So, we’ve talked about how to handle receiving a harsh critique, and how to soften giving a harsh critique, but what if you need a harsh critique and your dear, sweet friends and family are determined to play nice? How can we get them to choke up on the bat and give us the dirty, painful review we don’t want, but need? The answer to any communication crossroad is asking the right kind of questions. Just as questions are necessary to truly understanding another person’s wants or needs, they are equally important in getting the truth from our closer beta readers. (Closer in relationship, not distance.)
Here’s a list of some questions that have helped me. I’d love to hear any additions if you have them. You’ll notice I avoid yes and no questions. I want to get people talking, opening up, and so I try to get their words flowing. I’m often surprised by how much honesty eventually comes out.
- When you started reading, where in the manuscript (ms) did you stop first and why?
- Did you ever set the ms down for more than two days? What were you doing at the time?
- What kind of a person is the protagonist? Antagonist? Sidekick…etc.? (Asking how they see your characters will give you insight into how well you’ve done your characterization and their growth arcs.)
- What part bored you the most? Why? (This can be a tough one for some if they don’t want to admit any part of it wasn’t edge of their seat thrilling. Get an honest answer and get them talking about it and you might see a plot flaw. Since you’re pushing on this, be careful how serious you take it.)
- What part was most exciting? Why?
- Who would you recommend this book to? (Pay close attention to this answer. Read body language. If they suddenly become reluctant, and they’re slow in answering, you may have some work to do. Of course, you also have to be careful you don’t read something into their body language that isn’t there.)
- What does the protagonist look like? Antagonist? Mother…. Etc? What time of year did the action take place? Where? (Having them explain descriptions of key people, places, or elements in your story can tell you if you described them to a reader’s reasonable understanding. It doesn’t have to match yours. It just has to exist to the extent you’re trying to convey to your reader.)
- Who did you like best in the book? (Again, look for body language. Are they animated when they discuss your character, or kind of bored?)
- Who did you like least in the book? (Have you made a villain they love to hate, one they sympathize with but understand must lose, or one they couldn’t care less about one way or another? Regardless of their feelings, it should be a strong feeling.)
- Would you like to read the sequel? (Again, watch initial reaction; not just the words that come from their mouths.)
Remember, in all of this, when we try to understand other people our perceptions, positive or negative, and our own attitudes can cloud judgment. If you can have an impartial friend with you, it might be helpful. Also, know when to stop. If someone feels like they’re being grilled, they definitely won’t want to read another ms from you. Sometimes it helps to let your reader know beforehand what you’re doing and why. I’ve found these types of questions helpful; often given in small doses to my daughters who are determined my writing will rival their favorite authors. I love that they love me but…you know. I want my writing to really rival their favorite authors.