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The Accidental Writer: The Question you Never Ask your Beta Readers

We are part of The Trust Project

images-19I had a long discussion the other day with another author about the benefits of Beta Readers. I have a great group of Betas I rely upon who have given me insights that have made my books better. He believes only writers, editors, publishers, and others in the industry give valuable feedback. I respectively disagreed with him, but I understand his concerns. Chiefly – how do you know you’re getting the reader’s true opinions?

The key to useful information is to ask the right questions. I know this is very hard for most authors, but never start the conversation with, “Did you like the book?” Most people use Betas with whom they share some type of social relationship. It’s very hard for an acquaintance to say “no” to that question even if he or she hated the manuscript. Don’t start your conversation that way. Betas are valuable. Don’t use them to simply boost your confidence.

Always ask specific questions instead. Hopefully, you can identify some areas in your manuscript that trouble you. “Was the ending thrilling?” “Did you guess what was going to happen?” “Did you find the protagonist’s reaction to the murder believable?”

The more specific questions the better. I always start with inquiries about characters because I think good characters drive stories. Many times I’ll ask my readers which characters were their favorites and why. If my lead characters fail to make the list, then I know I have some problems. “Why” questions are generally good. It allows readers to open up with their own ideas. Don’t be defensive. These are their opinions, so by definition, they are right.

Pacing is also very important to me. So I ask lots of questions concerning pacing. I usually start with how long it took he or she to read the manuscript. Which parts were fast and which were slower? There is no checklist of questions that works for every manuscript. Tailor your questions to the specific manuscript.

Now a word of caution is necessary. This is your manuscript. Don’t overreact to any one person’s comments. Even the best books get bad reviews from time to time. You might also get conflicting comments. That’s okay, but it might mean your manuscript is not as sharp as you would like. Also, consider the Beta in relation to your target audience. If you’re writing a YA manuscript, you probably won’t get the best feedback from someone over 60. Probably, but I know many 60 and overs who are really big kids.

We write so readers will enjoy our stories. Use Beta Readers for feedback, just make sure their time and yours is well spent.

Feel free to follow my mostly incoherent ramblings on twitter @jeffaltabef.  If you’re looking for a good read, check out my political thriller – Fourteenth Colony (available at Amazon, B&N, Pleasantville Bookstore).

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