If you’ve been writing for very long at all, you know that one of the critical tools in any writer’s arsenal is good readers. Sometimes these readers may come in the form of a critique group (sometimes called alpha readers) who read the story in progress. Often, they come in the form of beta readers–other writers and readers that read the entire novel and give feedback on the overall shape of the story. Personally, I think most writers–especially in the early stages–need both.
But finding good readers can be tricky, particularly since, if you’ve asked another writer to read your work, there’s an implicit understanding that you’ll read theirs in turn. And being a good reader can be even harder. There are lots of blog posts out there on how to start a story. There aren’t nearly as many posts on how to read a story in order to give feedback. My aim here is to give you six (sets–okay, I’m cheating a little!) of questions to help you as a beta reader.
(If you’re reading this hoping to find directions on how to find a beta reader, may I direct you here instead?)
When you’re reading another author’s manuscript, the most important thing you can do is read as a reader–think about how you respond as a reader and try to articulate that response to the other writer. It goes without saying that your feedback should be honest and kind: someone has trusted you with their precious words, and you need to respect that trust.
Also, don’t overwhelm the writer by detailing everything that you think needs fixing. Try to focus on a few areas that will make the biggest difference in revision. At this stage, you want to focus on big picture issues (plot, setting, pacing, character, mood and voice) rather than local issues (phrasing, grammar, style), since local issues are often things that might change in revision anyway.
Below, I offer questions you can ask as you read someone else’s manuscript to help pinpoint what suggestions to offer. (Alternately, you can also use these questions to guide beta readers who are new to critiquing. This is especially helpful if, say, you’re asking your roommate or partner to read for you. Though I also recommend branching out to other readers!)
Questions about Plot:
Where does the story really begin?
Is it clear what the MC wants (consciously or subconsciously)–and is most of the action driven by her choices in pursuit of that?
Is most of the action rising action that escalates the conflict?
Where does rising action seem weak?
Where could readers use a break?
Is the ending satisfying? Why or why not?
Questions about Scene and Setting:
Which setting was most memorable—and why?
Does each scene have its own arc (goal-conflict-disaster)?
Does the end of a scene make you want to keep reading?
Questions about Pacing:
Where do you find yourself skimming?
Where do you find yourself wishing the author would slow down?
Where did you stop reading the first time?
Questions about Character:
What character do you enjoy the most—why?
What three words would you use to describe the main character?
Where do characters behave inconsistently?
Do you have trouble distinguishing between any of the characters—and why?
If you had to get rid of a character, who would it be—and why?
Does the main character ever surprise you? When?
Questions about Emotion and Mood:
What scenes made you the most emotional?
What scenes felt emotionally detached?
Does the mood shift in meaningful ways throughout the story?
Questions about Voice:
What three words would you use to describe the voice of this story?
Where is the voice especially distinctive?
Where does the voice seem bland or generic?
Note places where the dialogue bogs down or seems unrealistic.
By the time you’ve answered these questions, you should have some idea of the strengths of the novel, as well as areas where the writer can improve. As a teacher, I recommend using the sandwich method: start your feedback by praising what the author does well. Then offer suggestions for areas that could be improved. Close by returning to the strengths of the paper. Our goal as beta readers is to encourage the writer to improve their writing–not crush them so completely they refuse to write at all. (And though I’ve practiced this my whole teaching life, I didn’t realize how critical praise as until I got my own edit letter for the first time–the praise was the only thing that saved me, in the face of all the things I needed to work on).
If you’re still looking for more tips on giving feedback, you can check out this post on tips for phrasing your feedback to be most effective and this post on other ways to be awesome at critiquing.
Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is forthcoming March 2017 from Knopf/Random House. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.