I’m really lucky. Both in a general sense (as I am safe and healthy and typing this on a relatively nice laptop in a relatively nice neighbourhood) but in a specific sense: I have two amazing beta-readers to rely on.
I’ve been best friends with Lydia and Grace for 24 and 23 years respectively, and we’ve been writing/reading each others work in all that time. I know that they like my work–they aren’t just saying that to be nice–so if they suggest changes it’s because they think it will make the piece stronger. Same goes for Laura, Marc, and Ean, whom I haven’t known for as long, but who I trust just as much. (Trust is a major component of beta-reading. If you don’t trust the quality of a reader’s critiques, why bother?)
Talk to any writer and they’ll have an individual taste for what they consider a ‘good’ beta-reader but these are my guidelines:
- Tastes in writing needs to align
If someone prefers to read fast-paced thrillers, then anything they will get from me is going to disappoint them and that disappointment is going to cloud any other changes they might suggest. An unhelpful beta-reader is one who wants to change your intricately-dressed drama of manners into something that they’d prefer to read instead, such as a military epic.
(Beware of sentences that start with “If I was writing this…” because what follows is unlikely to be useful as the reader thinks it is).
- Reactions over critiques
I am in the camp that doesn’t want suggestions, I want emotional response, good or bad. “I found myself rushing to get through to the subplot” says a lot more than “I think your protagonist could be more complex” and if you take the time to analyse what they are telling you (take some time to think about it before reacting yourself) you’ll have more specific problems to fix and focus on.
Some early feedback from Creampuffs consisted of “Cut 25 pages from the beginning”. Confused the hell out of me because that seems like A LOT in Word pages but maybe not that many on an e-Reader screen and which did they mean, and which pages should I cut, etc., etc., until Grace pointed out I was overthinking it: “What you should be focused on is that they think the beginning drags a bit, and could be faster-paced”. Which is absolutely true and a better point to start editing from.
I usually ask newer beta-readers not to make suggestions at all but just note their reactions as they happen; no one wants any readers to tie themselves into knots over how to best provide a critique. Critiques in turn can be argued with over what you “meant”. Reactions, meanwhile, can be blunt or soft, but they are always honest and shine a spot light on any issues.
Which brings me to my third and final guideline:
- Say nice things too.
No one wants to get a piece back that’s covered in red pen. Reactions are always honest and they can be cheering in a way that critiques can’t. A critique almost always implies a problem that needs to be fixed, and even if you give your feedback as a sandwich (compliment-critique-compliment) it’s still a shit sandwich.
Instead I prefer ‘a reaction salad’. Lydia’s preferred methodology is simple: she prints the piece out, and highlights parts she likes and writes comments in pen in the margins. So even when there are a lot of comments, there’s that highlighter on phrases she likes or parts where she laughed. Too often readers (and writers especially are guilty of this, reading other writer’s work) focus on flaws that need to be fixed. And they should be fixed! But if you know what’s working, you can add more of that, too. It’s all useful feedback. So more salads, less sandwiches, please.
In the spirit of balance, these are the three points that I think writers should adhere to when presenting work to be beta-read. I’ve learned these points through experience too (the training works both ways!) and they are something that I’ve come to expect when I am given work to critique.
- Make the piece the best you can can make it.
Do all the editing you can. Read it backwards. Read it forwards and out loud! Let it ferment in a drawer for a while so you can look at it with fresh eyes. Repeat. And finally, when you are honest with yourself that it is the best you are capable of doing, give it to a beta-reader. Do not waste your beta-reader’s time on unpolished work. It drives me crazy when someone asks me to look over something and it’s either full of typos or it obviously is still in a draft 0 phase. If you’re a writer you’re a reader; maybe you’re not an editor but you should be able to get the story into a readable state. Beta-readers are NOT editors and should not be treated as such. Give them your best, even if you’re just starting out. Give them the work that you would submit, and they’ll give you honest reactions that will help you improve.
- They are doing you a favour.
Be respectful of their time, don’t hound them (man it took me a long time to learn that one), and try remember how hard it is to give feedback. Maybe they are busy! Maybe they like the story fine but can’t think of anything to say. They are reading your work because they like you; make sure to keep it that way. Treat it like you would any other favour and make it reciprocal–even if it’s as simple as taking them out for a beer or coffee as a thank-you gesture. Beta-reading is work. Remember that.
(As a side-note, this is why I don’t ask people to read my work (except for Grace and Lydia, obviously). I get so anxious waiting for feedback that if it becomes obvious that someone started reading and didn’t finish it plummets me into a well of gloom, and that’s a lot of pressure to be on the other side of. Instead I learned to wait until people asked if they could read it, which meant they were at least somewhat interested. Of course that doesn’t help with self-promotion, so that’s something I’ll need to figure out…)
- Don’t have them re-read it.
This tip I gleaned from a book on writing by Orson Scott Card and it’s worth passing on: don’t give beta-readers the same story twice. Either you changed the story based on the aggregate of reactions or you didn’t and either way most people are not interested in re-reading something that’s functionally the same as before. If they gave you advice and you DIDN’T change it, they’ll be hurt/annoyed/confused; if you changed something based on someone else’s feedback they will be confused and may even ask you to change it back. That’s even worse, because you might start doubting your revisions. (I feel the same way about revisions that I do about carpentry and sewing: measure twice and cut once.) It’s not worth it.
Of course there are exceptions based on individual relationships with beta-readers but it’s a good rule of thumb: beta-readers are not editors, they are fresh eyes. If they’ve already seen a story then they aren’t fresh eyes, are they? And if the story has changed dramatically enough between revisions that it’s like a different story entirely, well, maybe you didn’t give them your best work the first time around. Do you want them to realize that? No, of course you don’t, because a good beta-reader is worth their weight in gold/chocolate-covered coffee beans and you must treat them as such.
Lydia and I measure our friendaversaries from March Breaks, so we’re coming up on 24 years. I still have her comments from when she read Part One of my first draft of Space Crazies, fresh off of NaNoWri 2010 (I had not yet realized my Best Work Forward motto). Sometimes when I get a little down on myself I remember that she’s still waiting for the second half of the novel and it spurs me onwards. So as we start March and I roll up my sleeves to finish the editing of $^%&ing Space Crazies, that’s what’s been on my mind.
If you have a good beta-reader out there that you rely on, take a few minutes and tell them that. It’s a lucky valuable thing and you should appreciate them.
Lydia, Grace, Laura, Marc, Ean: Next one is on me.