Beta Reading Revisited: the ABCDEF approach

Back in April 2019 I summarized the ABCD approach to beta reading that Mary Robinette Kowal taught me (probably in her Patreon livestream writing class), wherein readers limit themselves to describing their reactions, not diagnosing problems or prescribing solutions. The reader categorizes their comments as

  • A(wesome): Examples: a great turn of phrase; a wonderful reveal; definitely keep this bit.
  • B(ored): Examples: infodump or description went on too long; I’ve lost interest in the character; the plot isn’t advancing.
  • C(onfused): Examples: I don’t understand what is going on here; this passage contradicts that one; who is talking here?
  • D(isbelief): Examples: The character wouldn’t do that based on what we’ve seen so far; nobody sane would bring a slug-thrower on a spaceship.

One of my fellow Writing Excuses Retreat alumni added an “E(xpectaton)” for things like: at this point I expect that thus-and-so will eventually happen; I take this as a promise to readers that such-and-such.

I’ve been applying this method for a while, and think I need one more: “F(lung) out of the narrative.” It’s kind of a catch-all for anything that didn’t fit under one of the other categories: a micro- or macro-aggression; a squicky piece of prose; a sudden unforeshadowed change in tone.

Avoiding prescription turns out to be harder for a lot of people than I originally expected. For example, “I don’t know who is talking here” is an unarguable Confused reaction; “add a dialogue tag” (e.g. “[name] said”) is a debatable prescription (one could make the speaking style more distinctive, or one could add an action that used the speaker’s name instead of just a tag, e.g. “[name] shifted uneasily in his chair”).

To get us both “on the same page”, when I ask somebody to beta read for me, or when they ask me to read for them, I plan to send them a link to this post. I hope this proves useful to others. I also recommend viewing MRK’s video from several years ago that started me off in this direction; it includes guidance on receiving feedback as well as giving it. There’s also her more recent infographic (originally found on the possibly dying birdsite).

3 Replies to “Beta Reading Revisited: the ABCDEF approach”

  1. Impressive!

    I share your deep admiration for Mary Robinette Kowal. She’s an exceptional teacher, and even though I haven’t been able to attend her classes in person, I’ve eagerly consumed her past lectures. One that stands out is her insightful talk on flash fiction. Her ability to convey knowledge is truly inspiring.

    It’s fantastic to hear that you’ve had the privilege of learning from her directly.

    This article is outstanding!

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