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As a beta reader, I sometimes find myself frustrated at trying to find the right words and how to properly structure my sentences when I give a critique or just simple feedback. How can I work on becoming a better critiquer and formulating my words appropriately?

  • There's a difference between "giving good critique" and "structuring my sentences properly." One is a question about technique; the other is a base-level question about the language which could apply to any piece of writing. Which is the part you need help with? – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Jun 22 '19 at 11:42
  • Both, unfortunately – Dawn Kelli Jun 22 '19 at 14:51
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    @Cyn, I guess those questions are somewhat similar. My problem is trying to formulate my feedback to where the writer can understand me. For example: if a writer does not set the mood or tone appropriately for a horror story. Then how can I formulat feedback that explains that without simply saying, "You didn't set an appropriate mood/tone for your horror story" I'd rather go into depth, so the reader has more info. But I'm struggling to do this, and I always sound repetitive. – Dawn Kelli Jun 22 '19 at 15:23
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    Dawn that's a much better question. Your question as written is very broad. If you focus on an aspect (like your example) that isn't covered in other questions asking how to be a good beta reader, I'll retract my close vote. – Cyn says make Monica whole Jun 22 '19 at 15:27
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Give specific feedback, not general feedback, make sure you mention anything that you do find especially good, and focus on constructive/productive criticism. For example:

I thought the section with the dog was strong. The imagery really came alive there and drew me in. The next section didn't grab me in the same way, you might want to think about either editing it out, or putting in the same level of detail so it isn't such a contrast.

You're not going to be judged on how well written your response is --what the writer is looking for is an honest reaction, with useful, actionable criticisms.

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Ask them what kind of feedback they are looking for. Do they want your opinion on the characters, a specific chapter, the plot line, the details and grammar or only the general conflict?

Is it fiction or non-fiction your giving feedback on? When I proofread pieces (non-fiction), I make sure I know the goal of my reading and I communicate with the writer that my feedback will be blunt and on anything and everything that I see. The writer knows that a lot of feedback doesn't mean the piece is bad, and that not everything has to be implemented, that it's up to them what to do with the criticism.

That way, we both know from each other what to expect and work together on improving our writing.

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What works for me is I have a list of questions that I work to. At the very least, I reword the question as a statement, like "was the opening clear?" becomes "The opening was clear and I could understand what was going on." and "Did you want to keep reading?" becomes "I wanted to keep reading to find out what happened next." (Or sometimes, "I was glad that the story was over because it was dragging a bit towards the end.").

I've built a list of slightly over one hundred questions which I keep in a 3-page document. The questions are divided into groups, using the following headings:

  • Mechanics and basics
  • Opening Scene
  • Characters and motivation
  • Plot and conflict (internal and external)
  • Pacing and flow
  • Sense of place (setting and world-building)
  • Dialogue
  • Writing Craft
  • Overall Impression
  • Additional Comments

Ever since making the file, the few beta readings that I have done were always met with great delight from the author of the work. Sometimes the beta report is longer than the story (I enjoy writing them which is probably why).

I started the file while doing some research for a blog post (10 questions to ask your beta-reader). I had so many left over that I ended up posting them on our writing groups Tumblr. You could probably get your own file started by picking through these posts. I added the occasional new question to my list since then. I think my list is getting close to fully comprehensive now so you'll probably be able to find the bulk of the questions I use. I would post them here but my file runs for three sides of A4 - it would mostly be my notations on things I find important. It may be better for you to develop your own in a way that makes sense for you.

Most writing blogs end up publishing lists of good questions. I sometimes go through them to see if there are any I had not thought of before. If you are looking to build up a collection of questions, I'd start there. Then there are the many good answers here, here, and pretty much the entire tag.

Even if you just a said a few things for each of the headings I listed, you'd have given a pretty well rounded beta-reading report. Especially if you are specific in reporting under each of them. I try to pick out one or two really strong examples of something I am praising or criticising. Just enough so the writer can identify the pattern.

For example,

Page 1, Para 4: This section is unclear. Was the hero coming in or going out?

or

Page 2, Para 3: I'm not feeling the mood here. I think you were going for sombre but it was not working for me.

Sometimes it is enough to say, this bit did or did not work for me. The fixing it part is down to the writer.

Other than covering my questions, I mark "stopping points". These are places where I would be inclined to stop reading. Maybe because something was hard to follow, didn't make sense, or just made me go, "wait, what?".

Stopping points are usually some form of interruption to the willing suspension of disbelief. Stopping points make you stop reading which is bad because you might not start again. A writer that can eliminate or minimise them will have a much more compelling story.

For example:

Page 3, Para 2; Page 4, Para 1: These sections drop a lot of information on me as a reader all at once. It was slow reading. I would have prefered to have been drip fed this information as I needed it. They are both potential stopping points.

That's about it (insofar as my approach goes).

Edit: I wanted to add some more because I realise that I might not have fully answered what you were asking. You are not only asking about the wording (which I covered when I talked about the questions I use) but also you would like techniques you can work on becoming a better critiquer. For this, the best answer is practice. Find some friendly writers and beta-read for them but let them know that the beta read is conditional upon them critiquing your critique. Specifically what they found helpful. Writing circles can be great for this. Not only do you get to practice beta-reading for each other but you can observe others beta-reading too.

TL;DR: Practice makes perfect. Build a list of good questions you can answer.

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Read a writing guide. If you were trying to better your own writing, I'd suggest reading several of them, but that's probably overkill here. The aim isn't for you to accept every "do this instead of that because this example shows why the former's preferable" rule as correct; it's just for you to get into the headspace of people who are used to saying things that sound well-informed. If you could somehow read the text of such a guide in a peculiar order, whereby you saw the examples before the discussion of what they did well/badly, you would see the guide's author achieve more or less what you would have tried to, had those extracts been from the work you're beta-reading.

Also, if the work reminds you of something else you think might be making similar good or bad steps, even if you're not sure why or what they are, find someone reviewing that work, whether it's a YouTuber or a professional in a newspaper. (I suppose that may depend in part on what sort of work it was.) Maybe you can use similar phrases or ideas to pinpoint how you feel about the work in front of you. But even just "it reminds me of X" can be useful feedback, because beta reading is all about helping the reader see whether the effect was what they intended, rather than just whether it was "good".

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