Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Beauty of the Beta, Part 2

It's true that editors and agents aren't going to jump for joy when you tell them that your friends and family love the story. But does that mean you should exclude them from critiquing your story? Absolutely not.

One of the best critiques I ever got on a story was from a very good friend who didn't read a lot of kids books. Her critique was valuable because she told me where the story was muddled, when actions or words didn't make sense, anytime she had questions or if something was too unbelievable. And that's exactly what you want from a beta reader.

You don't want readers who are just going to tell you your writing is fabulous. If that's all you're looking for, then you aren't ready for a beta read. You also don't want people who are going to change the way you've told your story, insist on alternate story lines or rewrite entire pages or change your character's voice.

When I beta read, I try to point out plot holes and places where the action drags, make sure the character's motivation is clear and note times when the characters might not be acting "in character." I also highlight repeating words or phrases, and let the author know if something in the story doesn't make sense. Almost as importantly, I make note of scenes that work beautifully, dialogue that impresses and things that just plain make me smile.

Before I start reading, I ask the author what they are expecting from me, how detailed they want my critique to be, and when they would like to get my comments back. Some people like notes at the end of each chapter. Some people want overall thoughts. Still others prefer a line-by-line critique. Being up front and clear saves a lot of misunderstanding and hurt feelings.

I LOVE being a beta reader. I mean, how cool is it to get a sneak peek at great stories before the rest of the world! I've also been so thankful for the comments I get back from people who critique my writing. Yeah, it's devastating to hear that those two chapters sucked and I should really delete them completely. But better to hear it from the betas than to send that story out before it's ready.

Like writing, the more you beta read, the better you'll get at it. I was TERRIFIED the first time I did a beta read for someone, worried that my comments would offend, scared that I might miss something important. But keep this in mind: chances are that you are just one of several people reading the story. Hopefully, the author will get comments that are similar to yours as well as some from people who catch other things.

We all bring something different to the pages we read, and that is the beauty of the beta.

19 comments:

Anne Gallagher said...

Yes, Yes and YES! I'd also like to reiterate one important point you made that I feel doesn't get said enough...

Make sure you tell your writer when something is GOOD. We're so used to dealing with what doesn't work, it's a definite boost to the ego to hear when something does work.

Laura Pauling said...

I enjoy beta reading too. I'm pretty thorough, but I always ask what the writer is looking for and what draft it is. I beta a first draft differently than a polished draft.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Excellent post! I agree on all points.

I like what you say about different betas bringing different views to the story. Beta readers are like regular readers, only more able to help with writerly craft issues. But it still helps to hear "I really liked this!" as well as all the thing that still need work.

The most interesting to me is not the things that the betas agree on (THAT obviously has problems), but the times where you get contrasting opinions. Sometimes, one reader won't "get" your work, where another one will totally say "Ah! That's exactly right!" You can't get the "ah!" reaction from everyone, but I think there is something to be learned there about reaching a wider audience.

Angela Felsted said...

Yes, offering comments on what others have written is VERY intimidating. I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels that way.

Bish Denham said...

Thanks Sherrie, this is very helpful to me as I stumble along.

Susan R. Mills said...

I also received valuable feedback from a friend as well as a friend of my daughter. Not as critical as my beta readers, but still, they offered some general, non-authorly feedback with honesty. And, I totally agree with all of your points here!

WindyA said...

What a great post. I think it's important NOT to discount readers. Everyone has a different opinion and maybe an agent/editor doesn't need to know just how much your brother/mother/daughter loved your book, that doesn't mean YOU don't need to hear the positive. Besides, a totally objective beta reader could also LOVE your book - that doesn't mean you tell the agent/editor that either.

It's good to get a lot of perspectives, they don't all need to be "technical" or "writer" perspectives. Reader perspectives are just as important!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

LOL. I recently beta read SKQ's novel. I wonder how many of my comments fall under what she just wrote here. :D

I've never thought of asking people what they want. I comment as I go, crit if necessary, and do an overall comment at the end. I also point out what I enjoy and what had me confused.

Christine Fonseca said...

Yes, yes, yes!!!!!!! I love being a BETA too...and being in my crit groups. I use teen readers (since I write YA) as part of the LAST round of polishing I do. They provide great insight regarding my stories.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@Stina Your crit was fabulously helpful! :) And I've had lots of crits and found that the same line will resonate with one and totally confuse another. It's easy to say "Oh, look THAT person liked it!" and dismiss the person that got confused. But my point above was this: learning how to reach a larger number of readers means still trying to figure out why that one reader didn't understand the point ... and do it better. :)

Kristan said...

Very good explanation of the best (and worst) of beta readers!

Melissa Gill said...

I totally agree with you. I think the best beta read I ever got was from my sister. She's not one to tell me everything is wonderful, when it's not. She wants me to succeed so she was very honest, but it was truly helpful.

I'm trying to learn to be a better beta reader too. I think it really helps develop your craft.

Marieke said...

Yes, to all of it! Yes, yes, yes. That's all I can say about it, really!

Kate said...

My daughter is my most useful beta reader - since kids can't help but be honest and they can't hide it when they get bored ;-)

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Yes! Great post and so true, Sherrie - we benefit most from fresh perspectives. :-)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Definitely. The more we read and crit, I think the better we get at it. I was scared the first time, too, so afraid to hurt anyone's feelings but not wanting to let them down by not saying what needed to be said, either. Learning how to give (and take) good critique is invaluable to any writer.

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

I LOVE a good beta, like you ;)

Super post, Sherri! Lots of great advice for writers looking to share their work and for betas.

Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

Oh, it's so true! I love getting a sneak peak at work that I know will make it well as soon as the author puts it out there. I've been very lucky to have amazing betas for my work. I certainly wouldn't be where I am without them!

Dawn Simon said...

Great posts on beta readers, Sherrie. When I'm a beta, I get excited about the sneak peek as well! :)

I think your advice about expectations is great. It also applies when considering a critique group.

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