I really appreciate those of you who've stuck around during my sporadic and infrequent postings the last couple of months. Promise you'll see more of me here and on your own blogs in the coming weeks.
Some of the tiny bit of writing work I've gotten done this summer has been in the form of beta reading. If you're a writer you're probably very familiar with the concept of beta reading. For the uninitiated, it's basically the process of finding your first (or early) readers for a story. The idea is to get feedback on the things that work--and the things that don't--and take it all back to the editing room.
It's also a means of creating a sort of 'idea trust' with a group of people who are interested in reading your work critically with the aim of making it the best it can possibly be. In that way, it really isn't (or shouldn't be in my estimation) strictly an evaluation of the writing quality or mechanics so much as a broad conceptualization of where/what the story is and what the story COULD be.
That isn't to say that writing quality doesn't or shouldn't play a part in the beta process. Sometimes bad writing gets in the way of a good story, plain and simple. As a reader if you can't get beyond errors in punctuation, funky sentence structure, etc. you'll likely never stick around long enough to find out if the story actually works.
Fortunately, there are lots of writers out there who've shared that essential little secret to writing success. In fact, you'll find people asking for and extolling the virtues of beta readers all over the WWW. What you won't find, however, are tons of people encouraging you to BE a beta reader. Well, people that aren't looking for beta readers that is. :-)
There are a few really good reasons why you'll find more people seeking beta readers than offering to be one, and they're things to seriously consider before you jump on board the Reading Railroad's Beta Express.
1) Beta reading is a time commitment--sometimes a big one: Granted, you're not generally going to be making line edits and going all 8th grade English teacher as a beta reader. However, you're going to have to read the story start to finish, and most likely twice to do it properly. I tend to be a slow-ish reader, especially when I'm reading critically, so I usually have to factor that in.
Then there is the matter of actually giving your feedback. Your style will largely dictate the time investment here. Some betas write it all up in a big summary e-mail covering major points, and not really going into great detail or specifics. That takes less time, but might not be the level of feedback desired or needed by the author. Other betas like to comment on every paragraph and go into considerable detail, going as far as to offer re-writing suggestions and story ideas (me). That takes much more time but can yield a more profitable experience for all of the parties involved, which I'll talk more about in a moment.
If time is an issue, you can always offer to read a few chapters at a time from a novel. Most people are willing to take any and all help they can get.
2) Beta reading takes skill: Anyone can read a story and tell you if they like it or not. It takes a certain level of skill and understanding of the craft to be able to articulate WHY you like it or not, especially in a way that someone else can apply. Like any skill, it takes practice to become a good beta reader, and it isn't necessarily easy to master.
3) You risk ticking people off: Getting and giving feedback on writing is a delicate business. Regardless of how well you gird yourself, hearing that your story isn't perfect (or maybe even good *cringe*) stings. Chances are if you've been asked to be a beta reader you've already formed some kind of relationship with the author, probably a good one, and there is a measure of risk involved if you have to share your honest bad news. Shoot, the news doesn't have to be THAT bad to ruffle feathers. This factors into the skill acquisition point in #2, but even if you've mastered the art of the gentle critical analysis, you still might not be asked to help out the next time if your thoughts aren't well received.
4) It's a fine line between under and overqualified: If you beta read enough, no matter your skill as a reader or writer, you'll run into a story so awesome and well-written that you'll instantly feel you can't offer anything of substance to the author other than 'great! great! great!' We all know that's not what the author wants to hear, because no story is perfect and they wouldn't have come to you just to get fluffy pink feedback--otherwise they'd have just had their moms read it. Similarly, you'll read stories you'll barely be able to make it through. The author didn't come to you be told to give up on writing, they came to you for help and growth. Navigating the different levels of the various authors is tricky and never gets easier.
SO WHY BETA READ WHEN IT SOUNDS LIKE SO MUCH WORK AND HASSLE?
Beta reading is unquestionably demanding, but there are some big time reasons why you (the writer) should be lining up to do it outside of simply helping out a friend or cohort in need.
1) Developing a critical and understanding eye: I believe you learn how to write by reading. Technically, every book you read for fun is going to help you become a better writer. Even still, beta reading will allow to go to new levels of understanding. As a beta, you try to catch all of the good and the bad. You break a story apart instead of devouring it. Kind of like taking a watch apart, once you see all of the pieces spread out before you you'll have a much better idea of why it works or why it doesn't. It's a forest for the trees thing, and nothing is better at helping you develop an eye for it than being a beta.
2) Learn new tricks: There are a lot of doggone good writers out there, and you can
3) By learning to give feedback, you also learn how apply it: Nothing prepares you for the beta process as an author like participating as a reader. I mentioned above that feedback stings. As you work as a beta reader you learn to consider how feedback will be taken, and in turn how it might be applied. At some point in the writing process you have to get feedback. I'd suggest learning how to give it first, and THEN learning how to take it.
So what are you waiting for? Offer to beta read for someone, and I promise you'll see positive results in your own writing. Plus you'll get some seriously good writing karma when it comes time for you to fish for your own betas.