Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Saturday, 23 January 2016

Why we need beta readers by Jennifer Young

Questions about your work?
Ask your beta readers.
I’ve always relied on beta readers — those friends (or just acquaintances) who can be trusted to read your unpublished work and come back to you with a shedload of honest comment and (hopefully) constructive criticism. 

Sometimes I think I rely on them too much — after all, if the thing that makes a story work is a suggestion made by someone else, can it be truly your own work? Then I realise that there’s no such thing as originality in fiction, that there are only seven plots etc etc etc, and I overcome my qualms and plough on. 

I suppose it began at writing classes, with feedback not just from a tutor with expertise but from fellow classmates who were predominantly readers. Then as I became more serious I moved on to team up with like-minded folk who were as intent as I was not just on being published but on writing something good. They held my hand through draft after draft and failed attempt after failed attempt, until the day of acceptance.

Now I’m a member of other groups and online forums to complement them. I might ask for opinions on my full synopsis (we’re talking 6-7,000 words here) or a part of it. I might toss in an opening paragraph with a despairing cry for help. Whatever the length, whatever the issue, someone always comes back with something helpful.

I’m a beta reader myself. I comment, as constructively as I can, pretty much whenever I’m asked. Recently, it’s dawned on me quite why my opinion, or that of someone else, makes a difference. Because it is only an opinion and often the responses differ. 

But what comes back from my beta readers, and what I like to think I give as a beta reader myself, isn’t always a solution. Sometimes it’s clarification. Sometimes it’s vision.

Last time I presented my writing buddies with a problem I was pretty clear what it was. ‘I don’t know what to do with this character,’ I told them. ‘I want her in. This is why I want her in. This is what I want to achieve. Why isn’t it working?’

I confess I was a little bit upset when they told me exactly what was wrong. It wasn’t the criticism, per se. It was because the problem they pinpointed was not the one I had identified. Indeed, they thought my problem character was absolutely fine. But another character wasn't, they said. I remained adamant that my problem character was a problem because…well, because I thought she was.

Actually they were right. She wasn’t a problem. It was the character I thought was fine who didn’t fit. I was annoyed with myself for not having spotted it; I still am, because once I stood back from it,  it was glaringly obvious. And that’s why we need beta readers. They see things that we don’t when we’re too close for comfort. So, a message to beta readers everywhere: thanks to you all… 


18 comments:

  1. So true, Jennifer. I think it's one of the reasons the Romantic Novelists' Association New Writers' Scheme (for unpublished writers) is so popular - those extra pairs of eyes are invaluable. Also, it sounds as if you've made great friends along the way. :-)

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    1. I have, indeed. And actually I've also discovered that I really enjoy beta reading myself. So it's win-win. You get and you give.

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  2. Interesting blog Jennifer. I've been thinking recently that I could do with a beta reader. Must put some feelers out and see if anyone is also looking and maybe get together.

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    1. I'd thoroughly recommend it. It's always been worthwhile for me. Even if you don't like what they say - and let's face it, they aren't necessarily right and sometimes they disagree - I find it helps to make you think about a problem. Sometimes as writers we struggle to see the wood for the trees, I think.

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  3. I'm already failing as a member of this blog! Can't re-post, RT or recommend, Jennifer, as my views on "beta-readers" are well known! I have a rooted objection to the term, for a start, as well as "deep third" and other Americanisms that have crept over here, and secondly, NO ONE ever reads my stuff until it goes to my editor. (and now, my agent, who, bless her, doesn't have much say!) Abjectly sorry...

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    1. It's fine to have an opinion Lesley! If beta readers (or whatever you want to call them!) don't work for you, they don't. Be awful if we were all alike.

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    2. I'm actually really impressed that you don't need one, Lesley! I had no idea that 'beta reader' was an American term, by the way.

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    3. I don't think it's impressive, it's just the way I've always worked. As writing has been my career for over 33 years - got that wrong in my introduction, daughter is 33 not 32 - it's habit! Also, interesting to note, that some older "how to" books recommended NOT allowing anyone else to read your work. How times change, eh? Partly because we can exchange work by email so easily, now.

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    4. That's a good point. I do admire your confidence, though. I would be too scared to send something off without someone assuring me it was good enough!

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  4. Crikey, I found this one interesting. I have never, ever, asked anyone to read my work-in-progress and comment. And I am never likely to at this stage of my writing career. Too scared, probably! Or maybe I don't take criticism well? I do read out at the writing group I go to but, like the rest of us there, we are all pretty sure where our work is going and we pay lip service to any comments, unless it is something technical we need to know.

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    1. Perhaps I'm over-dependent, or insecure! It's fascinating to find different views on this. but if I were parted from my beta readers I would cry. And be very lonely, because they're good company ;)

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  5. Completely agree Jennifer! And all though sometimes (ouch!) those comments really hurt, they also really help.

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    1. I meant to write 'although' of course. Should probably get someone to beta-read my posts ...

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    2. They certainly do hurt, a lot of the time. :( But for me, they're worth it in the end!

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  6. Really interesting post, Jennifer, as are the comments! I know lots of writers use beta readers but I never have so far. The most I've done is let daughter (also a writer) have a look at a few chapters or a short story if I'm unsure of it. Otherwise, I prefer to send it off to the publisher or editor to have first look. If I were to self-publish new books, however, I think it would be a different matter and I'd value and need feedback then!

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    1. I must admit to being in awe of all you brave people! I just don't trust my judgement enough...

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  7. I'd cry without my beta readers too Jennifer! And I do find that the views of those who have come to know my writing, and the kinds of problems I perpetually face, are invaluable. As you say, one may not always agree, but at the very least their view challenge you to fight your corner and see things from another standpoint. Glad it works for me, anyway ...

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    1. I think I would be lost without you all. And unpublished, come to that!

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