As writers, part of our community service to support the amazing authors around us includes reading each other’s unpublished manuscripts. A practice that can be frightening for both parties.
Inspired by a recent search for new beta readers and the #CPMatch events on Twitter, I’d like to take a deeper look at beta reading and giving feedback in general.
Let’s start by identifying the difference between a Critique Partner and a Beta Reader. For me, my critique partners are there every step of the way. Some of them read chapter by chapter as I pantster my way through stories. Another—who is a genuine plot goddess—even helps me from the moment I conceive the idea. Usually, because my CP’s are all rock stars, they do an initial read and a second read of a later, more polished draft.
No, you cannot have their numbers or twitter handles. They’re mine.
Beta readers, are a longer—but equally fabulous—list of writers (not my mom or cousin Jeb) I use once my manuscript has gone through a couple rounds of self-editing and before submitting to agents or editors. The betas pick out any plot holes your CPs may have missed. They bring up character inconsistencies, catch filter words, head hops, word echoes, typos, and those blasted tell moments. They are an invaluable lot, and I owe all of mine a drink and chocolate, in that order.
So, after your current work-in-progress has gone through the brains of CPs and BEFORE submitting to an agent or pitching in a Twitter contest, send it out to a few pairs of knowledgeable eyes.
Step One: Find someone—anyone—who will take time away from their own writing, invest in yours, and provide insightful feedback. A daunting task, no doubt, and one which begins by the author asking for help.
AH! “But the lonely writer island is so safe and calm. What if the reader wants to burn my pages for kindling and extinguish the fire with bodily fluids?”
Asking can be hard. “Hello, stranger I met through social media, would you please spend ten hours of your next month reading my book and giving me your feedback?” That sounds like a robot from the ‘80s, so I suggest baby steps here. Once you’ve put out feelers and gotten a couple dings in the DM box, don’t immediately send each other the full draft.
Begin the exchange with a query letter or blurb, even in its infantile forms. This gives your future betas a great idea of what they’re committing to. Be honest about your word count, your genre, turn around expectations, any potential triggers, etc.
If you are on the receiving end of a beta request, at this point, it’s also incredibly important to be truthful from the start. Going into a read armed with concerns increases the chances that the manuscript is not right for you; it’s okay to say no. And if someone says no to you, thank them for their time and move on. Just like rejections from agents, one never knows why it didn’t click, and quite frankly a stranger doesn’t owe it to us to explain why.
If you made it past step one, you’re already in dang good shape.
Step Two: Read partials. Either exchange chapters or a set number of pages and see A) if you are on the reading side, you would like to continue; and B) if you are on the writer side, the feedback offered thus far is more than unicorn glitter farts or angry rants that make you want to find a cave and never write again. Whichever side you are on, if it’s not a match, say so. And try not to take it personally. I say try, because, well, you might.
Let’s pretend you fell in love with the pages.
Welcome to Step Three: Giving feedback. Back in high school, when I had teased bangs and skinny arms, I was captain of a certain extra-curricular activity that allowed me to wear super short skirts three days a week. During one summer camp, all the captains were pulled aside and given a lesson on feedback. It’s one of my only memories from ages 16 – 18 (I liked beer).
ALWAYS SAY SOMETHING POSITVE FIRST. That’s right. Find something you love about the manuscript you’re reading, describe why you loved it and make the writer feel warm and fuzzy. I’m not asking you to lie. Because if you’ve done step one and two, you won’t have to. Point out the good. Encourage the writer. And most of all, ensure you’ve created a safe place to offer your feedback. Because your thoughts on how to help an author improve their story will be better received if said author is not feeling like their story is under immediate attack.
I read a tweet this week from a writer who had gotten such harsh feedback she almost gave up writing. That’s sad. Make people sad about your characters if that’s your thing, not your feedback. (Side story: Someone once doubted I spoke English—that was a zinger.)
As you’re reading: ORGANIZE YOUR THOUGHTS. ‘Track changes’ is brilliant for letting the writer know when you spit your tea all over your laptop because their joke was so funny, pointing out when they need a new paragraph, sentence structure concerns, or telling them your ovaries exploded at the sure hotness of one of their characters.
General plot, arc, and pacing thoughts should go in a separate document or email. I jot things down as I read then tend to go back and re-write the list of issues in a much more concise fashion, at least I hope so.
And while you’re doing this, your beta mantra is “constructive.”
Because guess what? Calling my female lead a name and not expanding on why, just made me hate you. Now I have to go read your manuscript and I hate you. Good job. I’m a sensitive petty writer and now I’m reading your words. You ripped off the Band-Aid to the sacred beta wound, and I just bought a box of salt on sale for a buck fifty. Let’s roll the dice and see if I can “be mature” and “objective” after you’ve insulted the imaginary friend who has been pacing in my brain for a year. You get the point. Constructive. No name calling. Back up your concerns with reasons AND… Wait for it… solutions.
As you wrap up your thoughts, which are written in a way that you would like to receive feedback, END ON SOMETHING POSITIVE. Not a flower parade of worship— again, you won’t need to fake this if you followed step one and two. But leave them with something that they can walk away with—especially if you just told them to make the dark moment meaner or lose an entire POV—and think, “Wow, that beta reader had some brilliant points.” And when in doubt, get a beta for your beta feedback. I’m totally serious.
See, BOOM! Beta job done.
Now for the other half.
The Final Frontier. Step Four: Reading your beta’s feedback. First and foremost, the minute you get the email, write back and THANK that person for reading your words. If you haven’t read theirs yet, remind them that you will when they are ready OR that you’re almost done and will return your own feedback to them as soon as you can.
Remember: Beta reading is a two-way street. If someone took the time out of their life to help you, you need to return that favor. It’s really the least you can do.
Once you’ve sent the thank you, uncork your wine. Just kidding! Alcohol doesn’t solve anything (see beer comment above). Take a deep breath and read through the comments. Let them settle. If someone took the time to point something out, there’s a reason. One of my very wise and most trusted beta readers is of the opinion that all comments, no matter how small or how much you disagree with them, are important. Her nickname is Super Woman, and no, you can’t have her email address.
That being said, sometimes a beta reader’s suggestions do not line up with your vision. That’s okay. No one said you had to take their advice, just be considerate enough to thank them for it and appreciate their time. Also, sometimes the comments aren’t articulated in a way that gets to the root of the issue. Dig deeper, wonder why.
Here’s what not to do: Disagree with everything the beta said and run around on the internet to prove your original way was right. That’s missing the point of getting feedback in the first place. I have never read a manuscript—even in times when I did not listen to my gut in step one and two and accepted something I wasn’t sold on—where I wanted the author to fail. Never. I know I am in a galaxy far, far away from being the perfect beta reader myself. But I am trying to be more useful than, “Oooohhhh Pretty!” or “Delete.”
We’re all still learning, and sharing beta feedback with your CPs to get their take on it is totally acceptable. I encourage it. And remember, unless your beta reader is a professional editor—in which case I need their twitter handle STAT—beta readers don’t determine the rights and wrongs of craft. We all have strong points and weaknesses. We all make choices in our stories. And the beauty of writing is that even after feedback, you choose what to do.
My beta readers are fabulous lovely souls. They’ve each given me a tip to share. In no particular order:
“Be honest, but kind.” YES! Actually, we can probably take this off the beta field and just apply it to life.
“If you don’t like a genre, tell the person ahead of time.” Yeah… Me for example, I don’t do shifters. I would be the *worst* person on the planet to read your shifter romance. We can also tuck your triggers into this one.
“Let them know what you want them to look for.” Great tip! I have a manuscript out right now with betas where the second act makes me want to bury my head in the desert and suck sand. I’m hoping for some serious insight to help me.
“Sandwich as if you were writing a kindergarten report card at a private school.” “Sandwiching” is the art of surrounding your harder comments with fresh baked cookies. It goes back to the say something positive first and last. You can do this throughout as you comment in track changes and in the general feedback.
“Be ready.” Oh, I like this one. Remember, your critique partners can see the beauty in your ugly duckling. Beta reading comes after a few rounds of self-editing.
“Look for your own weaknesses.” Totally. Just remember to point to it like your best friend when she has food in her teeth in front of her biggest crush. Subtly but effectively.
“Don’t write people’s stories for them.” I mean, I would have said, “Don’t re-write your beta’s manuscript.” But fine, the way she said it works, too.
“Don’t lecture too much about grammar rules. Instead, link articles.” *Cough* Dialogue tags. *Cough*
“If you see the same issue over and over, you don’t have to keep pointing it out.” Agreed. Add a note that you’re going to stop and that they should check the rest of the document for said issue.
“Search for the writer’s vision. You’re hunting for clues as to what the author wants to convey. Any suggestions should be tailored to helping the next reader put the pieces together.” What she said.
“Assume the best.” Yes. Thank you. My plot goddess always does this, that’s why I hold her identity close. Sometimes it’s just a typo, no need to provide the definition of “peak.”
There will be times where you are frustrated with the manuscript you took on and as many times where the feedback stings. I send you an awkward virtual hug for both. But, hopefully, if enough of us take a step up the beta stairs and evaluate how we’re giving feedback, we all grow together. Sending your words to strangers can be scary. But learning to give and receive comments on those words doesn’t have to be.
Deana Birch is a Romance and Erotica writer who escaped the Mid-West after kissing all the eligible boys her age. She resides in Europe with her blue-eyed HEA and two young daughters. Her debut novel, FASTER —A Rock and Roll Romance — releases this summer. You can follow her on Twitter @DeanaBirch or visit her website http://www.deanabirch.com