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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Question of Betas

While I have several friends and colleagues who are willing to serve as "beta readers" for me, I feel that nobody who knows you can ever be truly honest.  And I'm culpable in this -- when I read for friends (I'm a 28-year journalist, so I'm asked to do this a lot), I can't really be fully open/honest/ forthright at times because I don't want to hurt my friend or colleague.
I think you finally need to hire a professional editor for unbiased input and reaction. But does this make sense?

This is really a tough question, which is probably why a good beta reader is worth their weight in gold.

I've been thinking a lot about this lately as I've been doing a lot of beta reading and critiquing. Here are some of the things I've learned.

Not every beta reader is right for every story.

That's right. Not every beta reader should read every story. I am finally learning that it's all right to say no. And I'm not talking about when the request is made, but after, when I've had a chance to look the story over. Some stories are just never going to appeal to me. Same with the characters. But how to tell when this might be the case? 
    • When I find myself dreading opening up the document
    • When I can't find a single honest, positive thing to say about the story
    • If it turns out that I'm really not the target audience
      • I do this, because I may inadvertently give out bad advice without realizing it--especially if I'm not familiar with the tropes in the genre.
    • When the story is not at the level the writer thinks it's at.
      • Let me explain this one further. Everyone is going and learning at different rates on the writing spectrum. And what we may think is great when we're at level, say, three, we'd be able to spot the weaknesses on and fix them if we were at level five. So if the writer is at a level three, and the beta reader is at level five, there can be some dissonance there. When this happens, and I know the crit is going to be extensive and probably hard to take (because, let's face it, criticism hurts even if it's only meant to help us), I always email the person I'm beta reading and send the first 20-50 pages or so and ask for permission to continue the crit. I do this, because while crits can sting, I never want one of mine to crush. And I let the writer know that.

Not every writer is ready for a beta reader.

    • As I said earlier, crits often sting when we first get them, whether they're from trusted betas, helpful strangers, agents, or editors. Not everyone is at the point in their writing journey where they're quite ready for that. I remember the first real crit I ever got. It nearly crushed me, even though I'd thought I was ready for it. I set it aside for a day or two and was able to come back and realize that the critter was being a lot more objective about my story than I was, and luckily I let my emotions cool before I did anything drastic. Like reject the crit or give up writing. But I have seen both happen to different people, and I think it was just a matter of rotten timing.
      • And qualifying this--I think it's important that writers are completely honest with themselves before they seek someone to crit their work. We all want praise, I think. It feels good to hear what we did right. That we have amazing characters and an incredible story. But if that's all we're ready for, I think we need to let the critter know. If we're at the point where we want a mix of criticism and praise or an all out blood fest, we need to let the critter know. I think the key here is honest communication--first with ourselves, and then with those with whom we are entrusting our stories.

Not ever writer is ready to be a beta reader.

    • I think there's a huge learning curve that happens, depending on a lot of personal factors. That said, for this point, I think it's important that those who are beta reading are honest with their motivations for critting for others. I think the best beta readers are those that are critting with an eye out to help make the story they're reading as strong as they possibly can. To align with the writer themselves and work together to make the story sing--not to turn the story into what they envision the story should be.

On Impartiality

So my thoughts on hiring a professional editor that would be completely impartial? To be honest, no one is going to be completely unbiased, because we all have certain things we like better than others, certain weaknesses that bother us more than others. So is hiring an editor a good idea? I think it depends on your goals. If you're looking to self-publish, I would definitely say yes. But otherwise, I'm not so sure.

I think it's important for writers to learn the skills they need to polish their own work, and to learn how to listen to their gut when it comes to deciding what works best for their stories. Editors are expensive (and rightfully so, I think), and I believe that a lot of the benefits from hiring an editor could be found for free by discovering some very good beta readers. Free, except for the time you must invest in returning the favor.

So what makes a good beta reader?

  • Someone who will be honest with you. I believe there's honesty, and then there's honesty. In detailing what we think are weaknesses, I think it's important for critters to be honest, but kind. This doesn't mean sugar coating things. It just means stating your opinion and focusing on the writing rather than on the writer. It means not making sweeping statements that include the words: always, never, etc.
  • Someone who wants you to succeed. My best beta readers are those that I can turn to not only for support for the story, but support for when I'm feeling down. They remind me why I'm doing what I'm doing. They're a shoulder when I need one most.
  • Someone who complements your weaknesses with strengths. We're all in different stages in our writing journey, and at different stages within each part that encompasses writing. So while I might be a 10 at description, I might also be a 5 at characterization, an 8 at world building, and a 4 at grammar. So I'd be on the look out for someone who is a ten at characterization and grammar, and maybe I could help them with description and world building. Because a great crit partnership is one where both parties are benefitting from the relationship.

Where to find good beta readers?

I've found mine in a number of places:
  • fellow bloggers
  • forums (QT has parts of a forum dedicated to critting pages and queries)
  • friends
  • online crit groups
  • Facebook
  • any place where other writers hang out
I hope this helps!

Danyelle collects dragons, talking frogs, and fairy godmothers in her spare time. She is currently getting ready to query SLIPPERS OF PEARL, a YA fantasy. She also enjoys making new friends, and can be found at http://myth-takes.blogspot.com.


Anonymous said...

Very helpful advice! I also find that using the same beta reader (even if reasonably impartial) over and over is not always helpful.

Unknown said...

This is so true--each of my beta readers has different strengths and they combine to make an awesome team. If you write YA as I do, the SCBWI forum is a great place to find critique partners. I found both of my amazing groups that way. :)

Huntress said...

Betas are vital, not just for the MS but for their support. Thank the Lord for my Beta Buddies.

Criting their work also helps me see the..er..stuff in mine to cut.

Stina said...

Great post!

Ideally you want someone who likes the same kind of things you write. I had someone crit my first chapter, but thought it was too dark for her. She prefers lighter stuff. So I added a little humor to the dialogue, and someone told me to cut it all out. Sigh. Can't win either way. ;)

Angela Ackerman said...

Great advice. I struggle sometimes with finding compatible betas for certain stages of feedback. I am a firm believer that everyone has something to offer critique wise, but sometimes when I'm at the stage where I need that really polished, high level feedback, I hit a wall.

As Liz mentioned, using the same beta too much can be counter productive. I like to get new eyes on the manuscript when it's in the final stages, but it can be tough to find the right fit.

This goes back to what you touch on here--that not everyone's work is at the level they believe it to be and it's hard to find this out beforehand. It's frustrating to put a lot of time into someone's book only to get a handful of comments in return that don't really offer what I need. (I hope I don't sound all full of myself by saying this--I'm just trying to be honest about a difficulty I think many people face. I'm sure that to some I am not the ideal crit partner either--it all comes down to finding that chemistry match where each half can supply what the other needs.)

Bottom line, when you find someone who you work well with, TREASURE them!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Porter Anderson said...

Very helpful, thanks for your thoughtful and extensive response on this question.

I especially like your point about varying levels of writerly capacity and reader-perception. I've had the experience of moving past certain readers in some ways. That's not to demean them, of course. But this work is what I focus on, while their value is in bringing a non-obsessed viewpoint to the table. That's useful only if they can perceive where the material is and might go.

I probably lean a bit more toward the use of paid, completely unaffiliated editors (not "unbiased," good correction), even when not self-publishing. You're right that they need to be in the arena of the work. But I'm not sure that risking a less supportive approach from time to time isn't a good idea, since, unlike Blanche Dubois, we can't always depend on the kindness of strangers. :-)

Good stuff, appreciate it, Danyelle.

Sierra Gardner said...

My beta readers are members of the writing club I belong to. These are wonderful people who quickly became friends, but who also are able to maintain a writing relationship. They are invested in my success and want to help, so the advice they offer is given to improve my work. I also find that a lot of the time the way we receive criticism plays a big role in people's willingness to be genuinely honest about our work. We've come to trust eachother's opinions and ability to take critiques well.

Donea Lee said...

Thanks for the info, Danyelle. Exactly what I needed to read! I actually really need to get some beta readers. I've left my feedback to family and I'm afraid they're far too nice to me about my writing. Objectivity is key. I'll definitely have to check out some of the places/forums you mentioned. Thanks!

Abby Minard said...

What a great comment. Thank you for that! I have some crit partners right now, and then after I get those back and make edits, I'll get some actual teen beta readers who read YA fantasy but don't know who I am (and I don't know who they are). My YA librarian coworker is going to be gracious enough to hand it out to them.

Unknown said...

So very true. I have a wonderful beta reader who is too honest almost to a fault. I love him for it though. I have noticed even in forums that genre matters a lot. I write YA, so there's language used in YA that wouldn't be grammatically correct under other circumstances. It's funny to get some guy whose been reading and writing non-fiction for thirteen years talk to you like you're a crack pot after reading your query letter. You just have to laugh it off. I learned a long time ago that the number two desired trait for a writer is thick skin. The first being passion.

Anonymous said...

I seriously recommend twitter as a place to find beta readers as well. :D

The Writer said...

This is such a great thing to post about. Seriously. I've been so shy to "beta" recently, because I just don't know how to be of the most help. I know when people read my stuff, I like to ask them to list 5 things they loved that I absolutely can't change, and 5 things they would like changed/cut. Then I ask for an overall review and go from there.

The point of being a beta is to strengthen a story. I think a lot of us forget that as we critique and either over emphasize or under emphasize areas that need help.

Such a delicate balance...

Danyelle L. said...

You all are awesome! Thanks for all your thoughtful responses! I've really enjoyed reading them. :) Betas rule!