Wise reader instructions

I value accurate reports from readers who are (a) in the audience for my books and (b) approach the book as honest readers, not critics, nigglers, axe grinders, toadies, or flatterers. I just want accuracy. In How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, Orson Card calls these types of folks “wise readers.” When I find one, I cheer because not every reader has time, ability, or interest. And their reports are usually very helpful.

I know a lot of aspiring authors ask friends and family to read their work. And I know that many people can easily become wise readers with a little direction. So I thought I’d share with you what I ask of my wise readers. Maybe you’ll find it useful with yours. Here’s a revised version of a letter I just sent to one who has agreed to read draft 3 of CURSE. Every author’s a bit different in how they approach readers. Some just say, read it and tell me what you like and what you don’t. But I like to provide a bit more guidance. And I wanted to make sure this reader understood exactly what I was looking for. It might be a bit much for some, but I wanted to make sure it was clear since this was his first time reading a full book for me.

Thanks so much for agreeing to read this draft! What I want at this point is to see how I’m managing the reader experience in 3 areas: (a) the characters, (b) each chapter and scene, and (c) with the book as a whole. So  I’m hoping you just read, and as you go along make quick marks or comments when you’re delighted or bumped. I’ve listed the types of delights and bumps I’m talking about below. Please know I’m not providing them for you to use as a checklist, i.e. it’s not my intent to have you actively search for these things like a Where’s Waldo. You may feel some of these things. You may not. I just want you to be aware of them in the back of your mind as you read and to note when you experience them. In the end, I simply want an accurate report of YOUR experience. Accuracy is key to me.

I find with my own reading that it’s often hard to respond to the story as a regular reader if I’m always stopping to write lots of detailed comments. It seems to knock me out of the reader’s trance. So don’t feel like you must stop at the end of each chapter to assess your experience or be exhaustive in detailing your every reaction. Just make your quick marks and comments as you go, then review and write up your report when you’re done. If you feel the book’s too big to do it all at the end and actually remember what your marks and comments meant, then break it up into chunks of 100 pages or every few chapters. Whatever works for you. 

Sometimes, despite our best wishes, we are just not in the audience for a specific book. If the book just isn’t working for you, do not read past the point where you would normally put it down. Pushing yourself beyond that point will only drive you nuts, and it won’t provide me with anything useful. So just stop there, be happy, and write your report. Remember: the most useful thing to me is accuracy. 

As for the report, give me a summary of your general and specific reactions. For comments on specific parts or lines, it’s critical for me to know page numbers so I can go back and see exactly which part you’re talking about. Write your explanations on the specific page of the manuscript. They don’t need to be long. For example, if a page introduces too many names and you couldn’t keep track of the people and started to get confused, you might underline all their names and write “huh? too many names, can’t keep track.” If a character does something that makes you cheer, you could circle the paragraph and write “yes! yes! yes! Go Talen.” Just so that it’s clear to me what your reaction is and what your reacting to.  

Please know whatever your reactions are, they are just as valid as anyone else’s. It’s my job to review all the reports and decide what they mean and whether they indicate I need to make any changes. Whatever I decide, know that it means a lot to me that you took the time to read and report with accuracy. 

So, any of the following types of things count as bumps and delights. You might have others you experience as you read. Feel free to mark and comment for them as well.

I want to know what IS working with the characters, scenes, chapters, and plot as a whole. So any parts–story, people, or things–that elicit a strong reaction of the type you see below.


  • You really like or enjoy them
  • Intrigued or fascinated by them, want to know more
  • Great lines
  • Envy them or think, oh man, that would be so cool to be able to do that or be there or have that skill/ability
  • Sympathize with, root for
  • Dislike, hate, root against


  • Suspense, anxiety, stress, dilemma
  • Curiosity
  • Mystery
  • Surprise
  • Cool!
  • Wonder or awe
  • Insight, poignancy
  • Sadness
  • Triumph, stand up and cheer moments
  • Laffs or grins
  • Dread, horror
  • Great action, stunts, adventure
  • Romance
  • Compelling “Dude!” chapter or scene beginnings, ends, and story turns


  • Vivid descriptions
  • Poetic beauty in the prose


  • Did the story build well for you, bang bang in the climax, and then leave you wanting to linger and enjoy the rolling credits? Did it leave you feeling “wow” or “that was great?” If it didn’t quite make it, then give me an indication of how much on a scale of 1 – 10
  • What were the most interesting parts of the story for you?
  • Did you feel resolution and a strong tug to read more, come back to the world?



  • It’s not clear what’s going on, who’s doing it, or why.
  • You really don’t understand something and you think you’re supposed to.
  • Too many terms, names, etc. and you’re getting lost or feel like you need a diagram.
  • The text itself doesn’t make sense, or it clunks badly.
  • The book contradicts itself.

“Come on!”

  • Something just doesn’t ring true.
  • It’s just not how things work, e.g. John, there was no FBI in 1638 in China.
  • The character’s actions don’t feel logical given the situation, e.g. um, why would she do that? I’d just X and, boom, it would be over. She was stupid.
  • You just don’t buy some plot turn. It doesn’t make sense. Was too easy. Seems to ignore all sorts of things in the story.
  • A character is irritating or annoying you.

“Yawn” or “What, that’s it?!”

  • Things are starting to get boring.
  • You start to skim the blah blah blah to get to the good stuff.
  • You were built up to expect something and instead got a fizzle. This could be some mystery, a character, an insight, conflict, the ending, etc.

Please note that this list might change depending on the type of story I write. And the reader. For example, if I wanted a content or technical expert to report, then I’d be asking him or her:

  • Anything not ring true
  • Anything too cool or intriguing that I’ve left out.

If the book was focused more on a romance, then I’d probably provide a slightly different list of delights. Horror would require yet a different version. Not too different. But the emphasis would probably be elsewhere. The key is in me knowing the type of experience (entertainment & drama) I’m trying to provide, what I’m trying to test, and giving the wise reader enough examples that they know what I mean by “delights” and “bumps.”

EDIT: 11/27/12

And here are the Beta Reader Instructions I gave to the latest batch of noble souls who offered to beta read BAD PENNY.

Let me explain what I need you to do as a beta reader. This is basically a test screening. All I’m looking for is to have you give the novel a test ride, and then report back your experience. I’m not talking about giving feedback on small stuff like grammar and spelling. I’m talking about reporting your experience with the big story things like characters and plot.

For plot, you simply report chapter by chapter if you were still interested and wanted to keep reading or if the story started to become a bit long (yawn). Were there any parts that stood out to you as particularly interesting, funny, heart-pounding, or suspenseful? Any that stood out as a bit dull or didn’t ring true?  Was the ending satisfying?  Did the beginning grab your interest? Anything you were uncomfortable with? There’s no wrong answer. It’s just a report of your experience. And an ACCURATE report is what I’m after.

For characters, you report what you felt towards the main characters and any bit characters that stood out to you. Who was funny?  Who was likeable?  Who were you rooting for?  Who did you hate or fear or mistrust?  Were there any characters who are just so dumb or annoying you wanted to smack them? Where there any character moments that didn’t ring true or stood out to you as particularly entertaining? 

Please remember: I want you to read only what you have time for AND interest in reading. If that’s one chapter, bully. Five, excellent. The whole thing, awesome. If you get a few chapters in and find it’s just not your type of story, that’s not a problem. Don’t read another word. Knowing that is helpful information as well. YOU determine the length of your test ride. I value whatever input you have to give. 

I’m hoping to get all responses back by November 1. So send whatever you have by then.  Also because I will be shopping this to publishers, I must ask that you not copy, share, or distribute the manuscript in any way without my written permission.

If I was looking for expert fact checking from one of the individuals, as opposed to a general story report, I’d add somethhing like this on the front.

Let me explain what I need you to do. This is basically a test screening. All I’m looking for is to have you give the novel a test ride, and then tell me where it doesn’t ring true with your experience with [enter expertise] or where I’ve missed a detail that might be cool. Chapters 9-10 and probably 22-24 are the ones where your expertise with [enter expertise] would come in.

If you think you’d like to provide input as a reader on the story as well, I would welcome that. I’m not talking about giving feedback on small stuff like grammar and spelling. I’m talking about reporting your experience with big story things like characters and plot . . .

I’m hugely grateful to my beta readers. Some are shy about giving their report. Some aren’t. Either way I usually ask some clarification questions and then save all the gold they just gave me to use in my final draft.

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5 Responses to Wise reader instructions

  1. That’s a really, really good letter for alpha readers. I had been wondering how to approach this sort of thing, too. Mind if I link alpha readers for my WIPs to here?

  2. John Brown says:

    That’s why it’s here, dude 🙂 One thing you will probably want to do, however, is look over the delights. You might have a slightly different mix than I do. I can imagine someone who writes horror might be more focused on other things. Same with a romance writer. So make sure you think about the type of entertainment you want to provide and make sure your delights list that.

  3. Ben says:

    That is so awesome. Thanks for that. I will definitely use this when I finish my manuscript! Come to think of it, this would be helpful for when I’m reading other people’s work, too.