Are you a new author? A beta-reader for one? This post might be for you.
How to learn from early drafts? The ones you think are great, but a year later you are secretly shredding all proof of their existence to make sure nobody can ever find them?
I’ve already spoken about how necessary I consider a good editor to be, you can see that post… somewhere on here. So I won’t go into that.
So this turns me to something else that I think is absolutely critical to a good book. Beta-readers.
You can get great reviews on some sites, like scribophile or youwriteon, and this is a fantastic place to start. But it can be frustrating when reviewers don’t always return good feedback (not good in the ‘good work’ sense, good in the ‘that was some helpful critique’ sense). I don’t want you to blow smoke up my arse about how great I am, I want to know where I’m bad so I can improve!
figure 1. After spending 2hrs helping someone else in-depth to earn a review credit, this is what I got back. As you can see, it helps with boosting my confidence, which is good – but I’m certain that not every word in my submission was perfect. It’s not a full review if you didn’t point out the bad bits too.
So you start hunting for beta-readers. Friends and what not who you might rope into giving you a hand to improve your writing. Good move, get as many tools in your critique box as possible. But just like online critique from strangers, beta-readers sometimes need a hand too.
So here is, in my half-educated opinion, the things that make an outstanding beta-reader. Rather than the vaguely worded note in Facebook messenger ‘Err, mate, you read books right? Let me know what you think?’ you should consider writing something like this to your own taste, so you can let your beta-readers know what you want from them.
So you send your mates your book, and it always comes back with a raving review. One year later, you’re wondering why you can’t get published, or your reviews on amazon from your self-pub are all terrible.
Honesty is incredibly important. You must ask your beta readers for it, and they must give it. Otherwise it’ll just be some bastard on the internet who does it at a later date.
Descriptive, not prescriptive.
I have a great beta-reader who can pick out things that other beta-readers miss. He’s great. But the problem is, he’ll say to me ‘Right, you shouldn’t do this, how about [insert entirely re-written chapter here].’
Thing is, I need to do the fixing myself. ‘This whole bit is boring/shit/a continuity error with x/flowery/turgid’ is fine, perhaps a precise reason why. I can take it from there.
I send my chapters to 4-5 people consistently, and often they come back noticing similar problems. This gives excellent proof of how terrible I am, where, and how to fix it. Sometimes though, only one beta-reader will notice something, and I have to make a decision – did this reader notice a flaw, or was it not a flaw for 80% of readers?
If you give some feedback, and the author doesn’t change it – just accept it. Repeating yourself over the same thing will not change the author’s decision. I think I read somewhere that Brandon Sanderson (squeeee!) accepts and changes around 40% of suggestions from his massive pile of beta-readers.
Also try to remember that a comma instead of an ‘and’, or a past progressive tense over simple past tense, is an authorial choice. If it jarred you, then point it out, if it’s totally out of place, then point it out. But if the author consistently prefers to do one over the other, that’s just the authors voice and therefore there is no point harping on about it – the author will not change it, and nor is it a big deal.
Good feedback too
Another thing is to point out good bits. If a beta-reader is constantly telling me how terrible I am here and there, then when he does say ‘this bit was great’, I know it means something. It also helps me to work out what writing is working, and what isn’t, or what part of the story is awesome; and also what parts might need a revamp or a trip to the bin. This is just as important as bad feedback. A critique which is full of negative comments without any positive comments, is only half a critique. You could kill an author, as in, stop an author from becoming an author, just because you don’t understand this point and feel that a critique is some sort of negative-only forum. It’s not. Author needs to know what is good, so he can repeat it, and he needs to know he is doing well, so he continues.
What to feedback?
Anything that you notice. Have a document open somewhere to scribble in, but try to read as if you had just picked up the book. Don’t constantly re-read the first three lines trying to understand every nuance. Read it as if you are reading for enjoyment, because that is the feedback the author needs. There are editors to do the real in-depth stuff line-by-line (it’s also quite likely that you’re not a member of a professional body, and therefore not qualified to give prescription on English language particulars – though you can point out if something jarrs).
Did you put the book down at a certain chapter because it got boring?
Did a sentence seem out of place, like it was from the wrong POV?
Did a character break what you consider to be his personal traits, breaking the realism?
Was a particular paragraph written poorly, so you didn’t actually understand what was going on?
Typo, or just a really dumb name?
Repetition of scene or word?
Damn, this part of the story is unbelievable in a bad way, I couldn’t believe it would happen because these people would never argue/this is not consistent with your laws of magic/this is too random/this is too contrived (Deathchampion McHero really needed a new spear, wow, look a cave, nice, it has a spear in it! Such luck for McHero!) – perhaps it needs something else here to link the plot.
This is too fast, it needs another chapter or something to explain the relationship better.
Damn, I needed to sleep but I couldn’t put it down until I finished this chapter!
Wow, I got all sorts of feels from that scene!
This sentence is great, short and to the point, huge impact.
This word choice is excellent.
This is great description – vivid.
You get the idea.
Anyway, there’s my piece. Call me out, or let me know if you ask anything more of your own beta-readers in the comments. The more we crowd-share our best practises maybe the better we will all get at the craft.
While I’m on the subject, I’m looking for writing partners. I also find that reading other people’s stuff and critiquing them helps my own writing. If you’re a new writer like me, get in touch by the contact menu – I’d love to have a chat.
Have a nice day.