• Keith Rogers Gordon

What is a Reader Report?

In a beta read, your editor won't really be "editing" anything. At least, not in the sense of marking up your manuscript and making deep corrections in the text. Instead, a good beta reader should make in-text comments that provide insights and reflections on certain passages in the book, like moments where they got confused or scenes where they wanted more (or less) of something (dialogue, exposition, showing/telling, etc.).

A professional beta reader should also provide a "reader report," which is very closely related to an editorial letter (although not quite as scary!). In a reader report, your beta reader should synthesize all of their individual comments into big-picture feedback that can help you get a handle on some of the recurring issues in the manuscript. The in-text comments zoom in on the actual passages in the book, while the reader report zooms out and provides (hopefully!) actionable steps to correct these issues.

To show you what this might look like, here is a sample of reader report I recently sent out:

Use of Metaphor

At times, it felt like there was more metaphor than actual prose, where seemingly simple actions were subsumed in paragraphs’ worth of extended metaphors.

Take page 157 as an example. While there is some beautiful writing here, and the imagery is superb, it’s a tremendous amount of metaphor to use in a scene that is ultimately about action. The tension of Samson’s arm being in a vice is in some ways obscured by the sheer thickness of the metaphor, which itself breeds other metaphors that then get layered on top. In scenes with the most drama, these are actually the scenes that (in my opinion) benefit from less metaphor, because the situations should speak for themselves. Some of the most powerful writing is in fact quite plain, because everything has been set up to deliver the reader to that one moment.

In [this book], however, in the moments of high drama is when we get extra metaphor, which, even though the metaphors on their own are beautiful and well-wrought, in concert and in quantity they have a tendency to distract the reader from the moment at hand. I used this scene as an illustration, but it was something I noticed throughout the novel. I would recommend going through in your revision and pay attention to the moments when the metaphors reach paragraph length, especially at crucial moments in the plot where decisions are being made or people are in peril. These are moments when the readers crave closeness with the story, when they want to be immersed, but too much metaphor can actually act as a buffer and keep the reader in the abstract rather than in the story where they want to be.

The Ideology of the Antagonist

Although he was thoroughly evil and his demise very satisfying, throughout the book I felt as if the man in the dark hat was just a grab-bag of ideas and aphorisms and quasi-mystical insanity that never coalesced into a clear ideology. In the end it is revealed that he is a collector of cast-off idols and forgotten religions, which in itself is a cool idea, but this comes too late to make sense of his actions throughout the course of the book. The whole time we don’t know who he is, what he is fighting for, or what he is fighting against, so his sermons and exhortations just start to sound like an insane carnival barker. There’s no gravitas, because there’s no internal cohesion.

In other words, antagonists need concrete ideologies because readers need to understand the antagonist’s motives, empathize with them to some degree, but then ultimately reject them as morally unsound. Think of Thanos in Avengers; we understand his mission of scarcity and population control, even if we ultimately reject it as amoral. Think of Think of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) in There Will Be Blood; we see his descent into madness, but his fundamental ideology of unchecked greed (“I drink your milkshake!”) makes complete sense to us even though we see the folly and hubris of it at the end.

Here, [in this book], the dark hat spouts off a lot of stuff about brides and bridegrooms, lords and gods and laws, but I never got the sense about what he was really about. Was it greed? Was it madness? Why did he worship silver in the way he did? Was he an allegory or was he meant to be taken literally? At times it felt like dozens of soap-box preachers and big-tent revivalists and spurious occultists were all put into a blender, and his dialogue was the result. I’d heard it all before, but I never got a sense for him.

This could be remedied by providing more pathos for his character and allowing the reader to connect with him. He is unchanging throughout the book—he is fundamentally the same lunatic at the end as he is when he first arrives—so the reader never gets a chance to feel for him or form any kind of connection. Without that connection, he is strictly one-note, which is not enough to carry the story, especially because, ultimately, it is his actions that drive the story since Samson is inherently passive and accepting of his debasement because of his self-hatred and trauma.

That's a lot of detail, right? Yes, that's the idea! A reader report should greatly expand on the in-text comments and provide a way forward with the revision. As you can see, this is why it is so important to do a beta read with a professional before moving on to copyediting.

Beta reads often trigger big rewrites, so approach it with an open mind and willingness to dig in and make your manuscript come alive!


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