Dec 12 2007

Improving Your Beta Reviews

Published by at 3:34 am under Commentary,Novel-Writing,Writing Articles

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

This article will focus on how to find beta reviewers and how to get beta-reviews that are more useful.

One of the best ways to tell if what you’re writing is actually working is to show chapters to trusted friends and reviewers. These are your beta reviewers. They will help you head off problems in your writing before you’ve written 100,000 words of hopeless dreck.

Obviously, to maximize the effectiveness of beta reviews, you have to have beta reviewers. If you’re totally stumped on who could serve as a beta reviewer, you could go to an online writers group like Critters, which is free and notably professional. If you have friends and/or writing buddies that are really enthusiastic about your writing, that’s a great place to start. Be careful about close personal friends, though. You need honest feedback. If someone gives you only glowing reviews, that may distract you from serious problems. Here are some characteristics of the ideal beta reviewer:

  1. Someone that knows and appreciates (but does not not adore) your style.
  2. Someone that is published in your genre, or is at least a strong writer in your genre.
  3. Ideally they are demographically similar to your target audience in age, gender, etc. If you’re writing a book for high school students, a college student will probably prove more helpful than a college professor.
  4. Reliable.
  5. Meticulous and sharp (“wait, this character’s eyes were green six chapters ago”).
  6. Ideally your reviewers are diplomatic and courteous but not yes-men. It’s useful to have at least one perpetually critical curmudgeon (like me), but you’d be emotionally overwhelmed if all of your reviewers were really negative.

What does a beta review look like?

This is pretty simple. You give your chapter to the reviewer (paper or electronically). The reviewer will give you some notes on what worked and what didn’t. If you’re lucky, he’ll mark up his copy with suggested revisions of certain lines.

The problem is that if you ask someone to do a review without guidance, their advice will probably be general and may skimp on the areas you care about most. If you guide and probe your reviewers, you will probably be much more satisfied with the level of critique they provide. To guide your reviewers, I’d recommend including 5-10 questions at the end of the chapter for your reviewer to consider. Ask him to answer whichever ones he finds interesting. Asking a question really encourages your readers to tackle the specific problems that concern you the most. “How did the tensing work?”

When you write questions, try to keep these points in mind.

  1. Avoid yes-or-no questions. Readers will almost always give you the response that is favorable to your work. Either way, a yes or no answer is probably not very enlightening. You can get around this problem by making questions open-ended. Instead of “were there problems with tenses?”, try “what do you think about the chapter’s tenses?” Open-ended questions stimulate critical thinking.
  2. Keep track of which problems keep getting mentioned. In Superhero Nation, readers frequently hard to follow the perspective, action, chronology, world’s politics, and the over-expository style. When virtually every reader mentioned a few of these issues, I started actually listing recurring problems at the end of the chapter. “On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being awful and 10 being perfect, please rate this chapter’s style.” A scale is useful because readers will give you an absolute ranking of how problematic the chronology was but they will prioritize your problems. It also lets you track your chapters over time. (For example, if you rewrote a chapter and the style went from 5.5 to 8, it’s clear that your reviewers liked the changes).

Here are 10 sample questions you may find useful.

  1. Use five adjectives and a verb to describe one of the characters in this chapter {or you can name one specific character, but I recommend leaving it open}.” This will tell you whether you and your readers are on the same page with characterization. You wrote Jack as an obnoxious punk but your audience adores his “spunkiness.” Or you wrote Pat as a conflicted, deep hero but your readers think he’s whiny or a wuss. You may also be surprised which characters resonate the most with your audience. When I was originally writing Superhero Nation, Lash was ostensibly my main character but virtually every reader chose to describe Agent Orange or Agent Black instead. That suggested that he wasn’t resonating as much as he should have been.
  2. How would you describe this story to a friend? This suggests which themes of your story are most salient to your readers. This may also help you market your work.
  3. What city does the chapter take place in?” OR “How are Jim and Mary related?” Do your readers grasp the story’s basic details? If readers fail to pick up on recurring details like the city the story takes place in, that’s probably a sign that they have pretty much dropped out of the story. This is much more effective than asking something like “did the plot of this story confuse you?” Readers hate to volunteer that they’re confused. They might not even understand how confused they are. Questions like this help measure how clear your chapter is.
  4. Pick your favorite scene. What are some of the details you found memorable? This is pretty self-explanatory. Which scene drove the reading experience the most and why? This will help you perfect your other scenes.
  5. Pick your least favorite scene. Describe some areas you would suggest improving. This is really straight-forward.
  6. If you had to Google-search for this chapter, which search terms would you use? This lets you peek into the mind of your readers. What sort of associations are they making with your work?
  7. Do you think that any characters or scenes could be shortened or removed from this chapter? Why? This is a coded way of asking “were there any points at which the story got tedious?”
  8. How do you think this chapter compares to previous chapters?
  9. If you could make one change to this chapter, what would it be? What you’re really asking is “what is the biggest problem with this chapter?” But that question will cause your readers to clam up. This question will also encourage readers to volunteer possible ways to address the problem.
  10. What are some of the issues you’ve had with previous chapters? How does this chapter compare on those issues? Notice that this question avoids the word “problems.” Don’t confront your readers!

Probing reviewers: you may find that you have relatively little to work with. People may have written generalities like “the dialogue was good” or “I don’t know about the chainsaw scene.” Try to tease out what they liked about the dialogue—the voice? word choice? the body language? the irony that the monkey was in the closet the entire time? Was it the violence they found objectionable about the chainsaw scene, or was it the language? Perhaps they didn’t like that the chainsaw scene was narrated by the killer, instead of the protagonist. Etc.

As a rule, I would discount any response to a question that is fewer than 10 words long. The work I’ve done with my reviewers suggests that shorter responses are less likely to be heart-felt or meaningful. As a test, I gave ten reviewers a copy of one of my chapters in January and then gave them a virtually identical copy in April. The people that gave one-line answers the first time around frequently changed their opinions, even though I hardly changed the story at all. By comparison, the people that had written longer passages about, say, a given category were more likely to notice that the category hadn’t changed much since they read it last.

Other considerations

  1. Thank your reviewers profusely.
  2. Don’t get defensive. If someone wrote a review for a chapter he didn’t like, that’s a sign he is really committed to helping you improve.
  3. Some people are not as courteous as you might like. “This part needs work” is blunt but remember that he’s not trying to offend you or make you feel bad about your work.
  4. Don’t be dismayed by conflicting reviews! Your critics will disagree about a lot of things, sometimes in surprising ways. Let’s see. Readers have told me that Lash is “too black”, “not black enough”, probably shouldn’t be black in the first place, and should be removed from the book entirely. (“This story, whether you see it or not, is clearly about Agent Orange”).

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Improving Your Beta Reviews”

  1. Ragged Boyon 31 Oct 2008 at 10:43 am

    Yo, B.Mac here’s your reminder, send those beta-reviews

  2. Elecon 07 Jul 2013 at 12:52 am

    This article makes a lot of good points.

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