To Write Great Fiction, Ask Your Beta Readers These Questions

You’ve got to be specific


Kyros Vogiatzoglou

3 years ago | 4 min read

You’ve just finished writing your short story or your novel. You can’t possibly be an objective judge of your work, that’s a fact. But you need to improve it somehow.

When I finish writing a piece, I always find that I’ve spent too long thinking about the story, the characters and the plot to think clearly. I need external help before I make decisions on how it can be improved. Beta readers are absolutely essential at this point.

You don’t want their feedback to be misleading, though. You need them to actually help you make your story better.

Here’s My Recipe for Getting Useful Feedback

I don’t want beta readers to say “it’s a great story”. I tell them that in advance, because flattery isn’t useful feedback. What am I supposed to do with it? I know my stories are at least an interesting read, so having someone repeat that doesn’t help me improve in any way.

What I need a beta reader to do is focus on problems in my stories rather than on the things they like. I ask them to make notes of plot holes, consistency problems, things that don’t make much sense to them, uninteresting characters, phrases that don’t sound right, even names that sound weird and grammar and spelling issues.

Another useful thing to do is ask them specific questions. These are some actual questions I have asked my beta readers:

  • Did you feel that creature was scary enough from the description of the sounds it made?
  • Did that parallel conversation by the fireplace make the story more interesting, or was it confusing?
  • Did you think the main character’s past worked as a backstory? Did it explain his motives clearly enough?
  • Was that person’s death a surprise? Were you expecting it or not?

It’s when they start answering these questions that it gets interesting. You’ll get different responses from different people, so this is when you should use your judgement.

Always Filter Comments

First things first. Ignore useless feedback that doesn’t help. For example, in one of my short stories there’s a conversation that takes place between two people, which the reader follows in fragments that precede each scene throughout the story. When a reader said she found this a bit confusing, I paid attention to the comment but instantly decided that it’s not useful.

My intention was to make the reader think, and to put in some effort in order to discover how the fragmented conversation is linked to the overall story. It was supposed to be somewhat confusing, otherwise it would be boring. So, consider all feedback carefully, but use your judgement to distinguish the bits that help you improve the story from those that don’t.

Then think about frequency. If a particular problem keeps coming up in your beta readers’ comments, then you should probably consider doing something about it. This works better if you make sure you don’t get attached to your story too much. If you do, then it becomes really hard to change things.

You should also pay attention to isolated comments. If, for example, ten people read your story and only one of them mentions a particular issue, that should make you think. If most people didn’t think it was actually worth mentioning, then maybe it’s not important.

But then again think about the reader who made the comment. Who is this person? In my eyes, an isolated piece of feedback is worth considering a bit more if the reader who made it is more qualified as a critic.

What makes one person more qualified as a critic than another? If they read more than your other beta readers, for example, that would make their opinion count a bit more. If this person reads fantasy, which is my genre, then it counts even more. If they are a writer, it means that I maybe I should consider this single comment as much as the more frequent ones.

You Should See Your Writing as Work in Progress

Don’t consider each story you write to be a finished and perfect piece. It’s not perfect by any means, it’s rather a tool for improving your writing. Something temporary and volatile. It’s one more step in the ladder of becoming a great writer.

This is the way I see it: Every new story I write is an experiment. Beta readers will help me improve it, so the next one is that much better.

If you use the negative feedback to become slightly better with each story you write, and if you keep writing frequently, can you imagine where you can be as a writer 3 months from now?

Where would you be a year from now? What about three years down the road?

I bet you’ll be a completely different writer. Let me know when that happens ;)


Created by

Kyros Vogiatzoglou







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