All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Beta-reading and Beta-readers

I was a little surprised from the IMs I received after last week's post about the things I learned from the publication process. The real surprise was how they mostly focused on beta-readers. In particular, there seems to be an idea that a beta-reader is just a person who reads your work prior to publication, like a beta-tester does with apps before they go live. Well, that's true at its core, but there's so much more to it. Yes, beta-readers get to it first, but their responsibilities are extensive. So, here are some notes of what you should expect from beta-readers, and what you should provide if you are a beta-reader.

First, a beta-reader should approach the task as detached from the author and the work as possible. Having your mother or brother or cousin read your work comes with a lot of emotional baggage and potential for interference. An ideal beta-reader should be able to separate themselves enough to give cold, hard, responses. If you are worried that your reader might be too close to the subject, choose someone else. If you are not good at separating yourself from your friend who wants you to read their work, recommend someone else.

Now, a good beta-reader should read critically, but there are two kinds of criticism they can offer. The first kind is obvious - factual and structural problems. Consistency issues, point-of-view problems, grammar, spelling, etc. If a problem is easily quantified, it should be called out and stated as fact, such as, "You spell Cheryl's name Sheryl in some spots," "The movie you referred to did not come out until two years after the time of the story," "You use the word beta- six times in your first paragraph." These are the simple corrections a beta-reader offers, and easily the easiest category.

The situation gets complex when you go to the other kind of criticism - subjective notes. These are the areas where you have to bring out your opinions as a reader, but keep them packaged so they are constructive and can lead the writer to improve things. The comment, "This chapter was boring" is informative, but there's not much meat on the bone. Rather, pointing out how the chapter did not maintain the same pacing as the other chapters and therefore threw off the pacing offers something for the author to think about. Even better, explain what "boring" actually was. Did the chapter lack tension? Did it not move the story forward? Was it too wordy? In a book full of car chases, did this just amount to an idle conversation? Those comments are workable, even if they are just opinions. 

Of course, beta-readers should be careful about whether their opinion is helping. "This ghost story really isn't my genre" does not help. "I wasn't drawn into the ghost story" might help more, or maybe not. Just remember - if the comment isn't something the writer can take as an actionable point, then why do they need to hear it?

Lastly, a good beta-reader should be able to discuss different points with the author, and the author should be able to ask questions to find out just what would make things work better. It is not the author's job to answer every point, but consider every point. If the beta-reader says they don't understand a relationship or progression, the author's best move is not to explain it but to find the reader's disconnect and think about ways to fix it.

Hopefully this gets a few thoughts rolling. I always love the feedback, and hope to get more as time goes along. And, of course, I will do my best to learn from it.           

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