Beta To Be Better!

Most writers know the importance of beta readers. Sometimes (well, a LOT of times) you simply can’t see the words for the prose in your own work. You can’t see that you haven’t got your point across properly, because you know what you’re trying to say, so you can reread it a hundred times and your mind will still fill in the blanks. You don’t notice glaring plot problems (like the fact you’ve got a family running from a blazing building, even though the flood waters are rising during an apocalyptical downpour… Yes, I have done this). You don’t realise you’ve said the same thing three different ways (or felt you had to, until a beta tells you “I got it the first time! Stop harping on!”

Good betas are invaluable. Every writer wants them. But, there seem to be fewer writers who want to BE one. To my mind that is a terrible shame. Not just because it’s nice to be helpful to others, but also because beta reading for others helps you with your own work.

I’m not just talking about the prospect of reciprocity, though that is a great thing too. Beta reading for other writers will often lead to them offering to do the same for you in return, which is great. You scratch their back, they’ll scratch yours. But even if there no prospect of the favour being returned, what you learn from beta reading is reward in itself.

As well as getting to read some really awesome stories, and the opportunity to give input to their construction, I have learned a great deal about my own words by reading those of others. It is far easier to see what works and doesn’t work in someone else’s work than in your own. But, and here’s the rub, having learned to identify it in the prose of others starts to make it more obvious to you in yours. You start to see that YOU’VE committed some of the literary sins that you’ve highlighted for others. They were hidden beneath your own perceived awesomeness before, but suddenly they’re leaping off the page at you. Suddenly, you can see your own grammatical errors more easily, spot the wrong pacing, realise that your character is coming across dull as dishwater… It’s as if your eyes have been opened.

So who should you beta for? Well, ideally you want to make sure that whoever you are reading for actually WANTS to hear your opinion. If what they’re really after is a pat on the head, or someone to faint with awe at their literary prowess, don’t go there. Make sure they are serious, and genuinely want to improve. Otherwise, your suggestion that perhaps having the main character wake at the end to find it was all dream, or reveal in the last page that they are in fact a dog, is not the best idea will be met with anger. And justifications. Or perhaps they’ll start to explain the bits you didn’t understand… Are they planning on visiting everyone who buys their book personally to explain the obscure bits? No? Then they ought to take your lack of comprehension as an indicator that they haven’t quite pulled it off.

In short, be sure your input will be welcomed. Sometimes writers receive critiques that make them seethe. But if someone has spent time and energy trying to help them, that in itself is a compliment. I always thank my betas profusely, and instantly, for their feedback. Even if I’ve just been kicked in the stomach by their words. And you know what? Often, when the initial shock dies down (“How could they not like my twenty-foot high giant poodle? How is that not the most awesome thing ever?” – OK, I made that one up), and objectivity creeps in, I can see real merit in the blows I’ve been dealt.

Often, they hurt the most because they confirm what the nagging voices in your head were already telling you. You knew it all along, you just didn’t want to listen.

So be the type of writer who takes criticism from betas with good grace, and in the spirit of helpfulness in which it was intended (but do get more opinions if you fundamentally disagree. REAL opinions, don’t cherry pick the people you know will boost your ego…), and be the type of beta reader that tells it straight, but tells it constructively.

It is also highly possible (and to my mind, positively essential) for the whole process to be great fun. The trick to that is to find someone with a similar sense of humour. I don’t know if any other writers out there cry with laughter at the cheeky, sarcastic comments their alpha/betas return their manuscripts with, but it sure helps if edits come with a free giggle :). Why take everything so seriously? It’s perfectly possible to get the laborious task of nuts and blots editing done with a little laughter to sweeten the process.

Now, I sit here eagerly awaiting the next instalment of a fantastic story by my (reciprocal) alpha reader. Last time I got edits back from him on my own work in progress the git had “corrected” gigglesome typos that I hadn’t made, he’d put them in for his own amusement… Well, it’s my turn to edit his work now… Be afraid, be very afraid… 🙂