Beta Readers – How To Give Specific Instructions

person-readingEver asked someone to read your book as a beta reader? I’d never heard the term up until a few years ago. It has been adapted from the software industry and, according to Wikipedia, the definition is a “non-professional reader who reads a written work, generally fiction, with the intent of looking over the material to find and improve elements such as grammar and spelling, as well as suggestions to improve the story, its characters, or its setting”.

The beta reader generally reads a story before it’s unleashed on the public.

Most writers, I reckon, aren’t looking for improvements on grammar and spelling – that’s for a professional proof-reader to do – but feedback that tells them if a story works or not. And if they can suggest ways that the story might be improved, that’s even better.

Anyway, recently I was asked to read a book for an acquaintance, Eric J. Smith, author of Not a Bad Ride: Stories from a Boomer’s Life on the Edge. Eric pulled together a detailed brief for his beta readers and has given me permission to share the gist of it. It’s terribly useful as his request tells you exactly what he wants.

Here are some of the instructions:

“I ask you to focus on the MS as a reader rather than an editor. I intend to hire a professional editor after I incorporate your suggestions. You can certainly mention needed edits or even use ‘track changes’ to enter them in the document, but I’m looking to you primarily for general comments on areas such as:

  • Organisation – what works now and does anything need to be changed to improve the structure?
  • Do you like what’s included? Do you think some material should be excluded?
  • Does the pace and the flow of the book work?
  • Are the themes clear?
  • Was it a worthy read?

“After you have read the book in its entirety, please tell me where it’s strong and where it’s weak.”

Eric also asked his beta readers to look at other areas.

  • Does the title work and if not, is there a better title?
  • Is there a way the manuscript could be reorganised and if so, what are the reasons for this?
  • Should some stories or chapters be expanded and if so, why?
  • And vice versa, should some stories or chapters be shortened or deleted?
  • Are there places where the pace is too slow or boring? Are there parts that need more detail or description?
  • Are there awkward sentences or paragraphs?
  • Are there characters that aren’t believable?
  • Are there words or phrases that are repeated too often?
  • Is there dialogue that isn’t authentic?

Eric asks that beta readers return their feedback in a word document and for us to be as specific as possible – identifying the issue and the page number.

He finishes by saying: “I’m looking for honest feedback. I promise I won’t be offended. If something bothers you, it is likely to bother other readers as well. I cannot promise to use all your suggestions, but I will take them seriously. This part of the process is critical. Your honest input will make this a better book.”

The last paragraph is an excellent example of managing expectations. If you have ever read book reviews on GoodReads, you’ll know how diverse opinions on books are. One man’s meat etc… A lot of people suggesting a change is something the writer should take notice of. One person making a brilliant suggestion is another, but it’s the writer’s call at the end of the day.

I’m looking forward to the exercise.