Beta readers are people who volunteer to read your writing before it’s published. They give opinions, answer questions, and reveal different possible interpretations of the piece.
They aren’t critique partners or editors—they’re often the step before the professional edit.
In this blog, we’re going to talk about:
- 9 questions I always ask beta readers
- Tips for interpreting feedback
Note: This information is coming from the perspective of an indie author with an online platform who mostly uses beta readers for short stories. While the tips can apply to other situations, just keep that in mind.
9 questions I ask beta readers
- Do you like the story? Why or why not?
- Please summarize the story to your understanding.
This question lets me know if people understand the story so I know the importance of their opinion.
- How do you interpret this story (e.g., themes, metaphors, meanings)?
This pairs with summarizing the story. I want to make sure people understand what’s happening, then I want to know how they interpret what’s happening.
- What was your favorite aspect (e.g., line, concept, image, character, scene)?
- If you could change one thing about the story, what would you change?
This question gives them a place to express opinions they might think are more subjective. The next question usually has more useful feedback.
- Do you see any weaknesses? (e.g., structural inconsistencies, bad lines, awkward phrasing)
This is where I get answers of what beta readers genuinely believe to be weaknesses in the story, not just their personal preferences.
- What do you think of the title? How do you interpret it? Any better suggestions?
I put this question here for two reasons. One is that some people don’t think I’d be open to title feedback, which I always am. So it gives them an opportunity to give the title a second look.
The second reason is that everyone else loves to give title feedback. If you give someone a story and say “give me your thoughts,” most people will want to say something positive and something constructive. The title is an easy target for someone to dislike. By asking this question, I’m taking it away as the easy option, so they have to dig a little deeper to find a genuine weakness in the story.
- Do you have literally any other thoughts?
This is a free space for anything that didn’t fit in another question.
- Would you like to beta read the next one?
Those are the standard questions I ask. (I’ll also ask ones specific to each story, like “What did you think of the dynamic between Character A and Character B?”) I’ve added, deleted, and edited this questions list many times, and I’m sure it’ll continue to evolve. The longer you write, the better you’ll get at realizing how people respond and the best ways to illicit the more helpful responses. Stay receptive and flexible!
Now the hard part: Interpreting feedback.
5 tips on receiving and interpreting beta feedback
Everything in writing is subjective, including interpretation. There is no absolute right or absolute wrong answer to anything, but these are a few mostly consistently things I’ve noticed from getting, giving, and interpreting feedback for 8 years.
- If a reader tells you EXACTLY how to fix something, they’re probably wrong.
I will note that an experienced writer, like an instructor or hired workshop, might give you suggestions on ways to fix a problem, but anytime someone (especially an inexperienced writer) gives you a very specific solution, they’re probably just projecting their style onto your writing. Take it as a subjective preference, not as law. If you agree with them, that’s fine, but if it’s between your instincts and something a random person is INSISTING you change, go with your gut.
- Look for trends, not individual responses.
If only one reader says something you disagree with, they’re likely wrong. If you keep getting the same comment from different readers, it’s worth taking a second look at.
- BUT remember multiple people can have the same opinion and still be wrong.
While trends are more reliable than one bit of feedback, multiple people can have the same bad idea. It takes a little more practice to be able to spot this.
For example, I’ll often have multiple beta readers point out the same sentence because they weren’t expecting the way I wrote it. If you get a comment like, “I thought the sentence was going to end THIS way, and it didn’t, so that’s bad,” ignore it.
It could be that they’re not big readers, only read one genre, or only read a few different authors, but it’s GOOD to divert expectations. If their reason for something being “bad” is that it was unexpected, they’re probably wrong.
- Look out for writers.
Novice writers are often some of the worst beta readers. It’s great to have experienced writers as critique partners, but I’d much rather have mostly non-writers as beta readers. As soon as someone considers themselves to be a writer, they tend to insert their own style onto things, especially new writers who don’t realize how subjective it is and also…aren’t very good yet.
Suffice it to say that the best beta reader is a reader, not a writer.
- Try to keep a balance between staying receptive to feedback and not taking it personally.
Remember that beta readers are just sharing their opinions on the story. It’s not personal. Beta rounds are great for getting an idea of the different subjective interpretations your story might have, and it’s great to hear varied takes, but don’t think you have to take it all to heart. You don’t even have to bring every suggestion to your revision.
You need a thick skin in terms of separating your self-worth from your work, but you also need to stay receptive and not get so arrogant that you only listen to the positive feedback. It’s important to intentionally keep that balance.
Remember that it’s all subjective and not personal, look for trends in feedback, realize that readers—especially readers who are also writers—all have different opinions and are coming from different backgrounds. And most importantly, give yourself time to learn how to take feedback. Whether it’s from critique partners, beta readers, editors, or friends, it takes time to separate yourself from your work, to be receptive to the right feedback, and to interpret what’s good or bad feedback. It just takes time, so give yourself a break.
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