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August 12, 2014

Introducing the Beta Reading Worksheet!

Question mark surrounded by text: The Beta Reading Worksheet -- What to Ask & What to Answer

This past weekend, I guest blogged at Anne R. Allen’s site with a post about beta readers: where to find them and how to keep them. The guest post built off several articles I’ve shared here on my blog, such as my suggestions of how to find beta readers and my advice about being a good beta reader ourselves.

As I mentioned in the guest post, many of us find beta readers by offering to exchange our work with other writers in a “I’ll give you feedback if you give me feedback” arrangement. That structure means we have to do a good job with our feedback if we want to continue our beta buddy exchange program.

A Bad Beta Reader…

One commenter on my guest post at Anne’s blog wondered if much of the advice is just common sense. Well…yeah. *smile*

Giving the type of feedback we’d like to receive is like a writers’ version of the Golden Rule. Unfortunately, common sense isn’t as common as it should be.

Virtually every writer who’s received critique partner or beta reader feedback (and sometimes this includes feedback from supposedly professional editors) has horror stories. Most of us have come across critiquers who insult us and/or our writing. Or those who try to steamroll our voice or rewrite the story to match their vision.

Those horror stories are shockingly common. So “common” sense? Nope.

And then there are the flat-out unethical critiquers Jordan McCollum posted about last week. I’m appalled at the behavior Jordan pointed out as happening to her or those she knows.

I hope we’re all in agreement that it would be unethical to:

  • withhold feedback from the author and then trash it in an online review after it’s released, or
  • negatively review a book we’ve beta read without reading the final version to see if the issues were resolved, or
  • engage in any of the other points she makes in her post.

Agreed? Good.

A Good Beta Reader…

Yet, just as harsh criticism isn’t helpful because it discourages and causes defensiveness, false compliments aren’t helpful either. So how can we be honest about things we don’t like without being mean?

Author Connie Flynn advises that we should avoid “Why did you…?” feedback comments. Why questions along those lines tend to put people on the defensive. She instead shares these excellent suggested critique phrases:

  • I don’t understand…(whatever it is).
  • The detail seems…(to slow the pace, insufficient, whatever).
  • The…(character, setting, etc.) is coming across…(feisty, depressing, important, etc.). Is that what you intended?
  • Did you want to convey (irritation, happiness, whatever)?
  • How did…(Sally get to the store, John saw down the tree, etc.)? (Use to point out missing information.)
  • Wouldn’t a character…(who has such and such a trait) do or not do…(such and such)? (Use to point out inconsistent behavior.)
  • Wasn’t…(John a blue-eyed man, Sally submissive, etc.) in Chapter (xxx)? (Use to point out inconsistent information.)
  • Carol’s (goal) seems to be… . Is that correct?
  • Your story question seems to be… .
  • I’m confused about John’s motivation.
  • And most important . . . I really liked… . (end on a strength)

These phrases echo many I’ve used over the years, and I haven’t had anyone tell me yet that I’m too harsh, so… *smile* They seem like good suggestions to me.

What If We Don’t Know What to Look For or Ask About?

When we first start beta reading, we might not know what kind of feedback is possible or appropriate, and I wondered if a cheat sheet of what to look for might be helpful. Enter my friend Shelly Chalmers, who sent me a “beta reading worksheet” she’d downloaded from an RWA forum, which I recognized as the judging scoresheet from RWA’s Fantasy, Futuristic, and Paranormal chapter’s On the Far Side contest (one I’ve judged several times).

I’ve mentioned before that RWA members have the benefit of a large variety of writing contests, especially compared to other genres. These contests are generally well run and use scoresheets to assist judges with objective scoring and feedback.

In other words, these scoresheets contain a couple dozen questions probing the writing quality and storytelling craft of a contest entry. Sounds like a good start for analyzing stories of a beta read, doesn’t it?

Maybe when we beta read, we’re not sure what to look for or comment on. Or maybe when we request a beta read, we’re not sure what questions to ask our beta readers. To that end, I took the idea borne from Shelly’s email and the RWA forums and put it on steroids. *grin*

I’ve entered and judged a lot of contests, so I had over a dozen scoresheets from which to grab ideas. With profound thanks to RWA and its chapters for the original scoresheets, I took pieces and parts and merged them into a new creation, a single Frankenstein listing of points to consider for a beta read.

Introducing the Beta Reading Worksheet!

First, a note that this worksheet should not feel like an obligation, nor is it meant as an all-inclusive list of every question possible. Instead, these questions are meant merely to trigger thoughts of what worked and what didn’t. Depending on our process, we might even be able to use this worksheet for self-editing by gaining insights into the areas to study and improve.

For more of that “common” sense…

  • If this doesn’t work for you, don’t use it.
  • If you instinctively know how to approach all but one area of analysis, it’s okay to look at just that one section for ideas.
  • In short, as with all things related to feedback, take what works for you and ignore the rest.

Screen shot of the two-page Beta Reading Worksheet

(click on the image to zoom)

Click to download the Beta Reading Worksheet — MS Word ’07 version (.docx)

Click to download the Beta Reading Worksheet — MS Word earlier version (.doc)

On contest scoresheets, questions like these are typically answered with a score of 1 to 5 to come up with an entry’s ranking:

  1. Needs Extensive Work
  2. Fair
  3. Good
  4. Very Good
  5. Excellent

Of course, we can use these questions however we want, as a checklist of things to think about, a master list of questions we could ask, or any other of a dozen uses. Remember, this is a tool, not necessarily a to-do list.

Personally, I wouldn’t send this whole list to a beta reader because it could be overwhelming and distract their big-picture reading. Instead, I’d ask a few overview questions (like from the last section about marking issues). Then if the beta reader requested more direction after they were done reading, I might send this sheet or a good portion of it. For me, I want my beta readers to use these questions only to organize their thoughts, not to direct their reading—but my goals are not necessarily your goals.

Hopefully, Connie’s suggestions above and this worksheet will help those of us who struggle with knowing what to say and how to say it. And don’t forget to check out my guest post at Anne R. Allen’s blog with more beta-reading tips. With any luck, we’ll be able to keep the writing and beta-reading communities helpful and encouraging. *smile*

Do you have horror stories of bad or unethical beta readers? Or have you heard from others with those stories? What do you think of Connie’s comment wording suggestions? Do you struggle with knowing what to ask your beta readers or knowing what to comment on when you beta read? Will this worksheet be helpful?

P.S. Don’t forget to check out my other helpful writing worksheets.

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What do you think?

86 Comments on "Introducing the Beta Reading Worksheet!"

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Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

I’m gonna say it…you’re an effing Goddess!!!
Yesterday I was perusing your posts, looking for nuggets of wisdom I’d either missed or wanted to go over again and found, of course, a crap load of amazingness!! And as always, this post does not disappoint!
The beta worksheet you included…wonderful! Thanks for that 🙂
And yes, like most authors who need feedback I’ve had some iffy betas. One told me that my red-haired heroine’s copper hair wasn’t appealing…she seriously said that most people aren’t attracted to “Gingers” and I should think about changing it to blonde or brunette. YES, she said that!
Hey, some people are just stupid.
Thank you for your wisdom and have a great writing week,
Tamara

Sharon Hughson

I did several posts on my blog about my experience with beta readers and my first novel. Since I didn’t know what to ask them to look for, I did research and then came up with my own checklist (somewhat similar to yours).
As an author, we should have an idea what things might need work in our manuscript. I know I’m abysmal at describing because I despise lengthy descriptions. Since my novel is a fantasy, the element of setting is extremely important. So I asked my betas to comment about both of these things.
In my mind, if an author wants to get the best feedback they need to ask the right questions. I think the phrasing suggested in your post is great. I was lucky that all of my betas prefaced their comments with “if you like it, use it and if not, ignore it.” This kept me from being too emotionally vulnerable when I read their input.
Truthfully, we would be wrong to ignore any input. We should consider it carefully. If more than two of my betas commented on something in my book, it got changed. Sadly, my protagonist was deemed unsympathetic by all of them and that required major rewrites. Now, when I read her she seems too flat. I may have gone too far and taken away the snarky spunk that appealed to me in the first place.

Erin Quinn

Great blog, Jami, but I’m going to disagree on the point of a beta reader. A beta reader is foremost a READER. You don’t want your reader looking for problems or following a roadmap to make sure you’ve hit the mark. You want your reader to read like a reader–for enjoyment. I boil my Beta questions down to these few:

1. Tell me if you find yourself thinking about your laundry, grocery list, cleaning toilets (etc) at any place in this book. Zzzzz in the margin is clear enough.

2. Tell me if you loved something so I don’t accidentally delete it in manic editing. Hearts, smiley faces and exclamations in margin are clear enough.

3. Confused? A simple WTF or ???? in margin works. If you know what’s bugging you, tell me. If not, don’t worry. I’ll figure it out.

4. Typos–if you see it, circle it. Don’t read for typos, though. I have other readers who do that.

5. After you’re done reading the book, please let me know…is there anything that happened in the book that you thought shouldn’t have? On the flip side, anything you thought I was building to and didn’t deliver?

This last question always gives me the best feedback. The reader usually finds threads that you lost, changed or didn’t realize you were weaving. 🙂

Hetty van Boven
Hetty van Boven

Thank you, this really resonates with me and I hope you don’t mind my copying and putting it in my research folder.
I am a long way from needing Beta readers, but do have a circle of friends who say they would love the job!

Hety

Tara

Hi Erin,
I know this is an old post, but I just wanted to say thanks for your beta-reader questions. I hope you don’t mind, I’m going to use this for my first attempt at finding a beta reader. 🙂 Thanks!

Anne R. Allen

Great worksheets, Jami. And thanks for the heads-up and link to Jordan McCollum’s piece on abusive betas. Sociopaths and bulles abound online, so it should be no surprise they offer to “beta read” when all they want to do is inflict misery on their fellow human beings, but still, I was kind of shocked. I hope writers will be extra careful now when vetting a beta.

So much of the feedback we get is going to be based on the reader’s agenda and not on the work, so we need to consider the source for every suggestion. Some people hate redheads. Some people hate chocolate. Some people hate everybody who isn’t exactly like them. We can’t let their quirks affect our work. Just take what resonates and leave the rest.

Inderpreet Kaur Uppal

It is a very comprehensive post. I like all the tips and good vs bad points for beta readers you have given.
Common sense is quite uncommon.
I am venturing into beta reading so this is god sent.
Thanks and I will visit again.

Christina Hawthorne

An excellent post, Jami, and thank you for the worksheet. How it works for me I won’t know until I use it, but my first impression is that it’s excellent and at the very least an excellent starting point. I agree with Connie’s wording suggestions, but then I don’t see where there’s room for a confrontational style in the beta reading process at all. 🙂

Mary Roya
Mary Roya

That worksheet was a god sent. Sometimes, I just don’t know what to write when I review a story. I usually just give my impressions.

I’ve always thought if you don’t like something, its okay. Just be fair and kind when you report on the book.

Very much enjoyed your article. Thanks for sharing.

Dawn Linse
Dawn Linse

Jami,
This is great! I needed to find something about expectations for a beta reader. This is awesome. Thanks for all your tips, very much appreciated.

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[…] is chock-full of great ideas and tools for writers. Her latest post on beta reading (Introducing the Beta Reading Worksheet!) offers tips that apply to critique groups as well. She lists a number of phrases that can help […]

Ally
Ally

Thank you for this excellent resource Jami! I love the way this is set up and the delineation within each area. A definite must in a writer’s toolkit!

Robert Doucette
Robert Doucette

Thank you for the Worksheet. I am finishing a novel and plan to pursue the “I’ll review your if you review mine” method. Your worksheet will be very useful.

This leads me to bad reviewers not mentioned yet. Some reviewers stop after the first paragraph saying “It’s OK, I guess. It’s not my thing but it’s fine.” Another type ignores the book in front of him says, “Rather than talk to you about the romantic cozy you’ve written. Let me tell you about the dark, violent Joseph Wambaugh version you should have written.”

Both of these examples come from writing seminars where speakers privately reviewed previously submitted writing samples.

Laurie Evans

Thank you! I love all your worksheets. Very helpful.

Carradee
As a teenager, posting fanfic online, I remember outright begging in an author’s note for someone to leave a negative review, and I’ve always figured that negative comments I disagreed with would be useful fodder for building characters that differed from me. Considering my attitude about that—and my own, erm, background (*cough* I’ve yet to get a troll harsher than family *cough*)—I personally find it most effective to toss a story at a beta reader with instructions to “Say whatever you like.” Their responses can tell me as much about the reader as they do the about the story, and I can always ask a clarifying question or three later, if I need to verify the root of a particular comment. Even in everyday life, if I get an urge to scoff or recoil at something someone says, I try to force myself to stop and evaluate how I’d respond if the words came from another source, to seek the truth buried in the words. Sometimes the truth’s about the speaker rather than me. Sometimes the truth’s hidden in what isn’t said rather than what is said. But there’s truth in it somewhere, and a knee-jerk reaction is a good indicator that a particular truth is something I should pay attention to. I read psychology textbooks when I was 9-ish, and the entire Bible before that. There’s likely a connection. All that aside, though, I’m well aware that I’m not exactly, well, normal. Your worksheet would certainly be good for… Read more »
Carradee

Note: My attitude also may be why I don’t mind if folks review based on beta copies. That is what they read. My stories are rarely significantly changed from one form to the other, though.

Kirsten

I’ve been incredibly fortunate when it comes to finding other writers to read my work, in part perhaps because I’m always eager to read theirs! Since I’m always looking for tips on offering better feedback this worksheet is another slice of awesome. 🙂
I’m curious though. Where does critique leave off and beta reading begin? Is critique reserved for the earlier stages of the story creation process, and beta reading for the nearly finished product? Would the questions on this worksheet be useful for critiques as well as beta reading?

Shelly Chalmers

Thanks for the shout out – and nice work! You bring in some very intriguing points to keep track of throughout the beta read. Definitely getting added to my resources to pull out. Thanks! 🙂

Jacqueline Driggers

Well, I offer something in the way of beta reading that I haven’t ran across too often. I do beta reading for a fee, as part of my list of writer’s services that I offer. The fee is based on the number of pages in the book, so a person with a 50 page book would pay much less than a person with a 300 page book. What I do is read the book in pdf format, highlighting any areas that I think need attention. In addition, I have a page by page word file that goes with this, with my comments and thoughts as I read the book.

Mary Anders
Mary Anders

Fantastic post! I’m going to pass this sheet out to some of my beta readers and members of my critique groups. It’s true that a writer may not want all betas or critique partners to be focused on every one of these elements, but it certainly provides a wonderful starting place.

Cecilia

thank you so much. I am going to link this post to my writers group so they can come and read it for themselves. Terrific advice.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Horror stories about beta readers trying to change your whole voice/ style? Yes!! There was one story where I was writing in a more flowery, Victorian prose style, with a few metaphors (not A LOT of metaphors, but some.) The people beta reading for me clearly really dislike more flowery Victorian prose, haha, because they told me to trim those metaphors and make it “economical”. I’m not saying they’re wrong, because being economical and having next to zero metaphors is a valid style. Just saying that it wasn’t helpful to try to change my Victorian-esque style into their Hemingway style, haha. Of course I wouldn’t want to write purple prose, but I wanted SOME metaphors and elaborate emotional descriptions. In fact, I was trying to emulate “The Mill on the Floss” by George Eliot, which is one of my favorite books ever—the complex psychological and emotional descriptions are AMAZING. 😀 Yes, I know that many modern readers dislike Victorian style prose, but readers who DO enjoy reading 19th century novels DO exist after all, so you could say I was sort of targeting that bunch of readers, lol. One of Jordan’s tips on how to be an ethical beta reader really struck me: Remember to put in a lot of positive feedback as well! This is very important partly because it’s helpful to tell the writer what IS working and therefore the writer should keep doing, and also because writers are emotional creatures; if you make them feel good about… Read more »
Julie Musil

What a great idea! It’s nice to know that my little beta circle seems to work this way naturally, but it’s great to have a guide like this. Thanks so much.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Oh I forgot to add: I think one of Jordan’s tips was to not create a profile for your author’s book on Goodreads? Well, I still made new book profiles for these four Chinese online stories, because since they are online stories, their authors will probably not make formal book profiles for them (most of them don’t try to publish their stories in print or ebook form either), AND they’re in Chinese, so it’s even less likely that they’ll make a profile on Goodreads, lol. But then I really do want to display what I’m reading, and therefore I created them as book entries (since they ARE kind of “books”; they’re novels.)

I think the worry is that a beta reader will create a book profile and then trash it with one star reviews and destructive criticism? Well, since I committed to reading these online stories, I must quite like them already, otherwise I wouldn’t commit to them, haha. So I will most likely give at least 3 star and mostly positive reviews anyway. 3 Stars means “good to very good” in my book, lol. No pun intended…

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[…] comprehensive overview of what to ignore and what can prove helpful. Jami Gold introduces a helpful beta reader worksheet., while Harrison Demchick offers hope and suggestions for braving your second draft after writing a […]

Judith Anne Horner

Thank you so much for posting this. I have subscribed to your newsletters.

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[…] Then, Jami had to follow up on her blog with the beta reading worksheet. […]

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[…] Jamie Gold wrote a great post on the Beta Reader Worksheet. […]

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[…] But there was still coffee so all was well. Once seated with our coffee, I went through this wonderful beta reader worksheet with her and sat and listened — scribbling down notes with my handy-dandy notebook — as […]

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[…] Jami Gold: The Beta Reader Worksheet […]

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[…] Help the Beta Readers There is a very likely chance that your Beta Readers are also first timers. The whole concept of it is new to them. If you simply say: “tell me what you think of this,” or “write a review about this story thing;” they will often give you a blank stare and a stammering of words that shows their confusion. Give them a tool to help them respond. This could be a series of questions, fill in the blanks, or a rating scale. I found a great resource from Jami Gold that provided me with the questions I needed to ask my Beta Readers. I simply added the questions before I began the story. http://jamigold.com/2014/08/introducing-the-beta-reading-worksheet/ […]

Nancy Raven Smith

Great article on Beta Readers and how to help guide them to the answers you need! I’d like to add something I learned as a screenwriter before writing books. As the article mentions, don’t pay attention to the suggestions for fixing a problem from a beta reader. But I was also taught that if 2 or more beta reader make different suggestions about the same thing, that means there is a problem there for the author to work on.

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[…] has a must-read post on her blog on The Ethics of Beta Reading. And Jami is following up with some worksheets for beta readers you can offer your prospective […]

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[…] Introducing the Beta Reading Worksheet! […]

Redd Becker
Redd Becker

I’m in the process of enlisting beta readers and this is very helpful. Thank you

Kim Daniels
Kim Daniels

This is so incredibly helpful for us Beta Readers. Thank you for putting it together!

Clifton Hill

Great notes, Jami, but I’m not seeing the “magic button” that provides a big list of beta readers for me without any effort. Ah well.

Did have a question related: Anyone aware of an effective, consistent way to provide an ARC ebook to betas that would allow them to annotate and then access and provide those notes? I know how to do this for a Kindle eReader, but android Kindle App doesn’t appear to allow a way to access the annotated notes for a “document” (any item not purchased in the Amazon store). I’ve heard it is easy to do from the Apple Kindle app, and not sure on epub ereaders like Kobo and whatnot.

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[…] Source: Introducing the Beta Reading Worksheet! […]

Carol Nissenson

Maybe it’s because I write YA, but I find getting beta readers is the toughest, because ideally I want someone who would be part of the potential market for my novel. A 45-year-old man is probably not going to be entranced by the same novel that would delight a 14-year-old girl, whereas an adult mystery has a very broad potential audience. Sometimes parents are wary of letting kids participate. Kids, on the other hand, are dealing with a lot of required reading for school and are hesitant to add more if they know nothing about it.

Tam Francis

This is spectacular! Thank you so much for sharing this. I’m just getting ready for a round of beta-reads for my time-travel, murder mystery, paranormal romance! Woo hoo!

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[…] research on how this whole Beta Reader or Advance Copy Reader thing should work, I found this  blog post about the topic. There’s also a worksheet that has been created for this very thing, but not […]

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[…] good place with a list of good question to consider when beta reading. The list below is from this site. It is a good list and I can’t add much more to it at this stage. Maybe later when my skills […]

Monica
Monica

Thank you very much for this list! I have an one beta reader reply with excellent information. However, I needed to make sure the others did the same. I love the worksheet! I suppose that I never thought a beta reader would do those awful things! It makes me really nervous to get a beta reader offline now. The ones I currently have are local. I’ll do more research before I reach out to more beta readers.

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[…] beta reader and I think I’ll get a good bit of guidance, courtesy of a worksheet that I found here. So here’s hoping I can be of some […]

Karee

Great resource! I don’t have a beta currently, but I always use these resources to double-check my work and make sure it’s easy to read (which sadly takes reading my own stuff till I’m numb to it!)

But I’d like to add, from witnessing others using betas, that it’s also as unethical to leave ONLY POSITIVE beta reviews (I’ve seen people do this in fear of hurting the writer’s feelings, ALSO to make the writer look bad later on [to make the the beta look like a better writer later on]). I’ve flat out had someone tell me a chapter was CRAP, but you know what? It’s was amazing advice because I felt something was off but couldn’t pinpoint it, and trying to fix it led my writing to evolve. So NOT point out mistakes doesn’t help the writer, it doesn’t help them learn how to tell the stories they see in their heads, especially when a reader gets the guts to offer constructive criticism after the piece has been published. It’s also discredit’s the beta AS a beta/editor for future projects – especially when their motive for withholding needed corrections prove to be for personal gain.

And thank you for sharing these! Learning how to Beta-read absolutely helps writers improve before handing it to a beta. Great resource <3

Margaret
Margaret

Thanks so much for the worksheet, it’s really useful to me as I’m a first-time beta reader and writer looking very shortly for beta readers; this really helps me to prioritise what I’m looking for feedback on, in a format that hopefully won’t scare people away! My next challenge: finding the right beta readers! 🙂

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[…] how to use my Beta Reading Worksheet […]

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[…] someone to stomp on your work ? Since I’m a very practical person, I looked for a good beta reading work sheet and found one on Jamie Gold’s […]

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