Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Let Me Help You Make it Beta

by Holly West

I've been doing some beta reading recently.

Sure, it takes away from my own writing time, but it's not as if I don't get something in return for it. I'm not talking about the good will it fosters, although there's that. As I read someone else's early draft, I never fail to learn something I can apply to my own writing.

The first few times I read someone else's manuscript for the purposes of critique, I was rubbish at it. I kept trying to re-write their work, saying things like "I'd word it like this," then I'd re-word whatever it was they'd written according to my style. So rude. It took me awhile to realize it wasn't my job to re-write anything--I was there to let them know when things were confusing, or to point out when someone says something out of character. Make a note of places the plot slows down. Developmental stuff. Beta readers are not copyeditors (I say this, and yet I often can't help myself from doing a little copyediting as I go. I figure every little bit helps).

I'm still not great at it, to be honest. As I read, I realize when something's not quite working for me, but it's sometimes hard for me to articulate exactly what it is. I find myself babbling in my comments, hoping I'll eventually land on my point, or at the very least, my note will notify the writer that something in the narrative tripped me up.

Still, understanding what's not working for me in someone else's novel helps me pinpoint what's not working in my novels. It's great practice for critiquing my own stuff.

There's also a learning curve to accepting feedback on your own work. Soon after I started writing my first novel, I took an online writing course that required students to read and give feedback on each other's work. It was the first time anyone had read my prose, and upon reading the critiques of it, it was my natural inclination to to explain or defend my writing in response. With the help of my teacher (Seth Harwood) I realized what I was doing, and once I stopped explaining myself, I was able to sit back and take the feedback in.

I don't make changes based on every bit of criticism I receive and I don't expect those writers I read for to do it either. That's another thing you learn from beta reading. My opinion is just my opinion, and yours is yours. As writers, we must sort out what changes fit what we're trying to achieve, even when a beta reader isn't on the same page. But first, you need to define what it is you're aiming for. If you haven't, that will likely come through in the reader's comments.

I treat beta reading as a part of my job. I schedule it into my work day, set a deadline with the writer and communicate if I'm not able to meet it. Beta reading isn't pleasure reading, even when I enjoy whatever it is I'm reading (for the record, I usually do). It requires a different mind set than pleasure reading does, at least for me. I can't leave it until the end of the day, when I'm in bed reading before I go to sleep.

If you ask someone to read for you, make sure you let them know when you need it back and that if they can't meet that deadline, it's okay, you'll find someone else. Unless you're on a completely open schedule, it's better to have these things worked out in advance. With that said, be flexible. The person is doing you a favor, after all.

At the end of the day, it's a nice feeling when one of the books I've beta read makes it out into the big, wide world. I might not have had much of a hand in it, but there's still some pride there. That's good enough for me.

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