Shannon A Thompson posted an exploration of The Pros and Cons of Beta Readers. A very good post which I highly recommend taking a look at! My own post started out as a comment to hers, but grew a bit long for that… So it gets a posting all its own (and a long one at that… I guess I had something to say).
I am lucky to have found two great Beta Readers for Disparate Threads (A and B), with a third (C) giving a post-published look over for additional changes after the larger arcs have been set up. Two of the readers are friends I have known for a long time (A and C), but they have no qualms in telling me like it is, both are writers in their own right and have a very good grasp on the craft (and far better grammar and punctuation skills than I). One of these (A) has mentioned that he’s likely “not the target audience” of the story, where as C probably would be a more likely casual reader of the work. B is another writer that I met through the blogs who can sometimes get as excited about the story unfolding as I am (or more!) — and spots all sorts of interesting things that I hadn’t even realized.
Both A and B are reading a few segments at a time, usually a few weeks before they need to be posted (though, sometimes both have come to the rescue on a much tighter schedule!) C is reading the entire thing separate from the blog, in larger segments, which helps me to see things that don’t make as much sense without the peripheral (allowing me to decide if I want to make certain points stand alone or really need to be read within the context of the other materials).
Finding these readers and asking for their input has perhaps been one of the best things I’ve done for my writing. I have plenty of experience editing my own work, catching errors and things that don’t make sense, but opening it up to these other people is amazingly helpful. And while two of them are friends, reaching beyond my friends circle to find readers who don’t know me outside of my writing has also been amazing for many reasons.
Each of these readers brings something different to the table. They focus on different pieces of my writing and the story, and (very importantly for me) do so in a very kind way that helps me with my writing. While I know my friends will be honest with me about my work it is also a huge boost of confidence to have someone else also reading and supporting me. For those moments when it seems like nothing I write is worthwhile, here is someone who could easily have said “no” choosing to read it and take the time to provide feedback!
Here’s my perspective of what each is bringing to their work with my writing, what I am able to get from having such a great group.
A is able to look at the story critically, interested in the characters and plot but not overly invested: “This makes no sense,” “Your punctuation is out of whack,” “What, another mopey girl? Do you really want this to be a whine-fest?” (not direct quotes). Always presented with a fun sense of humor, and providing suggestions of all sorts — often as jokes, though occasionally such jokes do end up getting incorporated! “A” has heard enough of the saga of my various writing projects over the years (and worked with me collaboratively on a number of projects) to see the “Allison-themes” when they show up, sometimes seeing them coming well before I even realize they are there. He was vital in making some of the recent changes in figuring out Callie and her story — being able to reference different characters I’ve written/played to help find the reality of Callie’s personality.
B is new to my writing. Like I said, we met through the blogging world just a few months ago, but her enthusiasm for the story I am telling is so awesome and motivating! She is able to pull out threads of the story that have caught her attention, sometimes helping me to see things that I hadn’t even realized were there. Connections are made between characters and events (making me have to decide if such connections are ones I really want to make!) and questions are raised about where the story is going, what is happening, and expectations, which help give me an idea of what the reader might think is going on. Her notes of, “Oooh, interesting! I wonder if…” and, “There’s something going on with those two, I know there is!” has led to a lot of the peripheral material that I’ve created as well as forcing me to think deeper into the history and realities of some of the characters.
C has read less of my writing than A, been more distanced from my creative process, though we have certainly talked about writing a lot. C is reading these large arcs, able to look at chunks of the story after the edits informed by A and B, and present ideas about reshuffling things, noting those points which are unclear and the occasional remnant from something that’s since been edited away.
But I have also had my experiences with bad readers, as Shannon warns about. I’ve asked people to read my work who weren’t willing/able to be critical enough. I’ve also had a few experiences where my early readers were downright destructive — something to be cautious about. Back in college I participated in a few Writers Workshops that set me back a lot. My writing got shredded by people, often with very little in the way of constructive criticism. Some may have been actually useful feedback, but there was so much that was just negative, trying to put my writing into their voice or genre, or just poorly presented.
The feedback I was given there fed on other insecurities to make me doubt that I could write anything worthwhile, and certainly contributed to me being afraid to share my work and unwilling to go back and edit (triggering both my insecurity and my ability to dig in and hold my ground… at the same time…). For an entire semester I got near weekly sessions of having my work torn apart (perhaps as only over-enthusiastic college students can do). A few of the individuals in this group could have been good beta readers for me (indeed, I believe A was in at least one of them), but others would not have served well… and it was their voices that (of course) stood out to me the most.
While I had entered college knowing that I wanted to be a writer, it would take me over a decade to get back to this point where I feel like I might actually be able to. But, now with some serious distance, I feel like I’ve also learned something from the experience. Good Beta Readers really can help bring deeper understanding to your work, they spot things you didn’t see, note those times when your vast knowledge of the background of the story leave the readers in the dark, and call you on it when you’re getting too lost in your own head and forgetting that others are trying to read.
As a writer you have to figure out how to take the feedback, how to sort out what suggestions you want to incorporate, and what you don’t. Which feedback to take, and which to leave behind. It is your job to write the story, to find the way you want to tell it all — but those Beta Readers are going to be the first set of eyes on the work, the ones that can give you a hint of what other readers might have to say. Find the good ones, treasure them (thank them!) and treat them well. Learn to identify the ones that aren’t going to work for you, thank them, and let them go.
Your writing will thank you.