. Ignore any you really don’t agree with, but if two or more people say the same thing, be sure to seriously consider that comment or suggestion. Now go through and revise your story, based on the comments you felt were insightful and helpful.

What about you writers out there? Do you use beta readers? If so, how do you guide their reading? Do you have any questions or suggestions to add that have helped you focus their reading, so you can get a good handle on the strengths and weaknesses of your novel? And beta readers – do you have any questions you’d like authors to ask? I’d love to hear from all of you!

Also, see my post, “12 Essential Steps from Idea to Published Novel” here on TKZ.

And for a lengthy list of WRITERS' CONFERENCES & BOOK FESTIVALS in North America in 2014 & 2015, with links, click HERE.




Besides publishing numerous blog posts, her popular Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller and her handy, clickable e-resources, Quick Clicks: Word Usage and Quick Clicks: Spelling List, Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor. Find Jodie on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for her occasional newsletter here. Author website: JodieRenner.com.

 

26 comments:

  1. Jodie, thanks for a very helpful post.

    What are the going rates for various levels of editing - developmental, line editing, etc?

    Where are the best sources to find those edits?

    And, are you taking any new edits yet?

    Thanks again. Extremely helpful!

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    1. Steve, rates for editing vary hugely depending on how much work the manuscript needs to bring it up to industry standards.

      Here's a great resource list, which includes editors:
      Elizabeth Craig’s e-book services directory: http://mysterywritingismurder.blogspot.ca/p/ebook-services-directory.html

      I'm not taking on any new editing projects for a while as I'm booked up and am also trying to get my third book out soon! But I will accept some request for an edit and critique of the first 10, 20, or 30 pages

      Glad you find my list of questions helpful!

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  2. Jodie,
    As usual your Monday morning post is full of great new suggestions. Do you keep a posting of all your Kill Zone articles? So your readers can read what your thoughts are there blogs you regularly post? Where are you going to post "The Twelve Essential Steps From Idea to Published Novel."?
    I really like your new photograph.

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  3. Thanks for your kind words, John. I really should keep a listing of all my posts here at The Kill Zone. I think I'll do that over at my own neglected blog, Resources for Writers, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.ca/. Will try to get that up today.

    Since Crime Fiction Collective quietly folded after 3 years of great posts, this is the only blog I post on regularly, every second Monday. I also guest post from time to time on various other blogs, and really must try to post more often on my own blog!

    "The 12 Essential Steps from Idea to Published Novel" is ready to go and will be my next blog post here. But bestselling author Robert Dugoni is guest-posting for me here again in 2 weeks, so it will be in my next slot after that.

    Thanks again for your encouragement, John! :-)

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  4. Betas are such a vital part of the process! I use different beta readers for different series. We usually discuss ahead of time what I'm looking for in terms of feedback.

    I do love your tip to do your first pass edit in a room other than where you write.

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    1. Thanks, Diane. I find it helpful to take my manuscript to a whole different location, if possible. Perhaps a coffee shop or a park or somewhere else you'd be comfortable but would feel more like a reader than the writer.

      I took one of mine on vacation and found all kinds of areas that could be improved, just because of the distance and change in perspective!

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  5. These are excellent questions. So far the only beta reader I've used is my cousin, because she was my guide in Arizona and that's where my latest story takes place. I needed her to verify all the locations. Plus she's an avid reader and was able to give me many good comments.

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  6. Excellent post as always. Good beta readers are invaluable. The tough part, in my experience, is finding them.
    I met one beta reader via TKZ and another via a free international writing group (Critique Circle). In both cases, I queried the individual directly if they wanted to exchange beta feedback (both being aspiring writers).
    I live in the Minneapolis area near the Loft Literary Center. Through participation in Loft classes/conferences, I met some very good beta readers and a published author who provided excellent feedback.
    Perhaps others might have luck with similar beta reader finding efforts. Any other suggestions out there? I’m always looking. One can't have too many beta readers imo.
    I agree with finding folks that appreciate/read the genre you are writing. "Who are your favorite authors?" is an easy question to learn if you have similar reading interest/taste.
    A beta feedback question in addition to the one’s you have listed (actually just a variation onyour #1): If you read the beginning of this book without beta or other commitment, would you be drawn to continue reading? This is a take-off from TKZ “First Page” exercises.
    Self-promo alert! The first page of “Nerve Damage” my debut medical thriller was critiqued by the erudite John Ramsey Miller on TKZ years ago (he was kind and encouraging). Today the book is available in print via Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Nerve-Damage-Tom-Combs/dp/099033600X EBook should be available later today.
    I’ve followed TKZ daily for several years. I very much appreciate the warmth and supportive ethic of TKZ. I apologize for stealing this space. Thanks to all

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  7. No apology necessary, Tom! We at TKZ appreciate your ongoing insightful comments and observations, which have enriched the blog for years.

    And as your editor for Nerve Damage, I'm so excited to see this excellent thriller finally out in print! (And very soon in ebook form.)

    Finally, thanks for the additional question - it's a good one! :-)

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  8. This is a very good post, particularly the questions to ask beta readers. I have one comment, though. The feedback might be much more enlightening if you used open instead of closed questions. For example:
    How did the story hold your interest from the beginning?
    When did you have a notation about where the story was taking place.

    Going down your list, all the questions could be reworded to open questions to give much more meaningful feedback.

    Thank you for a great post, as always.

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    1. Thanks for your suggestion, Joan. But I actually think you'll get more honest answers if you ask "Did the story hold your interest from the beginning?" rather than "How did the story hold your interest from the beginning?" as what if it actually did NOT hold their interest from the beginning? Then there is no "how".

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    2. Besides, the second part of the questions then opens it up: "If not, why not?" That's the info you really want to know.

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  9. Excellent check list Jodie. I just send a friend of mine this link and told her to read it. She isn't in a group but these are questions she need to ask herself at least.

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    1. Thanks, Kris. After I created the questions, I realized they'd serve also well for revising one's own work.

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  10. Great post Jodie - these are all great questions to ask your beta readers. I usually just start by asking "does this work?" followed by "I hope it doesn't suck!" Seriously, I usually have very specific questions to ask that reflect some of the common pitfalls I fall into - but this list is very comprehensive and will really help get useful feedback.

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    1. Thanks, Clare. Glad you find the list helpful.

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  11. Great tips Jodie. My own WIP is with some betas right now. I chose betas who are both avid readers and have some related skill sets/experience that can look at the story critically with an eye to realism and gave them questions similar to yours. Between the three of them, an Army Psychologist, a former paratrooper turned computer nerd, and a best selling thriller writer of a similar genre, I hope to get good feed back in both the overall story as well as how it works through their specific professional lens.

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    1. Sounds like a well-rounded trio of beta readers, Basil! Kudos to you for rounding up three experts in their field to give you feedback on your story! Good luck with it!

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  13. Hi Jodie, very good post as usual and it came at an appropriate time. I belong to a writing group who are contemplating introducing beta reading/critiquing as an additional “service" as we are getting too big to enable everyone to read regularly. I’m also involved in a discussion about beta readers on LinkedIn, in Books and Writers group. I hope you don’t mind but I've posted a link to this blog.

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    1. Mind? Not at all, David! Thanks for spreading the word, and good luck with your writing!

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  14. Really fantastic read! I'm about to launch into beta reader land for the first time (scary!) and these questions are going to help me so much. Thank you!

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  15. You forgot "Does this cover make my book look fat?" ;)

    But seriously, thank you for such a useful post! Like Sara above, I'm just now entering the beta-reader phase, and I feel grateful now to have some direction.

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  16. My own approach is to read aloud to the beta reader. This slows both of us down to pay attention to more aspects of the story; I see what her reactions are and exactly when; we discuss those reactions on the spot; and I become aware of more things simply by reading it aloud. Of course this is time-consuming, but it may have its time and place at least for certain crucial sections.

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  17. I normally would agree with you on if a beta reader wants to charge you, run in the opposite direction but recently I've received some really bad, and I mean, REALLY bad books. Neither are good writers and I didn't make it past 30 pages without bailing and writing them to say I couldn't continue as there were too many problems. Then I listed 10+ in each case.

    And I'd decided to start charging because I'm working on my second book and stopping to read a 200 page book - a really bad one - was really killing my time. And since I know all these authors personally, I'd have no problem asking. But your article gave me a perfect idea rather than charging. (although I'm totally worth the money!!) I'm now only going to read the first 25 pages and make that clear in the beginning. I will give notes on the first 25 and if by some miracle the book isn't the amateur dreck I've been getting, I'll read further.

    So, great post!

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