• Cait Levin
  • [What's Next?] Asking the Right Questions
[What's Next?] Asking the Right Questions
Written by
Cait Levin
September 2014
Written by
Cait Levin
September 2014

Hi everyone! I’m really excited about this week’s post for a lot of reasons, but there’s a biggie that’s the main source of my enthusiasm: The final early readers are done with my book, and they’re ready to sit down with me and talk about it.

I’ve had some initial comments from them, of course. Vaguely positive, which is good! Now that I’m gearing up to sit with them and really flesh out the problems they found with the text, I’m thinking about what questions I want to ask. I have specific things that I’ve been nervous about and working on through different drafts, so of course I want to see if those come up naturally, or if the readers picked up on them. But I’m also wondering if there are questions I don’t know I should be asking. I don’t know what I don’t know. You know?

I have a lot of general questions in mind, as well. Does the narrative arc make sense? Are the characters believable? Do we care about them? Does the story resolve itself? Are we satisfied when it ends? I don’t think all stories need to resolve themselves or feel satisfying, but my particular one should.

The one thing I regret about my education in writing during college is that there were no courses in writing a novel. Writing fiction, sure. We read a lot of short stories and wrote our own. But nobody gave me a really good novel and told me to take a stab at writing the first fifty pages of my own. I chose to do that as a thesis project, but there wasn’t a whole lot of coursework to be done on the creation of a novel. Luckily, communities like this one exist.

This group of readers is not necessarily comprised of people who are writers. The first group was, because I put my harshest critics first. I feel that this group might need a bit more prodding to get out what I’m really hoping to glean from their feedback, mostly because they aren’t used to discussing writing and how to fix it. It’s different than talking about a book; this is a living work at this point, and can be changed. I want to be sure it changes for the better, and that my readers aren’t shy in letting me know where they think that can happen.

This is my first time moving through this process, so my question for all of you this week is this: Do you have any overarching questions you always make a point to ask your early readers? What strategies do you use during those conversations to make sure you’re getting the best feedback you can?

Cait Levin is the Community Manager at She Writes. You can read more of her blog (when she stops watching so much Dawson’s Creek and actually writes more of a blog) here.

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  • Evette Davis


    I gave a draft of my upcoming novel to a set of beta readers with no instructions. These are readers who are associates of mine, but not friends.  I didn't ask them anything specific because I knew they were avid readers and thoughtful. I chose them initially because I knew they would think about the book and the ramifications of the story when responding. I think they may be one of the most important pieces of advice, which is that this job should not be given to just anyone. 

    As expected, each of them gave me slightly different comments about the main character Olivia and her behavior throughout the book.  I read through their remarks several times and looked for common themes and listed them on a sheet of paper, along with some of the other good points and then I emailed it all to my editor. Together we looked at all of the criticisms to decide what was relevant and what was not.  This is the middle book of a trilogy, so the main character is going to take two steps forward and one step back, because she needs this book to sort of get to the other side of her emotional development.  That said, as a writer, I can't take her too far from what readers expect of her without losing them.  In the end, we made some great edits to the MS to add more details and round out the emotional depth of a number of characters! Dark Horse will be out in November and we'll see what readers think! 

  • Cait Levin

    I think this rule of three, I take a similar attitude with writing workshops. It can be hard to take contradictory feedback and figure out what needs to be addressed and what's just a personal preference for that person. This post that Liz shared is a great resource!!

  • Liz Gelb-O\'Connor

    @Joanne, I recommend 6 beta readers if you can find them. That gives me what I call a 'rule of 3,' meaning, if 3 people say the same thing than I need to address it. Other things are run through my 'filter' to see if they fit into spirit of the book. The good news... it gets easier.

    Some great beta reader posts by Jami Gold here: http://jamigold.com/2014/09/feedback-finding-problems-vs-fixing-problems/

  • Joanne Barney

    I gave my completed manuscript to two readers (one a writer, one a great reader), and new to the game, I said, "Please don't just say you liked it."  Well, they kind of did, but they were frank  when they felt a weakness, a blank space, and a confusion in my story. I breathed deeply and said, "Thank you for spending such serious time with my book."  I let the critiques sit for a week, then took another deep breath and really read them. I was ready to listen.  Except that their comments weren't in sync.  One liked the old lady, the other said she was turned off by her; one said the transitions between chapters were disconcerting, the other commented on the ease of moving through the book.  And so on.  I realized that it was up to me to evaluate what my readers had said and to pick and choose the comments that felt most valuable. I re-read the book, critiques at my side, made changes, and then more changes as I became my own beta reader, when I understood that this careful kind of reading, much of it aloud, forced me to see my book in a more objective way than I"d ever seen it.  So I thank my two readers for forcing me to really look at the words I"d written in the heat of creativity.  And I have a better story now. I think.  I've put it aside for another week or two.

  • Cait Levin

    Thanks for these suggestions, ladies! I'm going to pull out some of these questions and make sure I bring them up and ask for honesty when I have these conversations with my readers.

  • Liz Gelb-O\'Connor

    Hey Cait,
    I agree there is a difference between writers and readers as 'betas.' Many of mine have lived through three manuscripts. The last time through I used some questions from contest scoring sheets to supplement my questions - friend me and I'll send it to you. But basically, my general spiel is: "I'd rather hear it from you ladies than read it in a review. Be honest, I won't take it personally, just help me make this the best book it can be." I have all my betas leave notes in the margins using Track Changes in MS WORD. I have them indicate anything they find from word choice, to ideas, to what's slowing them down or pulling them from the story, to things they loved that made them laugh or cry. Questions, confusion, what worked, what didn't, was the story thread completed, did I create any anomalies or contradictions, who they liked and who they didn't and why, etc.

    It's amazing what they picked up and and knowing it was safe to tell me made my books so much better. My ultimate question: what star rating would you give it? Caveating it by saying it doesn't need to be a 5-star review. Why? Because they are my first online reviewers (disclosed as beta readers) and I don't want sock puppet reviews.

  • Pamela Olson

    I just sent the first three chapters of my first novel out to some beta readers -- mostly volunteers from Facebook, some of whom I don't even know personally. At this stage I didn't want to ask people but rather let some folks come to me (many of whom have read my first book, a memoir). Just psychologically easier that way.

    It's a huge departure from the memoir, though. First it's fiction, second there's a paranormal element, and third it's not meant to educate the world about a little-known part of the world. It's just stretching my imagination, using pieces of stories I've written over the years that didn't fit anywhere else, and really enjoying myself and the process. (It's so freeing not to have to check the timeline against my journal or cite my sources!) I hope other people will enjoy it, too.

    The feedback I've gotten so far has been really kind, but of course people tend to be nice in general. There have also been a few useful critiques, and I'll certainly take them into account. Looking forward to the rest of the feedback.

  • Jeannine Atkins

    Congratulations on reaching this point! I'd just suggest you make clear what you make clear here: that you want to hear any bad news. Some nice people need to be told this a few times, loudly. These are people who like you, and don't want to hurt you, and that's very sweet. But you want them to be the kind of friends who will tell you if there is spinach in your teeth.

    Since they're not necessarily writers, I'd avoid asking too many questions with terms even like arc or characterization that may not often use. You can figure out some of your own answers just by keeping questions simple, like, What characters and parts did you like? What scenes seemed slow? Were there things that didn't seem to belong? And just as I expect happened in your college workshops, it's best if the readers can carry most of the discussion. Even asking questions can put you as a person too front and center, when you want attention on the manuscript. Fade away and listen up, preparing to sort it all out later. And if you're like me, maybe do a bit of crying or screaming in the car on the way home, because it does hurt to have flaws of our beloved work pointed out, even when we've asked just for that, and it's a good thing, because now we can make it better. Make sure you have budgeted time the following day to do a little muttering and get back to fixing, which always reminds me how very much I do like my readers. Good luck!

  • Catherine Hiller

    There are some things an author can never know for herself: "Is it funny?" (if it was supposed to be), "Is it interesting?" (ask if any passages or chapters felt tedious), and "Did you care about the character or the outcome?" Usually a reader needs to like at least one character and want that one to achieve a goal. No empathy = no interest. This goes beyond a character's being "likable": the main character of Americanah isn't always likable, but one really cares about her struggles.

    It's true: there are few novel writing courses.  I initiated one at NYC's Writer's Voice in the nineties.  They are hard to teach because it's difficult to keep earlier chapters in mind.  And they are hard to take because one is required to read or listen to an avalanche of work from fellow students! Still, I sometimes teach novel writing privately because I love the form.

  • Jessica Hatfield


    Just starting this adventure myself, I have yet to let anyone in.  I too am in the position to let it be read.  I will follow your responses as if they were my own so as to learn from your experience.  That you for throwing it out there and letting me glean as much as I can!  Good luck!