Prosing On

Beta Readers: Tell me why…I want it that way

(Sorry for the Backstreet Boys ear worm. I couldn’t resist.)

Note: Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to talk about the different types of editing writers may want to use as they revise their manuscript with the ultimate goal of publication. There are several, some more necessary than others, and my goal is to give you the information you need to make the right choices for your particular journey.

Photo of notebook, pen, and glasses with tablet reader resting on top with a black and white mug next to them.
Photo by Aliis Sinisalu on Unsplash

Today we’re going to talk about a writer’s best friends, beta readers.

One of the most important lessons fanfiction writers learn as they write and post their stories, is that having a beta they can rely on for constructive criticism (and moral support) can mean the difference between an ok story and a story that winds up on recc lists long after their favorite show is off the air.

That same lesson carries over to original fiction writing. Beta readers—especially when you work with several of them—can help you get a clearer picture of what a larger audience will think of your story. They are your litmus test before you even think about sending your manuscript to an agent or publisher. They are like storytelling crash test dummies, only, you know, not dumb.

A crash test dummy reading a book called crash testing for dummies.
Let’s look at how fanfic and original fiction writers use beta readers.
Fanfiction BetasOriginal Fiction Betas
• Used closer to posting
• Read for canon compliance,
characterization, and overall plot
• Can take on copy editor role
• Used long before publication
• Read for overall strength of story
• Does not copy edit

As you can see, the roles aren’t that different outside of timing and scope. Fanfiction betas can do more if you request them to—and they have the skill set to do what you need—where original fiction betas only concern themselves with the reader’s perspective. In both cases, the responses you want are the ones that will help you revise your story into a literary amazeballs sub with awesomesauce. For original fiction writers, though, there’s still a way to go and more editing needed before publication.

As someone wanting to publish original fiction, how do you take your fanfic experience with betas and build on it to get the kind of constructive criticism you need? By asking questions. And what kinds of questions are those? Think about the different parts that make up your story and what you’d want to know about each and go from there.

9 areas of interest for your beta to dig into

• Where, in the beginning of the story, did you know you wanted to keep reading? Or did you have to push through and hope it would improve?
• Would the first chapter work as a sample chapter to draw you in? Why?

• Was the build-up to the climax of the story believable? If not, what was hard to suspend your disbelief about?
• Did the conflict feel natural, contrived, or not strong enough to drive the story? What are some examples that worked or didn’t work for you?

• Was the ending satisfying? In what way?

• Was any part or parts of the story confusing? If so where?
• Were there parts that surprised you? If so, which ones and how were they surprising?

• Which character did you connect most strongly with? Why?
• Where there characters who felt flat? Were stereotypical? In what way?

• Are there places that felt slow or dragged? If so, where?
• Were there places that flowed well? If so, where?

What worked
• What did you like about the story? Why?
• What parts were memorable in a good way?

What didn’t work
• Was there anything that turned you off about the story or made you want to stop reading? If so, what and why?

• Would you want to read this again?
• Would you recommend it to friends?

These are a few generic questions to get you started. Add more or others specific to your story to get the outside perspective you need. Think of these questions as conversation starters. The more you can get your beta readers to consider why or how something works or doesn’t work, the more useful their feedback. By adding “why” or “in what way” or “how” to questions, you not only help yourself by getting concrete answers that will lead to creative fixes, but you also help your beta readers think critically. And if you aren’t getting answers to those deeper questions, look for other beta readers. It’s that important.

Beta readers are some of the most important support people writers have in their corner. Building a strong relationship with them based on honesty and respect is key to getting feedback that doesn’t hurt your ego and helps you grow as a writer. It’s your responsibility as the writer not to get them to say what you’d like to hear, but create an environment where your betas can balance praise with critique. Once you find those people who can master constructive criticism, like a good hair stylist, never let them go.

Looking for a beta reader for your original fiction or want to be one yourself? Join my beta-reader Discord channel, or comment below with the best and worst beta experiences you’ve had and what you learned from them.

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