Writers know other writers. Remember that old adage about water seeking its own level? No one understands the angst of the creative process better than someone who’s walked in our shoes – the self-doubt, the fits of productivity followed by our muses’ deafening silence, feeling like we’re brilliant one minute and hacks the next. It goes without saying most writers I know (myself included) can’t be all that objective about our own material. We have an inkling when something is good or sucks the fat one, but there’s no way for us to be sure one way or the other. We’re too close to it, it’s too much of our heart on the page. That’s where friends, family, and other writers/writing enthusiasts come in. We ask them to be beta reads, to help us sort the threads of story and character. And that’s where shit can get weird. Writers have a responsibility to their crit partners and crit partners have a responsibility to the writers they’re helping. Let’s delve into what I mean by that.
First off, the writer. The writer must know what he or she is asking for from their beta readers from the onset. Are you looking for a pleasure read? “Don’t give me feedback on what to change, but just tell me if you liked it” (essentially this boils down to I NEED ENCOURAGEMENT, PATS ON THE BACK, A COOKIE, OR FOR SOMEONE TO VALIDATE MY EXISTENCE AS A WRITER – PROVIDE ONE OR ALL OF THOSE THINGS, PLEASE.) Or are you looking for a /crit/. “Tell me what you think I can or should do to make this better.” There’s a massive difference between the two. If you ask for a crit from someone and have zero intention of changing a damned thing about your work, you tell your reader beforehand so you don’t waste their time. Critting can be time consuming – some people will crit line by line with notes along the margins of your work as they read. That takes a lot of effort, and if the writer is just going to ignore all of it for whatever STUPID reason, they owe it to their reader to say so up front. Don’t make them hack and slash and wade in your name and then promptly dismiss their labors. If you do, they’ll stop being a beta reader, and beta readers are precious commodities. Without them, most of us artist types flail once a piece of work gets past drafting. Also? Grow a thick skin. Not everyone’s going to love your literary babies. You might have thought that three-donged rage alien was a good idea, but someone might disagree. Hope for the best, be prepared for the worst.
The Lesson: Writers, don’t waste people’s time. Be honest with yourself and your beta readers about what you’re looking for. If it’s just praise, that’s fine — we all deserve a little praise sometimes — but don’t try to make yourself feel better about seeking validation by asking for a crit when you don’t really want one. Furthermore, if you ask for a crit, don’t read through the notes and be a dismissive douche about them. You are not Hemingway no matter how many times your Mom told you so. Check your ego at the door and LISTEN. These people aren’t picking your work apart to ruin you – they want to help you succeed. They’ve invested hours in your writing now, too. Don’t you think that might warrant your attention?
Now let’s talk about being a good beta reader/crit partner. Confucius said “Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one.” Okay maybe Confucius didn’t say that, but he should have. Anyway, when a writer has asked for a crit, they’re asking you for your opinion. They’re saying they value your opinion. This means when you give your opinion, you have a responsibility to not be a dick about it. Consider the writer’s feelings and word things in such a way that you’re not essentially telling them to “give writing up, you’d be better off flipping burgers.” THIS DOES NOT MEAN NEVER SAYING ANYTHING NEGATIVE TO YOUR SENSITIVE WRITER FRIEND. In fact, if you read a story and you despised something about it, you’re a shitty-ass crit partner if you lie and say you loved it just because you’re afraid of being offensive. Writers can’t get better unless we know what’s not working for potential audiences. You are a test audience. If you sign on to beta read, you owe it to the writer to tell them the good, the bad, and the ugly. The key is /how/.
A few pointers:
1) If you like something, say so. A character, a scene, a snippet of dialogue . . . if something does it for you within the text, tell the writer that. Crits don’t all just have to be about the errors in a work of fiction, it can be about the stuff you enjoy, too. In fact, finding something you liked about the piece is a fantastic way to deliver a corresponding criticism. What do I mean by that?
Example: “Hillary, I loved that character Slappy The Wood Gnome. He was really funny, especially during the clogged toilet scene. But while I was reading, I couldn’t help but notice his dialogue with Miss Fussy Pants in chapter eight was a bit stinted. Also, I have no idea why he shows up at that tea party at all in chapter fourteen. He seemed out of place.”
See what I did there? It’s a give and take bit of feedback. On one hand you’re recognizing that you like the character, on the other you’re saying where there could be some improvement/clarification.
2) If you don’t like something, figure out why so you can better explain it. Is it the plot? The language? The pacing? The characters? The dialogue? A combination of things? Being specific with your criticism means we can address them better. Also, if it’s something about /personal taste/ and has nothing to do with the writer or the writer’s story, make sure you put that out there, too. The current book I’m writing has a lot of my beta readers raving, but one person (whose opinion I value greatly) just could not get into it. She figured out early on that this was simply not her TYPE of fictin – it’s not her genre. She had a hard time suspending disbelief that the world could be the way I portrayed it. Did it bother me that she didn’t like it? Of course it did, but I also understand that even if I write The Great American Novel, someone out there will hate it.
3) Understand that while the writer values your opinion, they do have the right to ignore it. Not all of it (that just makes them a cockbomber), but sometimes you will be overruled. That doesn’t mean they think you suck or that they never want you to crit again, it just means they’re trying to balance the flavor of their work with an outside perspective. From personal experience, I incorporate about eighty percent of crits into my drafts. I ignore twenty, adopt eighty. Others will be slanted differently.
4) When you’re crit reading, know what things you should be critting. If you’re not sure what you should be looking for, ask the writer what feedback would be most helpful to them. I generally have a skeleton outline of things:
– Grammar And Spelling.
– The Flow Of The Language. Do sentences blend into one another or are they awkward and fumbly?
– Story Pacing. Am I drawn into the story? Is it keeping my interest? If I start to lose interest, where and why?
– Characters. Are their motivations clear? Are they consistent throughout the text? Do their decisions make sense?
– Dialogue. I’m a jerk about this. If people don’t really talk that way, I’ll call you on it.
– Cliches. Are you borrowing too much from a stereotype, trope, or another piece of work to the detriment of your own story?
– Showing Versus Telling. Are you doing too much story background and wall-of-text and not enough “revelation through story”?
– Choreography. Do the action scenes make sense? Can I envision them in my head?
5) If you commit to beta reading and have to stop for WHATEVER reason, make sure you tell the writer why you have to stop. Tell them why you can’t keep reading even if it has nothing to do with the writer’s story – “I’m moving,” “I had to hide a body,” “Timmy’s stuck in the well.” True Fact: if you stop halfway through our work and don’t tell us why? We assume it’s because you don’t like it or found it boring. If you stop because you don’t like it or found it boring, well, tell us that, too.
The Lesson: Beta readers should give honest feedback that takes the writer’s feelings into consideration. Frame criticism in a way that doesn’t sound like an attack. Writers are sensitive little mongrels and require tender care, but they also can’t become better writers without hearing how they’re failing. If you like something, say so. Make sure when you say you don’t like something, you can say why. “Just because” is fairly useless.
All in all, the writer/beta reader dynamic is a weird one. It can be hard to give criticism, it can be hard to take criticism. Like most things, the key is open, honest, respectful communication. Expectations of both writer and crit-partner should be addressed before walking the crit partner path so no one walks away from the experience feeling like they wasted their time. I can say I’m a very lucky person in that I have fantastic beta readers – a network of writers, friends, and family that really help me take my work to the next level. Without them, my material wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is, and I worship the quicksand they walk upon for it.
That being said, do you have any advice about beta reading? Have any experiences you want to share? Comments, ho!