Tropical Fish and the Greek Alphabet

Tropical fish and the Greek alphabet aren’t the only categories that include betas.  “What else?” you ask…  Beta readers, of course!

As writers, we need to enlist the help of beta readers to identify any potential problems before we unleash our story on the world.  For the months (or years) that we spend writing, we hear from others just how creative we are and what a cool idea our current work is progress is.  But when we ask for beta readers, we hear crickets.

Oftentimes, people really don’t have the time to commit to reading a book.  But for many people, I believe the reason they don’t volunteer is because they have no clue what is expected of them.  So for those people, I offer this post.

A beta reader is essentially a test pilot (or unfortunately sometimes a crash dummy).  As a beta reader, you are not expected to be a grammar or punctuation specialist.  That is a job for the proofreader and should have been done before the book made its way to you.  That being said, if you do happen to find any grammar or punctuation errors, I’m sure the author would love to know.  (Last year, I beta read for an author friend who wrote a chapter book for the 9 to 12 age group.  He sent a specific list of questions and specifically told me that I was not to look for any errors under any circumstances, as those were already addressed and he would not be making additional changes.  However, despite his instructions, when I found the word “heal” instead of “heel” as it referred to a person’s foot, I told him anyway… And he was grateful.)

Beta readers are good way for the author to learn if the story makes sense and is able to be followed without difficulty.  They let the author know if certain characters are weak or if the dialog sounds forced.  They identify if the story is interesting and if the descriptions paint a vivid picture.  Some questions an author might ask a beta reader are as follows:

  1. Did the book hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?
  2. Did the style of writing appeal to you? Why or why not?
  3. Are there any parts that should be condensed or even deleted?
  4. Were there parts where you wanted to skip ahead or stop reading?
  5. Could you relate to the main character? Were you able to put yourself in her shoes?
  6. Did any characters need more development? Which ones and why?
  7. Is there anything that might have made any of the characters more interesting or three-dimensional?
  8. Were there too many characters or too few? Were any of their names too similar?
  9. Was there enough conflict and suspense to keep your interest?
  10. Did you feel that the story started to lag at any point? Where?
  11. Were you ever confused at any point? If so, were your questions soon answered?
  12. Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in timeframes, locations, characters’ histories, or any other details?
  13. Did the dialogue sound natural? If not, was a particular character’s dialogue worse than others’?
  14. Was there too much description or explanation, or not enough?
  15. Was there too much backstory or too many flashbacks? Could any of it be deleted and still make sense?
  16. At any point, did the story feel rushed? Did any part of it drag on too long?
  17. Were you able to accurately predict the end before you got to the end?
  18. Were you satisfied with the end? Was the end believable?
  19. Was this book too long or too short?
  20. If this book was published, would you recommend it to others? Would you read anything else by this author?

Many of those questions may not even be applicable to certain stories.  It’s certainly not supposed to feel like a homework assignment or create more work for the beta reader, but it should identify any specific potential problems to the author that they can address before they either seek a literary agent or self-publish.

Another reason people may not be beating down a writer’s door to volunteer to be a beta reader is that they’re afraid to criticize the author’s work.  Friends, I guarantee that a good writer would appreciate your well-meant constructive criticism a lot more than they’d appreciate a yes-man who gives only false compliments.  You don’t have to feel like those two angry judges on The Muppet Show when you offer your suggestions.

So there you have it.  YOU may very well be the difference between just another book and the next New York Times Bestseller.  Your efforts will probably be recognized in the book’s Acknowledgements.  You’ll likely get a free copy of the finished book, and maybe even an autographed first edition.  And your writer friend will value you more than you know.

Time to talk:  Have you ever specifically been asked to be a beta reader for a friend?  Did you accept the challenge?  If so, were you honest with your critique, or did you whitewash it?  If you’re a writer, do you rely only on friends and family to beta read for you, or have you ever asked strangers?