7 Things I Wish I’d Known about Beta-Reading

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.

Woman reading off an e-reader. Today’s topics range from unpublished writers to debut to NY Times journalists to bestsellers – I’m sharing with you my thoughts, and their quotes in regards to literary citizenship, critiquing,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).

A maple leaf on a hardback book with a mug in the background.

1 – Beta Reading Critiquing

Sometimes I’ve used these two terms interchangeably, but they are not interchangeable.

Quote: Katie *Your Writer Big Sister* Masters, @Katie_Masters29: WRITER BIG SISTER WRITING TIP: A beta-reader is NOT a writer. A critique partner IS a writer. Please don’t expect your beta-reader to be an editor or have in depth knowledge of how to fix problems they find. That’s YOUR job.

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:

Quote: Drew Melbourne, @DrewMelbourne: This feels like a writer-complaint as opposed to a reader-complaint. Writers complain about how it’s SUPPOSED to be and develop weird pet peeves. Readers complain if it isn’t done well and generally don’t care otherwise.

A book with pages splayed. 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.

A hoarder’s book piles. 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.

A book with pages folded into a heart. 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.

Quote: Patrick Bohan, @pkbohan - Stuff I wish I knew: - You will NEVER be less busy than you are now - We have enough time, we just waste most of it - Most time spent ‘Writing’ is not ‘writing’ - Taking feedback sets apart the writers from the good writers - Readers are usually right

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.

A book with a coffee cup next to it.

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.

A torso down photo of a white man in business casual gray suiting carrying a thick book and his brown messenger bag as he walks down a verdant road.

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.

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

He’s not the only one to say this. There was an excellent article in The Writing Community Newsletter, Edition 5, Page 2, by K. Williams

For a while I was one of those writers who said I did not have time to read. Maybe it was because I was pushing myself very hard with my writing (ahem! NaNoWriMo), and maybe it was because I had a lot going on.

Despite having a toddler and seemingly less time than ever to write, I’ve made sure that I am making time to consume stories. I’m reading every chance I get and listening to audiobooks while I drive, exercise, and clean. Reading has helped reduce stress, and improved my writing with different techniques I’ve added to my tool box.

In Conclusion:

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?

2 Comments Add yours

  1. ichimond says:

    I had my experience before with not unqualified beta readers. I asked help from random friends and acquaintances. What I got after was a list of conflicting suggestions.

    Like I said in my e-mail, you were helpful and I really appreciate your help. 😀 Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awww. Thank you. I found your feedback so helpful and I enjoyed your stories so much! 💛

      Like

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