15 Questions for First Readers

Send these questions to first readers. Your editors will thank you.

3 min read

question mark neon signage
question mark neon signage

You’ve labored weeks, months, and maybe years on the next Great American Novel, memoir, or self-help book guaranteed to change lives, or your money back.

Now what? How do I know if these pile of words are any good?

Many people rely on Beta Readers, or First Readers. People that give honest feedback, critique, and/or clarification on your latest masterpiece.

Before you eagerly drop your literary work of art on an unsuspecting Beta, let me give a couple ground rules. You’ll thank me later.

Rule #1: Beta/First readers should not be writers (if possible).

Writers critique work with a writer's eye, not a reader's eye. Writers will say things like: if I was writing the book.

Well, you didn’t write the book, I did, so shut your mouth. Writers will intentionally, or unintentionally, suck out all the creativity and original voice in your work.

We love you writers but stay away from reading our work. Writers have been ruined by writing, and have a hard time just reading, for story sake.

Not always the case, but be careful. It’s better to find readers (see Rule #2).

Rule #2: Only choose 2-3 Beta/First Readers.

Ever heard the saying: too many cooks in the kitchen? Yeah, that’s a thing. If you get too many people critiquing your work it backfire. Too many opinions, and too time consuming.

Find 2-3 readers who you trust. People who can give honest feedback. We good? Okay.

Now, to ensure we find good Betas, and don’t spend months waiting to hear back. Jodie Renner a world class editor suggests having your readers ask these 15 questions (these ideas adapted from James Scott Bell’s book How to Write Pulp Fiction).

This will eliminate unnecessary critique, find you solid first readers, and make your work all the better. I tried to adapt for nonfiction in a couple spots too:

#1 Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?

#2 Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when it’s taking place? If not, why not?

#3 Could you relate to the main character? Nonfiction: did you understand the authors reason for writing the book? Did you feel her/his pain or excitement?

#4 Did the setting interest you and did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you? Nonfiction: Did the topic seem exciting if you had no prior knowledge of it?

#5 Was there a point at which you felt the story lagged or you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next? Where, exactly? Nonfiction: where did the book get boring? What parts could be cut out?

#6 Were there any parts that confused you? Or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts, and why? Nonfiction: did any of the research seem far fetched?

#7 Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details? Nonfiction: were any details repeated or redundant?

#8 Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likable? Nonfiction: could some of the stories and ideas be more punchy? If so, how so?

#9 Did you get confused about who’s who in the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Are any of the names of characters too similar? Nonfiction: was there too much information, research, or not enough? Was the information helpful or did it drag?

#10 Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded artificial or not like that person would speak?

#11 Did you feel there was too much description or exposition? Not enough? Maybe too much dialogue in parts?

#12 Was there enough conflict, tension, and intrigue to keep your interest? Nonfiction: was the narrative interesting and did it move along? Why or why not?

#13 Was the ending satisfying? Believable? Nonfiction: did the book provide helpful next steps?

#14 Did you notice any obvious, repeating grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? Examples?

#15 Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not?

One last pro tip. Use these 15 questions when making your own edits. Having these in mind will make your work sing all the more.

Remember, you’re looking for first readers, not editors.

Hope these questions help.

Now go write!