In the last seven minutes of the sixth episode of The Story Board, Mary Robinette Kowal and Patrick Rothfuss talk about beta readers. It struck me as a useful, straightforward approach, and I wanted to draw attention to it:
Fast forward to 1:05. What I like about Mary’s advice is how simple it is. She asks readers to note the following: (1) things that bored them, (2) things that confused them, (3) things they did not believe, (4) things they thought were cool. Plus any stream-of-consciousness comments. That’s it.
Mary refers to this as Orson Scott Card’s Wise Reader approach (p. 121-124, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy). Card also includes questions such as: What did you think about such-and-such character? What do you think will happen next? For a fragment of the novel, the answer to the second question tells you how you’re doing in terms of foreshadowing, setting up tension, and predictability.
Card (and Mary and Patrick) emphasizes that beta readers are first and foremost readers; whether or not they are themselves writers is somewhat beside the point. Reader reactions are valid because they are reporting their honest experience of the work.
I’m fascinated by the topic because I exchange beta reads with my fellow writers, and I spend a lot of time thinking about what kind of feedback is most useful. If you want more awesome writing advice from Mary (along with Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells), I highly recommend the podcast Writing Excuses. I’ve been listening to the podcast since its inception, long before Mary joined the crew, and find it to be a valuable resource.
Ten tips to a valuable beta read by author Corrine Jackson