What should a first (or beta) reader draft look like?
The only correct answer to this question is the old English saying, “How long is a piece of string?” The question is a relative one; the answer, different in every case.
And yet the question is important to any writer seeking feedback on their work. Because each writer’s process is different—sometimes wildly so—from the next’s, a first reader draft can be anything from a fairly clean piece of work to a near stream-of-consciousness ramble. I’ve seen first drafts entirely lacking punctuation; places and names changing semi-randomly; characters unaccountably disappearing or their personalities flipping and seesawing; and subplots appearing and vanishing like quarks in the primordial soup.
The question is one of assumptions and expectations.
Imagine the prospective buyer of a new home arriving to find the walls have only been framed and the sheetrock isn’t up yet: they’re going to get a bad shock and take issue with the seller. Similarly, unless the reader’s expectations are somewhat aligned with the individual writer’s concept of a first draft, any critique is likely to be off the mark and there’s a good chance one or both parties will be left unhappy and frustrated.
Fortunately, extreme examples aside, there’s a bell-curve graph with most writers’ beta draft output sitting somewhere in the middle range (in fact, we should probably never show anyone an absolutely raw first draft, which I define as a rough draft, but rather a ‘breathed-over’ version, one we’ve at least done a fast pass through to pick up the most horrid inconsistencies and omissions).
In general, I believe the first reader draft ought to be readable and somewhat internally consistent, though perhaps lacking polished prose and/or elaborate sensory and setting description. The major characters should all be present and, on the whole, believable, though goals and motivations may be shaky and need bracing and solidifying; plot and subplots will be visible, but probably unfocused and thin in places; pacing may be patchy, and some scenes will be working better than others; there will likely be structural issues, scenes in the wrong place or missing, too much or too little backstory, and so on.
Unless a beta reader’s expectations are correctly set, they’re likely to spin their wheels on things that don’t matter yet or become frustrated at the uneven and incomplete quality of the work—probably both. I’ve run afoul of this myself by letting a rather inexperienced reader see an early draft of mine, and they proceeded to comment as though it were a finished work. Expert writers and critiquers will generally make allowances, but it’s better to save less experienced readers for final, polished drafts.
Typically what a writer requires of a first draft reader is a “macro,” an assessment of the work at a thematic, structural, and character level, rather than a line edit. Key feedback might include:
- Does the opening hook you?
- Do you buy the premise?
- Is the plot plausible?
- What are the holes in it?
- Are the characters believable?
- Do you care what happens to them?
- Do their goals and motivations make sense?
- Where do they behave inconsistently?
- Is the dialogue working for you?
- Does anyone’s name and/or appearance change?
- Are the stakes sufficient to keep the reader interested?
- Is the pacing generally okay?
- Where are the flat bits?
- Is the ending satisfying?
Going back to our house analogy, we’re definitely not ready to choose paint colors yet. What we’re looking for here is to make sure the house is correctly framed with the walls in the right places and the angles true, that the roof isn’t going to leak, and that all the main services (power, water, and gas) are correctly located where they’ll be needed. So although a brief note that more description and setting detail will be required may be in order, no reader of a beta draft should even consider line-level edits or (heaven help us) typos. All that stuff will get fixed on the rewrites, or the writer isn’t worthy of the name.
So the wise writer will prime their beta readers with notes or discuss the kind and level of feedback they’re looking for in advance. Even the catch-all, “flag anything that’s not working” is okay, though I prefer to be more specific. If you’re concerned about a question prejudicing your reader (e.g., “does the protag’s plan go too well and the resolution appear too easy?”), save it for the debrief when they’ve finished reading.
Of course, we also want to know what is working, and to hear that we’ve written a great story or novel; experienced critiquers will leaven and balance their comments appropriately. But ego strokes should be secondary, which is why you should resist showing your work to friends and family (unless they’re writers) until it’s finished and ready for print. Right now, what you need to know is what’s standing between that early draft and greatness.