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This post is the second part in a series from Jodi Cleghorn, who first taught us what beta reading is, and now gives us very clear pointers about how to do it.
Effective beta reads are a combination of reflections, impressions, assessments of strengths and weaknesses, suggestions for improvements and questions for further consideration.
This guide is intended to be used in conjunction with the introduction article Beta Reading As Translation.
The following are non-negotiable parts of the beta reading process.
Beta reading is the truthful evaluation of a story’s effectiveness.
- Beta reading is a request from an author for assistance to improve their story.
- It provides the author with an overview of what is working and not working in the story.
- It is framed as an opinion and is only one of many on the story. Adding a caveat* at the bottom will reinforce this.
- Opinion is always influenced by taste and experience. Biases** need to be transparent.
- There is no place for ego gratification or back-slapping.
Beta reading is dialogue between two people.
- Always offer to discuss comments. In the discussion space between author and beta reader amazing things happen.
- Do not be defensive, personal or nasty if the author does not agree with comments or suggestions.
Beta reading is best done from a brief.
- Know what kind of feedback the author is looking for.
- What draft version has been sent?
- Where is the author is considering submitting it?
- Are there author-flagged areas of concern?
- What is the current word count?
- When is the feedback is required?
Beta reading, to be effective, must be specific.
- Specific feedback provides the author with a roadmap of improvements.
- Broad-sweeping statements or generalisations are useless.
- Choose specific examples (where relevant) to illustrate points or comments made.
- Personal or derogative judgement has no place in any critiquing relationship.
A Beta reading is always done in a timely manner.
- Don’t agree to take on a piece if the turn around isn’t possible.
- The author is relying on you as part of their submission team.
BETA READING BASICS
A beta read contains four parts:
- General impressions
- Suggestions for improvement
General impressions, strengths and weaknesses
A beta read begins with the strengths and weaknesses of the story, and the general impressions of the reader. These can be compiled into an overview (written in an email or inserted into the top or bottom of the story document). They can be written after the first read and added to or altered after a deeper exploration of the story, or can be written at the conclusion of the intensive part of the beta read.
The overview can be as simple or detailed as the beta reader feels is appropriate for the story. There is nothing wrong in constructing the overview with headings and subheadings or writing it in a semi-conversational style.
Suggestions for Improvement
The next step is to deconstruct the story based on its weaknesses.
Narrative issues can be addressed using the following general points of reference.
- What are the inconsistencies and where are they?
- Where are the holes and what is missing?
- Where is there too much?
- Where is there too little?
- Is it appropriate?
- Is it believable?
The most effective way of flagging issues is to insert comments into the document using Word’s Track Changes function***. This has the additional benefit of anchoring comments to specific parts of the story. It can also facilitate a dialogue between the beta reader and author.
If the issues are story wide, it may be more appropriate to detail them in the overview under their own sub-headings.
This looks like a simple guide but it is not. A beta read constructed only on these six points of reference would provide a thorough examination of the limitations of the story and provide an author with plenty of food for thought in attempting the next draft.
THE MECHANICS OF A STORY
The following list of questions aims to assist beta readers to explore stories in greater detail. This is intended as a ‘pick and use where appropriate’ list rather than an exhaustive checklist for all stories.
Some questions are intended as a catalyst to assist the beta reader to think deeper about various aspects of a story. Other questions may be used directly in beta comments to empower the author to find their own solutions.
Alternatively, an author may wish to co-opt these questions in their brief as specific points of focus for the beta reader.
- How effective is the title?
- Can you offer an alternate title?
- Does the story begin, where the actual narrative begins?
- Does the opening provide context for the story?
- Does the opening introduce the main characters in the story?
- Does the opening have a hook? (Were you compelled to read on? At what point did that happen?)
- Is the beginning too long or too short?
- Where does the inciting event happen?
- Is the ending predictable?
- Is the ending satisfying? Is it believable?
- Is it worthy of the emotional investment in the characters?
- Does the ending tie together the different elements of the story?
- What has been left unresolved?
- Does the ending provide answers for all questions raised? Was there anything you wanted an answer to and didn’t get?
Point Of View
- What is the POV? Is it consistent?
- How many POV characters are there?
- Does the narrative head hop? Is there a strong narrative reason for a head hop? Where does it happen?
- Is there internal dialogue from multiple characters? Is it confusing? How could it be formatted or structured to make it less confusing?
- Does the viewpoint facilitate the reader’s immersion in the story or alienate them from it?
- Is the tense consistent throughout the story?
- Is it the best tense to facilitate the story?
- Does the setting provide context for the story and characters or is it unnecessary window dressing?
- Does the setting evoke a sense of place?
- Is the setting a character in and of itself?
- What is the interplay between character and setting? Does it contribute to or distract from the main conflict?
- What is missing from the articulation of the setting? What is extraneous?
- Is world building introduced as part of the unfolding of the story or is it inserted as info dumps?
- How many characters are there? Is it an appropriate number for the size of the story?
- Are the characters three-dimensional?
- Is the reader invested in the characters?
- Which characters did you care about? Are there any you don’t care about? Why?
- What does the main character/s have to lose?
- What are the motivations of the main character/s? Are the motivations believable?
- Is behaviour of the main character/s consistent with their internal drives?
- Is their behaviour appropriate to their physical environment?
- Are the interactions between characters believable and appropriate?
- How well is the emotional landscape explored?
- Are there character incongruencies?
- Do the main characters grow or adapt to the changing circumstances they find themselves in?
- How effectively is the backstory conveyed? Is it a seamless integration? Or does it jar the reader out of the main story?
- Is there too much or too little?
- What is the central conflict? Is it believable?
- How adequately is it explored?
- How adequately is it resolved?
- Are there other conflicts? How do they add to, or subtract from, the main conflict?
- Is there a steady amplification of the conflict across the story?
- Is the conflict played out in a logical fashion?
- Does the dialogue sound natural? Or is the dialogue stilted, forced or two-dimensional?
- Is it character appropriate? (Consider age, gender, culture, background, education as a beginning)
- Do all the characters sound the same when they talk? Without dialogue attribution would you be able to identify individual characters?
- Are there verbal tics or idiosyncrasies? Do they add to, or subtract from, the overall feel and flow of the dialogue?
- Is there too much dialogue or too little?
- Does the dialogue appear in chunks? Or are the dialogue and action seamlessly melded together?
- Are body language and other forms of communication used?
- Are dialogue tags overused?
- Are adverbs used as part of dialogue tags?
- Is internal dialogue consistently applied and formatted?
- Does internal dialogue add to, or distract from, the main narrative?
Structure and Format
- Are section breaks used to delineate between the past and present when the story moves between two timelines?
- Are italics used sparingly and consistently?
- Is there another format or structure that could better facilitate the telling of the story (for example, an early draft with an overbearing narrator who is telling the story in ‘batter about the head’ style might be remodelled into an epistolary format that allows the story to be told rather than shown)
- How effective is the story in the chosen format? Is there a better format?
Description and Imagery
- Is imagery used to compliment the story?
- Are metaphors and similes used effectively?
- Does the story have motifs? How well are they used? How could they be used more effectively?
- Where is the description evocative? Where isn’t it?
- Does the description rely on just sight and sound? How might the other senses be used?
- Is description used to create atmosphere?
- Is language used in a unique way to evoke a sense of place, person and conflict?
- Is the language over simplified or over complicated?
- Does the language complement the style of story?
- Does the language complement the genre of the story?
- Does the language make the story readily accessible to the reader or does it distance them?
- Does the story flow easily? Where are the places it doesn’t flow?
- Is sentence length and structure varied?
- Does something happen in every scene?
- Is there progression of the narrative, character development and/or thematic structure in every scene?
- Are there any scenes (or parts of scenes) that could be cut to improve pace?
- Are there scenes that need to be lengthened or shortened?
- Does the interplay between exposition and dialogue keep the story moving? Or does it slow it down?
- Is there a rise in tension in the lead up to the climax?
- What is the theme at the heart of the story?
- Are there additional themes?
- What do you think the story is actually about? How different is it to the story that appears on paper?
- Is description used to support or enhance the theme? Or are they unconnected?
Beta reading is a discrete skill set that develops and evolves with time and experience. Experience helps to guide and shape how a story is approached and the manner in which feedback is given. Experience also boosts the confidence a beta reader has in expressing their thoughts and suggestions.
A beta reader is unlikely to respond or feel the same way about two stories. Just as two beta readers are unlikely to feel or respond the same way to the same story. While the above guide offers support and assistance for new beta readers or those looking to extend or solidify their skill set, it cannot emulate or quantify the role intuition plays. Never discount the importance of gut feelings and intuition when reading****.
* My standard caveat: Please accept, reject or modify any of these suggestions in line with what you believe is best for your story.
** Biases can include preferences for genre, a specific POV or tense, for example. They can also include a lack of experience with a particular genre, format, length, or with beta reading generally.
*** Word’s Tracked Changes function (found under the Tools or Review tabs) allows comments to be inserted into the text. It also records all changes to the document so all edits are visible, trackable, and reversible.
**** It is absolutely okay to insert the following comment in a beta read: there is something not quite right here, but I am not sure what it is! Sometimes it is impossible to articulate ‘a feeling’.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Many thanks again to Lois Spangler and Dave Versace for helping me map my thoughts and pointing out the gaps. Thanks also to my writing group, the Magic Puppies, who have facilitated my most recent insights into beta reading.
Jodi has been kind enough to provide us with a PDF copy of this guide that you can print off and keep handy when you're workshopping. To download it, click here.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.
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