10 Observations on Beta Reading

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It’s your baby, and you’re letting somebody else tell you what they like and don’t like about it. Who does that to their children? The same people who know they must “kill your darlings”. Thank you Stephen King for telling us how it is. For many, beta readers are a must. For some, they are a waste of time. You get to decide!

I wish I had known a thing or two about betas when I first started this adventure. A quick internet search told me that betas read manuscripts and gave feedback. Well, that sounded fantastic! What I didn’t know was that beta readers are generally reserved for polished manuscripts. Alpha Readers are for that first read. Critique partners are for bouncing ideas off of and discussing your work. These definitions vary greatly, but if you want to get technical, I asked for the wrong thing at the wrong time. Yeah, I’d polished my manuscript. But I hadn’t actually done the restructuring a first draft needs in order to be anything but a first draft as far as plot goes. Furthermore, I found out how little I knew about self-edits.

Thankfully, two of my five beta readers were excellent critique partners, and they became great writer friends. They even put up with and participated in my awkward, sleep-deprived Facebook messages and accidental video calls. *Note to self: SLEEP IS GOOD. Take care of yourself.* Mind you, I’ve never done a video call before and would probably freak out if it happened for real. As it was, I frantically pushed all the wrong buttons trying to hang up.

Some things I learned about the process of matching up with people to read or trade:

  1. Find a person who genuinely seems interested in the book description or genre. This ensures they actually want to read the story and have some sort of background in the subject matter. I’m not a great flash fiction reader because I don’t understand how it works yet. Imagine me trying to get the writer to adhere to novel conventions, and them perhaps second-guessing themselves for no reason.
  2. You will be ghosted by plenty of people. Ghosted means they offer to read and then seemingly disappear. Gently remind them if you can, but make sure you are respectful. Chances are they simply realized they don’t have the time, knowledge, or interest to read your work. That’s OK. You don’t want feedback from uninterested people.
    • Give them a way to bow out before they have a chance to ghost you. That way they are still communicating with you. One way to do this is to offer just the first two chapters and see if they think it will work out. If they don’t like it or simply can’t articulate their thoughts, that’s OK. It is also OK if life gets in the way.
  3. Understand that a beta reader can be free, or paid. Paid readers are reliable and have constructive feedback, and many people are happy with them. Free readers CAN be reliable and are plentiful if approached right. I chose the free route and will do so many times because I’m low on funds. My observations are based on using free readers.
    • Free readers are doing this out of the kindness of their hearts, and they are doing it in addition to their other work. Cut them some slack.
    • If you can do a trade, do. Trades are motivating. Just know that your books may not be ideal for each other.
  4. Polish your “ask”. Readers scanning through a list, trying to decide what to read, need specs. You’ll need the title, Genre, word count, blurb (back of the book). Study up on how to make engaging blurbs, and post at the right time of day for your audience to see it.
  5. When you get in contact with a reader, set parameters that work for both of you: Realistic timeline, type of feedback, are they allowed to provide sentence level comments and suggestions.
    • Ask your readers a few questions like: have they read for people before and what did they like or dislike about it? This will tell you how your communications will go.
    • Decide what increments you will deliver the book in. My favorite way to read is two to three chapters at a time so I can get a full understanding of context before moving on.
    • Decide up front if you have specific questions for a reader to answer. Should they answer one to five questions per chapter set, or several at the end of the book? Make sure they are OK with whatever you request and be prepared to accept whatever they can give.
  6. Understand that the feedback you get is based on the reader’s own sphere of knowledge. I like trades because I can see what’s behind the mind reading my manuscript. Do they like to insert dialog tags after each speaker, but I don’t use tags often? That reader will mention my lack of dialog tags, and I must be prepared to take their advice into consideration. Sometimes it’s about finding the right balance between the two.
  7. Know the difference between passive language and assertive language, and the difference it has on your mind when talking with your reader. A reader can say the same thing in two different ways. They both have the same meaning, but one is easier on you, the writer. I’ll write up a blog about passive language soon.
    • Example:Consider going through and taking out unneeded uses of the word ‘that’.” VS.You use the word ‘that’ in unnecessary places.” Aside from the use of “consider” and “you” being the first word seen, notice one sentence is focused on action, and one is focused on an observation. It’s up to you to figure out the action needed when you encounter an observation. It’s probably not meant as an insult but is simply as far as the reader was able to articulate a response.
  8. Handle positive feedback with professionalism. Anything deserves a “thank you”, praise especially. If it isn’t specific enough, you can ask what about that part they liked. I usually say something like “Thank you for your kind words! Would you be able to tell me what about this passage you liked? I’m trying to make sure I keep up the good work.”
  9. Handle negative feedback with professionalism. I don’t care what readers say to you, thank them. It’s tough on your first time around, but it is necessary in order to improve and/or understand your craft. Constructive feedback is a beautiful thing, but not everyone can do it. Here’s how to deal:
    • Take a deep breath or five. You’ve got to have time to read your feedback, so make sure you do this when you can chill out.
    • You MUST be in problem-solving mode. Leave your ego at the door. There are several ways to do this. My favorite is either of these: pretend I was hired to get together and brainstorm how to make a manuscript better, or own-up and simply decide I am going to make this manuscript the best it can be.
    • Read comments quickly and focus on the positives.
    • Read again in a few hours.
    • If you get a comment that is not articulated and is negative, thank the reader and ask him or her to expand on the issue so you can improve. NEVER argue. Ask first if you want to discuss, and keep it respectful. You are a professional, act like one.
    • Read again in three weeks to three months. But ALWAYS thank the reader before then. I find that when I read comments months later, they are no big deal and I’m not the failure I thought I was in the beginning.
    • Solve the problem on your next draft and be grateful that you are developing tough skin.
  10. You won’t have all the answers after a few beta readers. Take everything with a grain of salt, but give it due consideration. They make comments on things for a reason. It doesn’t mean they know the problem, but they have certainly spotted something wrong. Sometimes they will butt heads on certain issues. Those issues are the ones you must seriously examine, research, and solve for yourself.
    • I recently had several readers tell me they had a hard time getting through chapter one and two of my novel, and that they wanted to know a lot of information about the mystery up front. Most of them also wanted action right away, which I thought was a cop-out. Confused, I revamped and sent out those chapters again. Still a no-go. I got a couple of people involved who were able to decipher the underlying problem: Get rid of all the fluff. It’s a complicated story already, and anything that is not important to the plot needs to go. This frees up the inciting incident and the character motivations to shine through. I revamped again and took out passive language as well. This third round brought in some very happy readers. Now I know!

I hope you enjoyed my long-winded talk. More blogs to come about each of those points.

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