A Rough Guide to Beta Reading 2 Comments

Beta Reading is perhaps the most poorly understood craft of writing. If you might ever find yourself offering feedback to a writer, this guide might help you give the best feedback you have ever given.

Beginners and expert writers alike frequently take part in mutual critiques and yet, for all that, not all of us know how to give quality feedback to other writers. Critiquing – or as it is frequently known beta reading – is more than spotting spelling mistakes and plot holes.

No guide can, over night, turn you into the worlds greatest beta reader. This guide can, however, help you to offer feedback that writers will truly value.

What to give feedback on when Beta Reading

ReadingMost of us a familiar with some of the basic ideas of giving feedback. The good-bad-good sandwich, where a negative is placed between two positives. It’s a nice way to cushion a blow but not very helpful when it comes to giving a solidly actionable critique.

So let us look at some of the areas you might want to consider addressing when you give a writer your post beta read feedback.

Mechanics and basics

The basics of writing are something we should all be able to offer some feedback on. A fresh pair of eyes can spot things like repetition of the same word too often that the writer might have missed.

Mechanics and basics cover things like:

  • Spelling, punctuational or grammatical mistakes
  • Excessive word repetitions
  • Are sentence lengths varied?

Writing Craft

Writing craft is more than being able to spell. It is the very art of telling a story. Maybe you feel confident addressing this at length or maybe you do not. Regardless, feedback on this area is always useful to a writer.

At the very least you should be able to say whether the writing quality drew you in as a reader. Should you have found parts that were off-putting or confusing, parts that made you want to stop – these are areas that the writer would benefit from knowing about.

  • Are there any flaws that are jarring or intrusive?
  • Does the writing quality allow the story to shine through?
  • Does the writing show each scene with all the senses?

Opening Scenes

The opening scene is where the story’s hook is to be found. This is an area that any writer should thank you for focusing on. Especially if are able to report what you found compelling (or the opposite) about the opening.

We writers will probably spend more time tinkering with our openings than any other part. If we have done a good job, or if we need to put in more work, we would like to know.

Characters and motivation

Characters are the bread and butter of story telling. When you are beta reading for a writer, the most valuable area you can focus on, after the opening scene, is the characterisation.

  • Are there characters you can root for?
  • Were you able to believe their motivation?
  • Did they “feel” real or contrived?

There are many questions you could ask yourself about your reactions to the characters you are reading. The important thing ist hat you give some feedback to the writer about characters.

Plot and conflict

Stemming from the characters is the plot. In some genres, the plot is the most important part of the story. Even when it is not the plot is all the things that happen in the story.

  • Were the conflicts the characters faced believable or did any part feel forced?
  • Were the stakes high enough for the characters to keep you interested?
  • What about plot twists? Did they surprise you? Did they make sense?

Pacing and flow

FireworksHave you ever watched a film and thought that a certain part dragged on too long? That’s a pacing problem.

We writers don’t always get the pacing right on the first few drafts. Even professional film makers can get it wrong. While the pacing is much more subjective, your experience as a reader can give a writer important insights into how their story comes across.

  • Do scenes progress in a compelling way?
  • Do transitions maintain the flow?
  • Are there any parts that feel rushed or seem to drag?
  • Do all the scenes add something to the story?
  • Is the story free from information dumps?

Sense of place

As a beta reader, especially for a new writer, this is an area you can probably give some hugely valuable feedback in. Some of us writers struggle with descriptions and for those of us that do, making a place seem real can be hard. As a beta reader, your job is to point out which areas bring the world to life and which parts seem devoid of life.

  • Are the descriptions vivid?
  • Do the scenes give you an impression of time and place?
  • Do the characters interact with or are affected by their environment?

Assessing Dialogue as a Beta Reader

Characters need to talk to each other. While I am sure it is possible to write a story in which the characters have nothing to say to each other, it would be a very strange book indeed.

Some of us writers struggle with our dialogue. Some of us find giving the characters a unique voice hard while others find it as easy as breathing.

You could ask questions like:

  • Does dialogue reveal character?
  • Is there an appropriate mix of dialogue and narrative?
  • Does the dialogue move the story forward?

You are not done yet, beta reader

Having given feedback on most or all of these areas, you are not yet finished. It is helpful to give your overall impression of the story as well as highlighting what you felt were the strongest and weakest aspects of the work. If the writer is a “big picture” sort of person, this will be their way into editing.

Also, pointing out parts that really worked for you will help those parts survive the cull of editing and make the final version.

Over to you

While it is not important to memorise all of these questions, being mindful of them can help you offer a better critique as a beta reader. You don’t even need to ask or answer all of these questions to be a valuable beta reader, but the more you address, the more complete your feedback.

Are there questions that you find particularly valuable for your beta readers to ask?

About Matthew Brown

Matthew is a writer and Geek from Kent (UK). He is the founder and current chair of Thanet Creative as well as head geek for Author Buzz. His ambitions include appearing on TableTop with Wil Wheaton and seeing a film or TV series based on something he wrote.

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