Beta Reading = Better Writing

So it ends.  I'm officially calling a halt to my summer blog slowdown.  The heat and drought is making me crazy so I'm mentally ending my summer in an attempt to trick the world into forgetting it's August.  Plus, I kind of miss all of you and your blogs!

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.

In the end, it's probably best to think of the beta process as if the story were a newborn foal trying to find its legs.  It can see from the other horses around it what it wants to be, which is a colt or filly running, eating, playing and doing what horses do.  Still, there is a gap between becoming the goal or vision and where the foal currently is (lying in a wet heap in the grass).  It'll need some help to get to that point--probably in the form of an encouraging nuzzle or nudge from momma and the need to stand if it wants to eat.   Just as learning to stand and walk is a fundamental part of a foal growing into a horse, getting feedback from early readers is crucial if you want the words and ideas you've slapped onto the screen to grow into a story.

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 steal learn from every single one of them.  Some of the biggest leaps I've made in my own writing have come via critiquing others and seeing how they approach things in different ways.  From plot to characterization, I add something new to my toolbox almost every time I beta read.

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.

~EJW~
            

    

16 comments:

  1. Great post. You can't underestimate the value of a good beta reader. It's the only way to learn how to write well. And to get a good read, you need to be able to reciprocate. Sounds as if you're having a productive summer.

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  2. I alpha read for Steph Schmidt and have been enjoying it and having input on her manuscript. I also help out with Misha when I can. She tried to unload 500 pages though on me and needed it done in three weeks and I told her no. I later clarified that I'd help here with the 500 pages just not all in three weeks time...holy cow. I think she gave up on that as it's an enormous task (the three week thing) and has settled back down and will start sending me chapters again. I like helping out other writers. But I've actually not had the opportunity to beta read yet. It sounds intriguing...commenting on essentially an almost finished manuscript. Instead I usually have been handed very rough first drafts and this is where my editing skills come in much more handy. Sure, I get some beta reading in there but fixing the errors I find kinda dulls the overall experience.

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  3. In spite of 25 years as a published author, I'm a truly crappy beta reader. I'm not even good at editing my own work, possibly because I have the attention span of a fruit fly.

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  4. If you can beta read for others, it helps you with your own MS.

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  5. I don't call it beta reading, but I have three critique partners and I've critiqued/read at least one thing from each of them. (I also have two 'test readers' who aren't writers who read my work.) I really wasn't sure how I would do as a critique partner, as I miss things in my own work and didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings. But the more you do it, the better you become.

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  6. Very thorough post!
    Beta reading is time consuming, but you are going to need one, so it's best to help others out too. I also think I learn from others by beta reading. By seeing what strengthens their story, it will help strenghten my future story. I also like reading stories anyway so win-win!

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  7. Great post, EJ!

    The bottom line is that you must give in order to receive. And it feels really good to help someone else polish a manuscript that you believe in almost as much as they do.

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  8. This is all so true! I'd love to have some beta readers who could really help me figure out what is and isn't working in my novels. But the very fact that I can't figure these things out on my own makes me a less-than-useful beta reader myself. It's kind of a vicious circle: if I was a good enough critical reader to find what works and what doesn't, I'd be much more capable of fixing my own stories. I'm betting you're right, though, that the more you practice it the better, and I'm sure I could learn a lot from reading other people's works in progress!

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  9. I am lucky to have my husband as my first reader without it endangering our relationship at all. We have the same tastes and think the same way. He basically IS my target audience. And he knows if he was anything less than 100% honest with me I would never forgive him so I couldn't ask for a better arrangement. :)

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  10. I do a lot of beta reading for fellow students in my MFA program. The process HAS given me a more critical eye, made me a better writer. It's good stuff, the beta reading.

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  11. I recently did my first Beta read and it was an eye-opening experience. I learned something from it and I hope it was of value to the author who is writing the novel. I feel like I will have been part of the creative process.

    Lee
    Tossing It Out

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  12. I haven't been a Beta reader (nor requested any readers) but have had people offer to read my work.... I think it's a great idea, but I need to be absolutely ready for anything of mine to be read -- then it goes to my husband first off. I am also incredibly cautious about offering to read anything because I would want to give it my all and I have very very little spare time. Still I love the idea and the philosophy behind it and I hope to give it a try sometime soon!

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  13. I really like beta-reading. Beta reading really helped me make the final step to get my own draft to a readable point. Reading the work of someone I knew and had been writing with for a year gave me the confidence that I could do it too. Also my writing group really wanted to read my work too.

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  14. Excellent post! Great tips for writers and readers alike. Thanks!

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  15. This is a fantastic post. Very informative. I've just linked to it in my latest post, which is a call out for beta readers.

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