#5onFri: Five Questions to Ask Beta Readers When They Critique Your Manuscript

by Sara Letourneau
published in Community

You’ve spent months revising and editing your manuscript. Now comes one of the most exciting and nerve-racking stages in the writing process: getting feedback. Yes, sending your story to beta-readers and asking for their thoughts on what works and what needs improvement. And while any constructive comments can help, it’s a good idea to let beta-readers know if you’re looking for input on specific things. For this reason, I recommend including a short list of targeted questions with your manuscript.

So, what questions should appear on this list? That will largely depend on your story and its genre. But if you’re looking for a place to start, here are five question that apply to most writers regardless of genre.

(NOTE: This applies to critique partners, too, so think of that term and “beta-readers” as interchangeable. *wink*)

1) Is the Protagonist Compelling?

The strength of a story lies with the reader’s relationship with the protagonist. You might love that character with every fiber of your being, but if the reader struggles to connect with her, they might lose interest in her – and the story, too. The best way to remedy this problem is to confirm this connection (or lack thereof) with beta-readers.

So, invite your beta-readers to share their thoughts on the protagonist. Depending on what information you’re looking for, you can ask “Are the protagonist’s motivations clear?” or “What did you like most about the protagonist? Which aspects of her character still need work?” Or, you can leave it as an open-ended “What do you think?” This will show your desire in ensuring the protagonist-reader relationship exists and encourage beta-readers to offer constructive feedback on her.

2) Are the Stakes High Enough?

The story’s stakes are more than just the conflict. They represent the dangers posed by the conflict and the protagonist’s emotional investment in resolving those dangers. The more that the conflict threatens the protagonist and the things or people she cares about, the higher the stakes will be. But if the protagonist isn’t invested in the outcome, your readers won’t be, either.

Beta-readers, however, can help you determine whether the stakes are high enough. You can pose the question outright in your list, or use a variant like “Did you care about what happened to the protagonist as well as the character herself?” or “Were you worried or curious about how things would turn out?” Chances are your beta-readers will comment on this regardless, since stakes are crucial to good storytelling. But it never hurts to be certain that the story’s outcome matters to everyone involved, real or fictional.

3) Is the Antagonist Sympathetic and Believable?

All writers hope that we’ve crafted an awesome antagonist to foil the hero’s efforts, right? But if we’re blind to the protagonist’s ability to connect with readers, we might also miss similar issues with our “bad guys.” Don’t fret, though. Beta-readers can help us find potential improvements with this crucial character.

If you’re concerned about your antagonist, add a question about him to your beta-readers’ list. Something like “Is the antagonist realistic? Or does he come across as a stereotypical villain?” will signal your interest in evaluating this character, especially whether he’s sympathetic despite his role in the story. This should prompt beta-readers to offer feedback on the antagonist that can confirm if he meets your intended vision.

4) Were You Bored, Sad, Confused, Excited, etc. During Any Point in the Story?

Beta-readers can also clue us in on whether the story’s events are gripping and meaningful. This matters for both the game-changing plot points and the “quieter” moments in between. After all, you’d rather find out before your book is published that your climax could have been more exciting, right?

Thus, make a point to ask beta-readers for their reactions throughout the story. This will encourage them to share whether they cried during the sad parts, laughed at a certain character’s jokes, or felt the chemistry between love interests. It will also persuade them to point out scenes that confused them or lost their attention. Their feedback will help you gauge whether your scenes have the desired emotional impact, or if they haven’t yet reached their full potential.

5) Is the World-building Consistent and Realistic?

At the world-building panel I attended during last year’s Writer’s Digest Conference, all of the participating writers agreed that speculative fiction writers must ask beta-readers to evaluate a story’s world-building. (Historical fiction writers should consider this, too.) The final synthesis of setting, culture, politics / laws, magic system (if it exists), and so on needs to work from the reader’s perspective as well as yours. And if it doesn’t, the reader will likely find the rest of the story frustrating.

The beta-reading stage is therefore the ideal time to test-drive the world-building. In your list, ask beta-readers whether the story’s world and how it functions makes sense and seems believable; and whether they noticed inconsistencies, or rules that could be “broken.” Some beta-readers might not feel comfortable analyzing the story to this degree. But those who do will relish the challenge and let you know what works, what doesn’t, and maybe even possible fixes.

BONUS: Always Ask “Why or Why Not?”

Most beta-readers will readily offer comprehensive answers. That said, it’s better to encourage that level of detail than risk getting “yes / no” answers. So with every question, add a “Why or why not?”. Or if the question is complex and has multiple angles to consider, break it into two or three sentences. That way, your beta-readers will grasp each question more easily and have a clear understanding of what you’re looking for – and perhaps give you the most helpful feedback you could hope for.

Have you submitted your manuscript to critique partners or beta-readers yet? If you have, what questions would you recommend adding to this list? Let us know in the comments below, or on social media, using the hashtag #5OnFri!

Sara 2015Sara Letourneau is a fantasy writer in Massachusetts who devours good books, loves all kinds of music, and drinks too much tea. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she is a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers and is hard at work on a YA fantasy novel. She also freelanced as a tea reviewer and music journalist in the past. Her poetry has appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two print anthologies. Visit Sara at her personal blogTwitter, and Goodreads.

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