Your draft is finished and edited? Then you’re finally ready to search for some test readers, who will take a really close look at your work and give you brutally honest feedback.
Why you need test readers
Two words: organizational blindness. You know your work by heart, because you spent hour after hour with it. Which is necessary and great, but this makes it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to look at it objectively. You probably won’t even spot some obvious mistakes. As an auther you always know what you actually wanted to say – or rather write – though you can’t be too sure that this actually made it onto paper. You know so much more details and relationships than the reader and sometimes you forget to actually mention something important. Test readers help us to find those weaknesses: colorless characters, boring descriptions which produce no lively images, long-winded scenes, weak story…
All of this is uncomfortable to hear, but in order to grow and enhance our book we need this kind of honest and unadorned feedback.
How and where to find them
Honestly, this is hard to answer. Most people find them in their circle of friends, their family or through writing forums.
It can be rather tricky to use family members or friends, because chances are high that you won’t get honest feedback. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. Though I find that the personality is much more important than your relationship. You can estimate best if someone is capable of giving you what you need: candid feedback.
I know that if I want exuberant praise for my work, I give it to my mother. Though I love praise – who doesn’t? – this is not the kind of review I can work with. She would probably say the same if I gave her a text a grade schooler wrote. On the other hand I can ask my friends who will praise me if appropriate, but will also point out any mistake I made or even laugh at a really stupid sentence – sometimes for years!
To give your work to a stranger on the other hand can be intimidating. There is a reason people call their book their baby – it is precious to them and they don’t want to just hand it over to anyone.
However, aside from the honest opinion, there is another important benefit with finding a reviewer on a writing forum: They potentially are authors themselves. They know their stuff and spot problems a normal reader wouldn’t even notice. They might even be able to help you solve the problem!
Before handing your draft to a test reader you should state your expectations. Some writers want to have sentences or scenes marked, but don’t like suggestions to fix them. Others are thankful for them, especially when they knew themselves that a sentence was crooked, but lacked a better alternative.
Here is a list of things you might want to clarify at the beginning:
- Is there something the test reader should especially focus on? Punctuation? Spelling? Grammar? Content? …
- What format does your test reader prefer? PDF, .doc, .docx, .odt, something ebook-reader compatible or printed even? Don’t assume that everyone has and uses the same software as you.
- Does your reviewer want the whole draft all in one or should you send one chapter after another?
- Set a submission date. This makes it easier for both sides. You know when to expect something and won’t bother and pressure the reader with questions. Make sure to choose a time range that is appropriate for the length of the draft.
A question catalog
Sometimes it can be helpful to write down some questions you want to have answered and that you give your test reader along with your draft. This ensures that you get exactly the information that you need. Depending on the question you may want to wait until the reviewer finished reading through your draft to not spoil the plot („Was it obvious that Peter was the murderer?“) and to make the reader focus on the reading experience rather than on answering the questions. Inform them beforehand though that there will be some questions to answer for them at the end.
Here are some examples:
- Who was your favorite character? Who was the least liked? Why?
- Were there scenes that were illogical, vague or incomprehensible? Which ones and why?
- Was everything tied together at the end? Were there any loose strands? Have all open questions been answered?
Writing a review
I don’t know where I got that tip from, but this seems to be working pretty well and produces useful feedback. Your reader should imagine that he or she writes a regular review for a platform like Amazon. This will enable your test reader to write freely about the strengths and weaknesses of the story and you get a feel for how your story comes across. This might also give you additional information to your questionnaire.
Don’t feel intimidated by handing your draft over to the judges. It is a necessary step and you will grow through this process. We all have to go through it and we all feel scared at times, but in the end it’s so incredibly valuable and important.
If you have any questions or suggestions yourself, feel free to share it in the comments.
In the article on how to find test readers I've introduced the idea of a catalog of questions you can ask your test readers to get specific information out of them. If that list was not extensive enough and you want additional ideas and questions you'll find even more...