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Beta Reading

Three questions every test reader should ask

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If you come to Thanet Creative’s events for writers, sooner or later you may be asked to be a test reader.

Test reading, commonly called beta reading, is the cornerstone of a good critique group. Offering solid feedback to a budding writer is just about the most helpful and generous thing you can do at a writer’s event.

If you have never given feedback before it can be hard to know what to say. After the group has addressed the low hanging fruit of grammar, spelling, and punctuation, what else is there to tell a writer? It turns out that none of these things are terribly useful. Make the worst offenders on your copy but don’t dwell on nuts and bolts.

What a writer really wants to know was “is it good?” and “how can it be better?” If you can answer these questions, you will be a writer’s best friend.

Here are three questions you can ask yourself that can transform you into a writer’s best friend.

Three questions a test reader should ask themselves

What was my emotional reaction to the story or poem itself?

Sometimes you read a work and feel that you have nothing to offer. Maybe a poem was read out and you don’t feel you know enough about poetry to give any feedback beyond the obvious “yeah, I liked it.” Perhaps the story had no obvious faults and you cannot think of anything to advise the writer. Or maybe you have thought of so many hints and tips you could talk about it for the rest of the evening.

The most useful feedback you can offer a writer is to share your internal reaction. How did the work make you feel?

Here are some useful phrases you might like to try:

  • This part, here, really amused me.
  • I desperately want to know what happens next.
  • The end part really got me right in the feels.
  • The love rival is a total cow-bag. I hope something bad happens to her.
  • I felt like the antagonist (bad guy) kind of had a point.
  • Your poor protagonist just can’t catch a break.
  • That last stanza brought back happy memories of my childhood.

What themes, ideas, or characters, most jumped out at me?

It can be very helpful to a writer to know what characters, which ideas, and which moments most connected with readers. Immediately after reading (or listening), cast your mind back over the work and note those parts that seemed most prominent. It might seem obvious to you but as writers, it can be most helpful to know what exactly does appear to be obvious.

For example, a passage about an argument between a husband and wife might connect with different readers differently. “She wasn’t listening,” and “he was not explaining himself” can be flip sides of the same coin. As a test reader, you have no idea which direction the writer was trying to take things but by telling them how you experienced it, they can get a good feel for how well they have achieved what they wanted to.

Here are some phrases you might like to use:

  • The theme of betrayal was clear throughout the passage.
  • I think we all know someone like Dave.
  • It seemed to me that Viviana should learn to listen to her mother better.
  • I felt like I could have been in the room with them; I could almost taste the smoke.
  • For me, Sasha was by far the most interesting character in that scene.
  • In the end part, Ajani expressed something we all go through.
  • The strong rhyme you end with really punches the theme of loss home.

What part(s) took me out of the moment?

Both poems and stories can have jarring moments where things just don’t seem to work. They take you out of the moment.

This can be because the language was awkward, the passage was unclear, or something just broke your willing suspension of disbelief. Whatever it was, there is a part that needs work.

It is quite unnecessary, even unhelpful, to try and say how to fix the passage. It is often enough to simply highlight the problem.

Here are some useful phrases you might like to try:

  • This part, on page two, where he tries to defuse the bomb really took me out of the story.
  • I did not feel like I understood why the hero did that.
  • His choice to go out in a blaze of glory seemed out of character. I’d have liked to have been able to follow his reasoning there.
  • I was not really sure what was going on in paragraph six, you might like to see if it could be made clearer.
  • I found the last paragraph a bit jarring.
  • That third paragraph was tricky for me to read and that disrupted the flow for me.
  • I found myself rereading parts on the third page to try and work out who was doing what.

You don’t need answers just honest reactions

The secret of giving good feedback is not to try and have all the answers. Most of the time when people give a writer their opinion of what is wrong, they are probably right but if they try to explain how to fix it they are usually wrong.

The most helpful feedback you can give is to put into words how the story or poem affected you, what you connected with, and what stopped you enjoying it. Armed with just these three questions you can give that invaluable feedback each and every time.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matthew is a writer and Geek from Kent (UK). He is the founder and current chair of Thanet Creative Writers 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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