Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Test Reading
I'm sure this will be a long post so I apologize it advance....

While I was chatting with another author today, the subject of "test readers" came up and I realized that I've not really seen more than one or two clear descriptions of what a test reader should be doing.

I do a fair amount of test reading for some published authors, so I thought I would offer up my own ideas of the responsibilities, then post the contents of the mail I send to authors that ask me to test read for them BEFORE I read anything. In a way, to spell out expectations.

Do note that these are my personal feelings and how I work as a test reader. There are likely multiple different theories and expectations but I thought it would be good to show mine.

A Test Reader's Job
The end goal is to help the author make their book as terrific and tight as possible before it ever hits their editor's desk. This differs from the role of a critique partner or writing buddy in that the book is generally already plotted and written before it is passed to the test reader. This means the test reader isn't trying to help plot the book or design scenes - they are instead consuming the end result as a test of whether it accomplishes what it's designed to do.

As a test reader, my job is to read a book as an experienced and focused reader and to offer the author detailed feedback on what I liked, what I did NOT like and what I think would make the book better. Of these, telling the author what I did NOT like in a clear and concise manner is probably the most important. It is also, in my opinion, what makes or breaks someone as an effective test reader.

Face it, it's far easier to tell someone what you liked about a story than it is to find problems and be able to put your finger on why they are a problem. Gushing is nice to hear from readers but you want more from test readers. "I loved it!" doesn't tell the author much at all. But how much more useful would it be to the author to hear "I loved the way you used smell as part of the spa scene. It made me really feel like I was there."

Reading in Test Reader Mode
I don't approach test reading the same way I do pleasure reading. If anything, it's closer to how I approach reviewing. If the book is part of a series or shared world, I read at least one other book in the sequence to make sure I have a grounding in the universe.

Then I make my first pass through the story with an eye toward anything that makes me stop and question. This can be something as simple as a homophone (word used in place of another word with the same sound but a different meaning - like poll instead of pole) or things like someone's hair color changing. It can also be more complex and include questions of motivation, timeline or why a character is behaving in a way that seems out of character to me.

I usually test read in Word, so I turn track changes on and, as I read and see these things, I make comments in the document and do my best to explain WHY it bothered me. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes I tend toward rather verbose explanations if the reason isn't crystal clear.

If I am pulled from the story by something being missing or I have an idea on how to make add a detail that can improve the story, I make a comment about that too.

(There's a reason I call myself the Queen of the Thought Bubbles.)

I don't address line edits or punctuation/grammar unless I think that the spell-check won't catch it. That said, if there are a LOT of these issues, I will make a note to the author so they know right away that it's a global problem.

The next pass through is where I tend to focus on more the issues of overall consistency, flow of the story, foreshadowing and later payoff, etc.

Then I sit back and think about the overall impressions of the story. Was I satisfied or not? What things stand out in my mind? Is there anything that left me unhappy? Notes on any overall impressions are put into an email to the author and the edited file is attached before I send it back.

Then it's totally up to the author. There are some authors who will send me back answers to my thought bubbles or revised bits that I can review again. There are some authors that take my input, use what makes sense to use and call it good.

My Test Reader Explanations to Authors
  1. I always offer honest and detailed feedback. If you are seeking someone who will merely say they like it or not, you don't want me as your test reader.
  2. If there are specific areas you want me to focus on, please let me know and I'll be sure to do so. Otherwise I assume you want it all examined.
  3. If you need turnaround within a certain timeframe, let me know and I'll communicate back whether this is possible so expectations are clear on both sides.
  4. Once I give you feedback and suggestions, you are welcome to do what you wish with them. It is YOUR story and my feelings are never hurt by what you choose to do with my comments.
  5. Always feel free to ask me to better explain my comments or offer more detail.
  6. I never share your work with anyone, including my family. I never publish or expose it, nor do I share spoilers with others.
  7. If you do not wish it to be known that I test read for you, let me know. I don't have a problem with that but I have been known to hype books I've test read and love. Some amount of gloating is a job perk.
  8. When a book I test read is published, I always buy a copy. :) And don't be suprised if I corner you to try to get you to sign it.
  9. When you tell me that a book I have test read has been sent to the publisher, I delete any remaining test reading files from my systems. At that point I will no longer be able to retrieve comments I have sent on the book and would have to recreate them if there was a need.
  10. If I have test read your book, I will no longer review it for a review site but I will often post a review or blurb on my own blog or website. I feel there is too much conflict of interest otherwise.
Those, in a very large nutshell, are my core thoughts on Test Reading and being a Test Reader.


Post a Comment