Earlier I mentioned that I am reviewing others’ books as an attempt to practice better literary citizenship, being a better member of the #WritingCommunity. Reviewing self-published books isn’t the only way I can or should contribute as a literary citizen.
Today’s topics range from unpublished writers to debut to NY Times journalists to bestsellers – I’m sharing with you my thoughts, and their quotes in regards to literary citizenship, critiquing, and beta-reading. [If I mentioned you and for some reason you prefer not to be included, please let me know.]
The 7 points I cover would have helped me provide better critiques and better receive feedback when I was starting to read.
The Write Stuff (part of Monmouth College) made this definition:
The literary community is a network of people who actively and openly read and write. To engage in literary citizenship is to be a part of this community, which involves the crucial acts of buying, reading, reviewing, and promoting books in order to support aspiring and professional writers, as well as encouraging a reading culture.
Part of this process of “encouraging a reading culture” includes beta-reading and critiquing.
As aspiring writers, there is a reciprocal quality to the Writing Community. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the zealously capitalistic Ferengi believe in “the Great Material Continuum” and say The River Will Provide. I like to think of the Writing Community in this vein: there’s an audience and reader for every story (maybe not large enough for a Big 5 publisher but that’s okay).
1 – Beta Reading ≠ Critiquing
Sometimes I’ve used these two terms interchangeably, but they are not interchangeable.
Gaiman has a powerful quote along the his vein:
Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
One final thought about critiques versus beta-reading. Not all critiques are constructive. I was in a writing group where a fellow writer was very hung up on a stylistic choice I made. Here’s a thought from Drew Melbourne, author of Percival Gynt and The Conspiracy of Days:
2 – Unequal Skill Still Provides Valuable Feedback
Sometimes with critique partners there can be this misconception that the skill level of both writers needs to be the similar. Feedback doesn’t need to be coordinated by a matchmaker.
Even a non-writer (read beta-reader) can provide valuable feedback. Our improvement as writers is not dependent on the skill of the feedback we’re receiving. Out improvement depends on us. Once we recognize our limitations we are then able to surpass them.
Readers reflect back to us what they appreciated and disliked and from that mirror we can better move forward.
Every writer has their strengths and weaknesses. Some writers excel at atmospheric settings, some write compelling narratives, others have captivating characters, and all of them have their weaknesses.
We each have grammatical errors we tend toward and miss despite amazing word processors. We each have our blind spots. Readers help us overcome those with their feedback regardless of whether they are writers, and no matter their skill level.
3 – DNF = Acceptable
DNF – did not finish. It’s perfectly acceptable to stop reading a book. Unless you are being compensated (a paid beta-reader, a paid reviewer, an ARC [advanced reader copy]), you are not obligated to finish a book that you are not connecting with.
I recommend being honest, and letting the author know you won’t be able to finish. Sometimes in over-eagerness we stretch ourselves too thin or we have unexpected conflicts with reading schedules. Sometimes books are simply not good fits for you.
I personally would prefer polite honesty versus people who fall off the face of the planet. I must admit that I have had a few critiques I was unable to complete or had to turn down entirely. And I, regrettably, have spaced out on a few people. I’m trying so hard to be better about that.
If you’re not enjoying a book, it’s okay to admit that and stop reading. It may not be a good fit for you. It may not be your cup of tea. I’ve had people not finish my work because of this. That’s okay. It made me feel a little bad, but I got over it.
4 – Ownership In Writing
Here’s several points where beta-reading/critiquing and reviewing differ widely.
If a book has not been published, then the book still belongs to the owner. It’s still the writer’s unborn child.Once a book is published (whether traditional or indie) then the book “belongs to the readers”. Fans may imagine things differently than expected or read into a nuance that was subconsciously added in. If you really inspire a reader they’ll create fan art, write fan fiction, and immerse themselves as much as possible in your world.
Typos & Indie Books
For indie published books, I often offer to point out any typos I notice in private. I don’t want to shame the authors in anyway, but I do want to help them put their best foot forward. Some readers are brutal about miniscule errors.
Feedback & Critiques
When beta-reading/critiquing, it’s important to listen to the author for the kind of feedback that they need. One of the best critique partners I’ve had was Eric Peterson. He listened to what I needed and helped me grow. He pointed out developmental issues that needed to be fixed.
One of the worst critiques I’ve given was to Richmond Camero – one of my earliest critique partners. I didn’t listen to what he needed (line editing) and instead gave him copy editing.
As a beta-reader or a critique partner, it’s important to recognize the ownership of the book is still the author’s, but once that baby is birthed then it will be displayed for all the world to squeeze its cheeks and enjoy that new baby smell.
Zoë Setter in the New York Times wrote:
[Writers] are often distressed by what critics have to say about their work. Yet they accept with varying degrees of resignation that they are not kindergartners bringing home their first potato prints for the admiration of their parents, but grown-ups who have chosen to present their work in the public arena.
5 – Considering Feedback is Important
If you’re just needing encouragement about your writing, then you should ask for a #positivitypass. That’s okay. Sometimes we all need encouragement. Writing can be discouraging at times.
Here’s the thing though, if you are a writer who is asking for feedback – whether it’s a critique from a fellow writer, a beta-read from an early reader, a sensitivity reader, or feedback as an Advance Reading Copy close to publication – you should at least listen to it. This type of feedback should cover the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you can’t handle it, be honest with yourself.
I’ve reviewed various Indie authors. With the past few books indie books I’ve read, I’ve made the offer to DM the authors any typos I have found. Some have accepted, and some have not.
That’s okay with me. It goes back to ownership, and some authors can be very sensitive about their baby once it is on display for the world to see. When a work has not been put to the fire of publishing, the light another mind can shine on it will be illuminating at the least.
I agree with most of this except for the wasting time part. As a mom to a toddler, it often feels like every moment of my day is accounted for even when I’m on Twitter I’m doing something else, usually pumping.
Cutting out time for writing, reading, and exercise has really been important.
6 – Beta-Readers Should Be Qualified
Whaaaat? Didn’t I just say that even a non-writer can give valuable feedback?
Here’s what I mean: the most valuable feedback you’ll receive is from a fan of the type of books you write.
A cookbook blogger, a picture book fanatic, an MG sci-fi reader, an American road trip memoir enthusiast – they all read. Do they read what you write is the real question. If they are unfamiliar with your genre and its nuances, they are not going to be qualified to give you feedback about your genre.
A beta-reader who mostly read romance once gave me the feedback that she would rather not hear about a second world setting in my fantasy book. She’d rather it be on Earth or otherwise not have to think about the setting. She said she would prefer more romance. It wasn’t a romance. It wasn’t what she was looking for. She gave me some valuable feedback and encouragement, but it wasn’t as helpful as feedback from people who read the genre regularly. It was nowhere near as helpful as a critique I received from Ashcroft. Alexa Rose just read a short story for me and the feedback she gave was very helpful. I plan on modeling my feedback after hers.
I had to admit to Lacrecia Hillis that I was not qualified to give feedback on her thriller. I don’t read thrillers. I’m not familiar with the tropes. I don’t know what the audience expectations are. She is such an inspiring member of the #writingcommunity and frequently shares informative articles on the craft of writing.
7 – Reading Improves Writing
Stephen King needs no introduction, and his book On Writing is frequently referenced. I didn’t realize how strongly one of his quotes would convict me.
It takes a village to raise a child, and though writing is often isolating, we are not islands totally unto ourselves: check out the acknowledgments in your favorite book. Editors, agents, beta-readers, writing groups, and critique partners all help us bring these fictitious worlds to life. The River Will Provide. I hope this encourages you on your writing and reading journey.
My final thought, reading is subjective. Critique partners and beta-readers are not (usually) industry professionals. They’re amateur readers: doing it for the love of it. No matter how much they think of themselves, they are not paying you. Here I will quote Heinlein: “You must refrain from rewriting unless you editorial order”. Please note he specifically means a magazine or publishing company editor and not a copy editor or developmental editor you are paying.
In the words of Dita Von Teese:
🍑 You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches. 🍑
What do you wish you’d known about beta-reading?