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So, there was recently a thread about how one handles beta readers. There were many fantastic responses about what people liked to see from their betas, and what people liked to give. As someone who works very closely with my beta readers, I'd like to share my process and methods.
Right out the gate, I'd like to make something clear; I am a horrible beta reader or critique partner. I am on a very tight schedule for my own professional writing, editing, and publishing (with a two books per year schedule; every April 1st and October 1st, I aim to release a book) which leaves me with precious little time to be a person outside of my full-time job of writing. As such, I have very few (only one, as of this writing) writers or aspiring writers on my beta team of six, as I cannot commit to returning the favor. I have received a fair number of requests in that regard, and I regret that I have to turn them down in most cases, which means that most writers choose not to read for me and offer their feedback.
And that is perfectly understandable. I wouldn't expect anything else! However, I am going to break down how I have personally experienced beta readers, and what you can glean about the likely sort of feedback you can expect from a person, based on who they are, as well as where these people might have shortcomings (that other people can make up for!).
Now, first and foremost, I want to stress something here; you -must- develop a personal relationship with a beta reader if you hope to have any sort of reliability with them. Having an engaging story helps too, yes, but people can and will fall away from even the most engaging story when life gets in the way, because life always does (and always should) take precedence. Just popping in and saying, “Hi! I have a book I need a beta reader for!” is not going to garner you much support, and from what I have seen, what beta readers you -do- get are going to falter and possibly not even finish reading your work.
Engage with others on a human level, support them in their struggles, offer general suggestions and discourse, and build relationships. Try to do so without any goal in mind at the end. Remember, while beta readers double as a valuable resource, these resources are also people with lives and struggles and often times projects of their own. Be a friend to them that is worth helping, and it is much more likely that you will get the help you need. If you can, return the favor, and if you can't, be understanding and maintain the relationship, as you would with any other friend.
When I talk about what different beta readers can do for you, I am going to use language that is very businesslike, and that is because this is my business. One must remember, though, that you are working with people, and these people are providing you with a service, very often for free. As such, you are indebted to them, to a greater or lesser degree.
So here we go.
The first kind of beta reader that you are going to see (and most of what you'll find here on CC) are going to be other writers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a writer as a beta reader; one of my most treasured beta readers is a fellow writer that I met on this site. She has proven to be worth her weight in gold for the feedback she's given me, not only from the perspective of a reader, but as a writer and storyteller in her own right. A storyteller understands the value of feedback on a story, and I find that these beta readers almost exclusively give you the deepest dive into your work of any other. That value of this cannot be understated.
A writer is going to be your best resource for technical fixes, sussing out things like echoing, awkward wording, starting every bloody paragraph with a character name, monotonous prose/rhythm, so on and so forth. These beta readers will be able to pick apart the structure of your writing and tell you exactly where your prose falters, and possibly suggest ways to fix it that you can learn from.
However, I find that writers make less than optimal partners when it comes to developmental feedback, and I think that the reason is that we tend to think “I would have written this like -this- instead!” and offer that as feedback in things like plot, pacing, character development, and so on. Our own ambitions and talents color our perceptions of other media. An example I used with my wife last night when watching a movie was that I felt I had, in a way, ruined media by studying and examining tropes so deeply, because now, instead of just watching and enjoying plot, I'm picking out the tropes and modifications of tropes in the movies and shows I watch. I fall into this trap myself, struggling not to offer feedback in my own style and voice, which may clash across genres or writing styles.
Now, there are always exceptions of course... I'm not going to pretend that this is some sort of 'beta-reader astrology' chart, but consistently, this is the sort of feedback I have gotten from other writers, whether from Reddit, here, or other places in life. It is exceptionally valuable, especially when you have areas of weakness in assembling prose and flow, but if this is the only kind of feedback you get, there will be gaps in your development as a storyteller.
Artists and other creative types (musicians, sculptors, craftspeople, etc) give their own sort of feedback, and I often feel that it can be a little more brutal than what comes from others. I find that many other craftspeople and artists tend to think of writing as 'easy' when compared to their craft, and that makes sense, if you think about it; they understand the time and effort and skill that went into learning their own art, and so they have a healthy, experiential respect for it. They can see the art or woodworking or sculptures, or listen to the music made by other artists and they understand the processes and techniques that went into creating those things, much like I mentioned with my study of tropes and how it affects how I experience stories.
Writing, however, seems to be just the telling of a story to many of them. I've had many artists tell me that they think of writing as an 'easy' form of art, because SO MANY people do it. However, I think this gives them a little bit of under appreciation for the work that goes into a story.
AND THIS IS A GOOD THING!!!
This becomes -very- useful in that they approach the work from an aesthetic viewpoint, as in, does the story work for them? Does it flow? Does it build their emotion and does it make them really -feel- something? Is it art? They might not be able to tell you why something doesn't work, but they can definitely tell you if it works, how they felt, what they did or did not expect, and if not expecting something was an exciting surprise, or if having an expectation delivered was like having a promise fulfilled.
However, I also find that these people (in their purest form) are positively incapable of giving any but the most basic technical feedback (“You have a typo here...”), which, frankly, is not what beta readers should be for anyways. If they do give feedback, that's where you want to listen to the writers on your team.
These ones range in usefulness, and you have to keep a sort of tab on them as to how well they're working for you. The vast majority of the feedback you're going to get is from readers, and they will also be the hardest to retain, while they will also 'wear out' or need to be sent into the sunset more frequently than any of the others. There are a few reasons for this, but first we'll get into what general readers will bring to your beta team.
First of all, I recommend that you keep this group as diverse as possible. Men, women, older people, younger people, conservative, liberal, as wide a range as you can manage. Each of these people will bring their own perspectives, likes, dislikes, sensibilities, and more to the critique of your work, and this is so valuable from a developmental (and eventually marketing) perspective. Even though your sample group is likely to be super tiny, it will give you at least some sort of sense how an older liberal woman might react to your work as opposed to a younger conservative man, and what they might think of specific scenes or concepts presented n your story. Now, obviously, people are people, and just because one younger conservative woman absolutely adores your word, that doesn't mean that every younger conservative woman will love it, but it does give you a broader sense of how your story will be received by a diverse crowd.
As an example, my first book had an explicit love scene, where I went into extreme detail (rookie mistake, in retrospect, but I stand by my decision to keep it in). It was received with positive or neutral responses from everyone except the middle age to older men. Younger people didn't mind it, conservative to liberal didn't mind, but men in the 35-70 age range felt it was too much. Almost universally, my negative reviews that mention it come from that demographic. Everyone loved the blood and guts and gore and cleaving and hacking and chopping, but you throw in a few flowery anatomical euphemisms, and the proverbial 'fit' hits the 'shan'.
Now, general readers are liable to give you your highest overview of feedback, in that these people will be the most likely to just say “I liked it.” and leave it at that. I think the fact that they aren't writers themselves, they don't fully, consciously grasp the need for specific, focused feedback, so these are the people that I will give a small questionnaire to. However, I have also found that giving someone a questionnaire drastically lowers their likelihood of ever getting back to you (but we'll go into that much greater in depth later).
Ah, family. Most, if not all of us, have given a copy of our work to a wife, husband, brother, sister, father, mother, aunt, uncle, or cousin to get a trusted pair of eyes to look it over. Quite often, it's an unfinished draft or a small selection, as we've probably already inundated them with discussion about our characters, plot, twists, setting, worldbuilding, cosmology, and more.
I don't want to seem as though I believe handing out copies to personal friends or family is a worthless endeavor, but, overwhelmingly, this will get you pat-on-the-back "you did a good job!" sort of feedback that, frankly, is absolutely worthless beyond padding our own egos. These people are going to be a lot like the fans I mentioned above in that they want to make you happy, and most of them see you working passionately on the project and they do not want to discourage you. Many of them will balk at presenting criticism because of that, and unfortunately, criticism is what we need in this endeavor of storytelling. You will definitely need to weigh out for yourself whether or not your close family and circle of friends will be able to provide you with the feedback you need to improve your writing.
I have only one member of my family on my beta read team, and that is my brother. We are brutally honest to each other, in my critique of his art and in his critique of mine. As both of us are artists (his is in traditional graphic art, while mine is obviously in writing), we understand the need for critical discourse, so we work for each other. My mother, as an example, is far too invested in wanting to encourage and support me to offer any critical feedback; she has never once pointed out a problem in any of my work, despite there having been some glaring omissions.
Now there are a few reasons you may have to sunset a beta reader. One of the reasons seems a little backwards, but trust me on this; you don't want a fan to be a beta reader. They are a lot like family in that they don't want to criticize or discourage you, or they could be so enamored with your work that they honestly can't see your shortcomings, instead accepting them as the golden standard. There are individual exceptions of course, but you need to weigh those out on a case-by-case basis.
You can tell a fan by when they are champing at the bit to read your work before it's polished and find no problems with it. Every beta draft has problems. Every single one, period, no doubt about it. Flow will suffer. Pacing will need to be tightened up. You will echo. You'll have a character slip up in ways that they wouldn't slip up. You'll miss a plot point or abandon an arc or -something-. That's why you're giving it to beta readers, so they can give you the perspective of a fresh mind and a new pair of eyes, to help you suss out the problems that still exist in your beta draft.
If your beta readers aren't providing this service to you, then they aren't very good beta readers. This is probably through no fault of their own, and if you're doing your job as a writer, you are creating fans, so this will be inevitable. Unfortunately, this means you'll have to weigh out whether or not a specific beta reader is still a valuable member of the team. If they are not, you may have to make the difficult choice to not include them in future reads, or have a conversation with them about your needs as a writer. You can, of course, provide them with beta copies still, as one would do with any friend that blessed you with their interest, but remember that their feedback will have less developmental value than someone who understands that you need to have the flaws pointed out so that you can dissect and correct them.
There will be, of course, combinations of these reader types, and there will be readers that shatter these molds. Deal with every single one of your beta readers on a very personal level. They are people too, not just resources, and by creating and maintaining dialogue with them, you not only gain a beta reader, but a friend as well. That is how it should be, a mutual exchange of benefit between each other.
As an introduction to selecting your beta readers, I think it is about time to wrap this up. My experiences, of course, are not the end-all-be-all of beta readers, but I hope that it has given you something to think about. In a future blog post, I will break down how I directly interact with specific beta readers and why, as well as including a sample of the questionnaire I use with some people, and why I selected those questions. In all things, YMMV (your mileage may vary).
Until next time!