Now you might be confused when you read this title and think: Isn’t that the opposite of what you said in an article last month?
Why yes, yes it is. That article was about how to approach worldbuilding, as well as telling your own story. The long and the short of it: You are the author, and you have full control over your words and your stories.
But what you don’t have control over? How your readers respond.
Now, this doesn’t mean you should believe your beta readers if they say “your writing sucks!” or “you should do this instead.” After all, you own your writing. But the goal of finding beta readers to review your work is to see your story through a different lens—the lens of someone who is not looking at their wrinkly, waiting baby and seeing the most beautiful thing in existence.
Here are three questions to ask your beta readers in order to make your writing better (and avoid the frustrating scenario where they call your work bad).
1. Where were you confused?
This could be line level (I don’t know what that sentence means), character level (why did they do this and not that?), or story level (how did that happen?). As the writer, you have depths of information about your story swirling around in your brain. If a reader is confused, that is probably because you assumed they knew something that they didn’t, which means you might need to add a little more clarification.
Confusion is different than intrigue. Intrigue is when your antagonist acts out of character and your reader knows that it’s for a particular reason—they just won’t discover what the reason is for another 30 pages. Confusion is when the reader begins to wonder if there even is an answer, or if the author simply didn’t do their job right. You want your readers to be intrigued, but you don’t want them to be confused.
2. Where were you bored?
Boredom is the number one reason I put down a book. Boredom means I’m not invested—in the characters, the world, or the plot. You, as the writer, might know that the biggest, most fantastic fight is happening on page 135, but if the reader is bored on page 134, then they might put the book down before they get the chance to find out.
The solution to this is typically to add more promises or make your current promises clearer. But in order to do that, you need to know where your reader begins to disengage from the story. Perhaps you need to shorten a description, cut a scene, or shift a conflict earlier—asking whether your reader is bored can help you identify where you need to make these changes.
3. Where were you excited/intrigued/gripped?
In other words, where was your beta reader most engaged in the story? The first two questions help you diagnose what is not working, while this question (or questions) is aimed at discovering what is working. Yes, it’s important to feed your writer ego, but this is also a good question to ensure that your writing is doing what you want it to do—entertain your readers.
If you have an astute eye, you may have noticed something—all of these questions are asking about how your beta reader felt when they were reading your book. You’re not asking them what was good or bad. Honestly, no one is qualified to answer that question, not even your high school English teacher. But people are qualified to give their own emotional responses to your book, which can help you determine what you may or may not need to change.
Also remember: Everyone who reads your book will respond differently. That’s why it’s always a good idea to get multiple beta readers, and beta readers who like books similar to yours. Someone who only reads epic fantasy might not be a fan of your contemporary romance, and you wouldn’t want to make drastic changes in order to make them enjoy it—because then you might end up writing an epic fantasy! Different perspectives will help you balance out what is useful feedback from what might not be useful.
So remember: While the reader is always right in how they respond to your book, you are still the author. The words and story are yours, and you may decide that you are willing to risk 1% of your readers being bored on page 134 when 99% of your readers are just looking forward to that epic battle. Ultimately, you decide how best to tell your story.