“I don’t understand what’s going on here…”
“This is awkward…”
“Did you mean this _______?”
“Why did he/she jump to that conclusion?”
When your beta reader gets confused, it’s never a good sign. The four sentences above are common when other people read a book still being polished. Don’t take offense and immediately start justifying why the reader should have understood.
Instead, take a step back and try to figure out why they didn’t get it.
Take a critical look at the scene in question and break it down the questions above something like this:
1. I don’t understand what’s going on here.
This could be a bigger issue: Something is happening in a scene that doesn’t jive with what the reader “remembers.” How long ago was it that you last dropped a hint or mentioned something to do with what is happening in the scene in question? Was it more than two chapters ago? Was the hint too subtle? If a reader is saying this, then something is lacking somewhere in the set up leading to this crucial moment. They shouldn’t be confused; and if they are, then you’ve got some tweaking to do in the groundwork leading up to this moment.
Or a smaller issue: You wrote the scene/paragraph in such a way that it makes sense to you, but not other readers. What assumptions are you making? Is your vocabulary right for the scene/moment? Are you adding or tying up things too fast?
Really take some time to analyze what’s happening to determine whether or not this is confusion that’s confined to the immediate scenario or stems from missing, convoluted, or forgotten hints before shrugging off the comment as being a result of “not reading clearly” what was written on the page.
2. This is awkward.
The bigger issue: Something is happening in the scene that doesn’t “fit” with what the reader knows about the character(s).
The smaller issue: Or a situation is written in such a way that the reader keeps getting pulled out of the action.
You need to get to the root of what is making it awkward. Is it your phrasing and sentence structure? or are you asking your reader to believe something is happening that doesn’t make sense or “ring true” to what they know of your characters?
3. Did you mean this _______?
The bigger issue: Here, you’re not being clear about something and your general phrasing has confused the reader.
The smaller issue: Or you’ve used a word/phrase that doesn’t mean what you think it does, and you need to get out the dictionary to double-check that it’s what you really meant after all.
Often a beta reader will try to be helpful and make suggestions (as in the blank supplied above). They might be right on with what you really intended or they could be way off the mark. Regardless, something is going on here that has confused them about the way you wrote something.
4. Why did he/she jump to that conclusion?
The bigger issue: Your reader has missed a connection you’ve been building up toward for some time now and you’ve either not made it obvious enough or given it enough importance in the grand scheme of things for it to be memorable.
The smaller issue: You forgot to link what the reader’s learned up to the point to allow him/her to see how it all connects. You’re assuming they see exactly what you do, but they don’t. So, you have to clarify and spell it out a touch more to get the bell to ring or the light bulb to shine 🙂
This will be different for every reader. Some will get it and some won’t, no matter how obvious you are about certain things. It’s a matter of slowing down, taking a moment and really taking a good look at how you lead up to this moment in order to determine if there is a problem with what’s written or if the reader doesn’t get it because this isn’t their genre. This is why having multiple readers to bounce ideas off is better than only relying on one reader all the time.
I hope decoding what these beta reader notes mean is helping you navigate your own manuscript and that you’re finding new ways to approach how a reader reacts to your writing.