There never used to be such a thing as beta-readers. There were critique groups, to be sure, where other writers would read your work and offer criticisms or suggestions. That was a form of beta-reading, but the term “beta-reader” popped out of the woodwork only after it became common knowledge that unreleased software.is tested by beta-testers. (The term “beta” refers to the fact that alpha-testing is done in-house by the software developers themselves. A beta-tester is an outside person, and may bring a fresh perspective to the testing process, thereby uncovering defects that the alpha-testers missed.)
Probably the insanely competitive nature of publishing has something to do with the trend toward beta-reading. One has the sense that Jane Austen and Charles Dickens finished their manuscripts and sent them directly off to the publisher. The idea of having a select group of readers read the unpublished novel and give you comments might even have seemed bizarre in the 19th century. Who but the writer could possibly know what he or she intended? If the reader failed to comprehend or appreciate the material, that would have been thought the reader’s fault, not the writer’s.
Or at least, that’s my speculation. Be that as it may, today beta-readers are felt to have something useful to contribute to the process of authorship. With that in mind, I’ve slapped together a list of questions that one might provide to one’s beta-readers alongside the manuscript. This list is not, for the most part, my own work. It’s based on a very nice blog post in a group blog called The Kill Zone, and seems to have been written by guest blogger Jodie Renner. I reorganized the ideas, rewrote some of the questions, and added a couple of questions that relate specifically to fantasy/sf books, which are often part of a series.
Oh, and I found that blog thanks to a link in a piece Nat Russo wrote on beta-readers in his blog.
When you’re ready to present your work to a few beta-readers, below are some questions you may want to steer them toward:
About the beginning and the ending:
Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, did you find the beginning dull or confusing? Was there something you wished would happen in the opening that didn’t happen? What was it?
Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when the story takes place? If not, did you feel that the beginning was “floating,” with no anchors to tell where and when it was happening, or did you think you knew, but guess wrong?
Was the ending satisfying? Was it believable? Did the ending of one book leave you wanting to read the next book in the series?
About the characters:
Could you relate to the main characters? Did you feel their pain, confusion, or excitement?
Did you find it easy to believe the characters were real people, or did they seem stiff and artificial to you? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likeable?
Which characters did you really connect to? Which characters seemed kind of blah, so that you wished they had more development or focus, or you wanted to know more about them?
Did you get confused about who’s who among the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Are any of the characters or their names too similar, so that you weren’t sure who you were reading about?
Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, was there a particular character whose dialogue sounded artificial or not the way that person would speak?
About the world of the story:
Did the setting interest you? Did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you, so that you understood where you were and what was going on, or did the descriptions seem blah, jumbled, or too short?
Did the world of the story seem real to you, including the magic (or future technology) and the way people live? Or did you notice things that didn’t seem to make sense? If something didn’t make sense to you, what was it?
About the story itself:
Was there enough conflict, tension, and intrigue to keep your interest?
Was there a point at which you felt the story started to sag or you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next? Where did that happen, exactly?
Were there any parts that confused you, or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts? Were there places where you felt disgusted or uncomfortable? What were those places? Please try to describe why you felt the way you did.
Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details? If so, what were they?
Which scenes did you dislike or not like as much, and why?
Were there places where you wanted to skip ahead or put the book down? Were there parts you thought might be condensed or even deleted?
Which parts of the story resonated with you and/or moved you emotionally?
Which parts would you like to see developed further or brought more to life?
About the writing:
In scenes where there was a lot of dialogue, did you ever find it hard to keep track of who was speaking?
Did you feel there was too much description or exposition? Not enough? Maybe too much dialogue in parts?
Did you notice any grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? If so, what were they?
Do you think the writing style suits the story? Or was it too elevated? Too modern? Too casual?
Were there scenes or lines that you really liked?