Okay, I’ve written my magnum opus. I’ve elicited friends, family and beta-readers to read it, and I’m waiting on pins and needles for the feedback. I’m sitting with fingers and toes crossed, holding my breath, checking e-mail every five seconds, hoping against hope that the readers will like it. Then I get the first response: “I liked it. It’s good.”
Helpful? Yeah, no. Of course I would love to have my first readers ooh and ahh over the book, but this very non-specific comment is not constructive. Nice as it is, it tells me nothing.
The purpose of beta-readers is not to stroke my writer’s ego. That job belongs to my mother. The purpose of beta-readers is to find all the shortcomings in my writing before I push the publish button. They need to take that puppy out for a rigorous shake-down cruise and find every bug, every glitch, every typo, misplaced comma, and inconsistent tense. It’s painful to get feedback with a laundry list of problems, but would I rather see that list now, in a private e-mail before publication, or see it pasted up in a lambasting Amazon review for all the world to read?
(And if you have to think about that, writing is not the business for you.)
The two things writers need from beta-readers are honesty and specificity. Honesty because, “I liked it,” when you didn’t is not helpful. I know, we all want to encourage our friends, we want to be supportive. But tough love is the rule here. Did you have to force yourself to finish the book when you really just wanted to throw it in a corner and forget about it? Did you find yourself groaning again and again over the wrong use of it’s for its? Did you roll your eyes at every exchange of dialog because, really, who talks like that? Or did you have to re-read sentences or even whole paragraphs because they just didn’t make sense?
Really. I need to know. I’ll thank you for it. (Well, maybe not right away. But eventually. Probably.)
Okay, I can hear it now: How do I tell her the book stinks? How do I tell her it bored the pants off me? I’ll make her mad. I’ll hurt her feelings. I can’t do that.
Yes, you can. I need you to do that. My ruffled feelings will heal. If I publish a book that’s full of errors and bad writing, that stays out there in the public eye for a long, long time.
Enter the next criteria: specificity. Be as specific as you can be in your feedback. Cushion it if you like in the soft cotton of personal opinion (which is perfectly valid) to soften the blow, but remember always that you and the writer are working as a team toward the same goal: making the book the best it can be. In this vein, here are some examples of what you might need to say and what the writer needs to hear.
I like your main character, but he’s so blind to the lies of the female lead that I just found him frustratingly stupid. I understand he thinks he loves her, but I felt it was unrealistic of him to not notice how she was using him.
You change POVs a lot, jumping from one character to the next and I found it hard to keep up with who was thinking what.
I found the premise of using human sacrifice to gain power to be totally unbelievable, and you never really established why the character thought that would work.
All three of your main characters have names that start with D. I found it difficult to separate them out at first, and it made it hard to get to know each one individually.
You introduce 15 characters in the first three pages without giving me any distinguishing characteristics to separate them. I need fewer names, more descriptions to keep them straight.
On the first page, you said the main character’s last name was Johnson, but in Chapter 21, you say it’s Jones. You might want to pick one, then do a search and replace to make them all the same.
By the same token, give positive specific feedback when you can. Believe me, writers love to know when something works.
I love your description of the mountains and the valley below. I felt like I could actually see it in my mind.
The twists and turns of the story really had me guessing and the ending was a total surprise. I never saw that coming.
I thought your dialog was excellent; it sounded completely realistic.
And finally, one last point. If you can respond to me in this way, YOU ARE GOLD. Having an extra set of eyes look at the book, having a fresh, open mind take my text journey, and then giving me your honest impression is worth more than you know. Because I have the entire story in my head — everything from what happened to my character when he was five years old to what he had for breakfast this morning — I’m not always sure if I have put enough of that on the paper — or too much. Your feedback is priceless. Believe me, Beta-Readers, you seriously rock.