I recently asked for volunteers to read the stories I’m planning to publish or submit for publishing.  The question came up.  What is it you want from your reader?

If you are reading this article, than you already know how to “read”.  That’s a good first step, but being a beta reader means so much more.  Beta reading is similar to reviewing.  Rebecca Besser has an excellent post about writing reviews. You might want to read over that article before you get started here.  A good beta reader is the key to turning a competent writer into a successfully published writer.

Being a beta reader essentially boils down to a simple, though frequently misunderstood, phrase: constructive criticism.  Be honest, be thorough, and be helpful. 

“You’re awesome.  I loved it” may not be entirely honest and is certainly neither thorough nor helpful.  Let’s discuss some of the elements of criticism that will better help you and the author figure out why you don’t love a story.

Flow

Hopefully your friend or family member has honed the manuscript to the point where you can read from start to finish smoothly.  Unfortunately, even after spell-checking and rereading a manuscript, mistakes and logical errors can bleed through.Mark every sentence that you had to re-read.  The most common reasons you might miss the meaning of a sentence are:
  1. Spelling, grammar and syntax: the most common errors are the most basic.  Having grown up in Germany, I spelled house h-a-u-s until I was in the third grade.  Many versions of spellchecker don’t know the difference between their, there and they’re.  This is why a second pair of eyes is critical.
  2. Word choice: Some writers are like totally casual in their style, you know and it ain’t always read good.  Other writers embrace the plethora of alternate systems to convey data in unique manifestations.
    When a writer changes style mid-sentence or mid-paragraph for no apparent reason, it can take the reader’s mind a few cycles to catch up.  Other times, a word just doesn’t seem like it would come out of that particular character’s mouth.
  3. Failure to suspend disbelief:  In the world which the writer has crafted, you have no reason to believe an event is possible.  This may be as overt as a toddler gutting all his playmates and the nursery attendant with a spoon or as sublime as molecules adopting a less stable configuration without a catalyst.

Engagement

Mark down the point in the story where you started to think about laundry and tomorrow’s lunches.  Most often this happens when a whole paragraph or even a long sentence passes without any actual activity.  Maybe you didn't need to know that much detail about the delicate white porcelain teapot on the black ceramic counter...

Satisfaction

  1. Weak opening: How long do you have to read before you figure out what kind of story this is?  By the third or fourth paragraph, do you have an idea of who the main character is and what dilemma they are facing?
  2. Weak development: As the story continues, do you feel like you know the character or characters better than before the story began?  Are you rooting for one or more of them to “win”?
  3. Weak ending: 
    1. Does the story end naturally or abruptly? 
    2. If there was a twist ending could you see it coming in retrospect or does it feel like the writer pasted the ending they wanted onto the story? 
    3. Do you have a good idea of what will happen next or does the story feel incomplete?

Thinking about these things as you are writing your review will help you read more critically in the future and offer better responses to your friend or loved one.  Remember to include the positive remarks along with the negative.  It helps an author to know what they are doing that works too.

What are some other ideas you have about critical reading?
Nellie
9/11/2012 03:49:52 am

This is very handy. I only beta once in a while and if a friend asks, I'll refer to this to help out.

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