Justine: Cultivating a Good Writer/Beta Reader Relationship

beta reader, eight ladies writing, justine covington, writingIn preparation for the Royal Ascot contest that I have registered for, I sent the first 7,000 words of my story to Kat and Jilly to beta read. In all the back-and-forth between us (they’re now on my second revision and will likely get a third before my April 1st submission deadline, if they’re willing to re-read it), I thought about what makes a good writer/beta reader partnership. I came up with 6 things (although I’m sure the 8LR — that is, the Eight Lady Readers — can come up with more).

[Unfortunately, this post isn’t about finding a good beta reader…that’s a whole other can of worms that I’m not going to get into. What I’m talking about here is keeping that writer/beta reader relationship going strong!]

1. Be Mindful of Deadlines.
Face it, we’re writers, and we typically have a deadline. A good beta reader will be mindful of your deadline and will get you comments/feedback with enough time for you to make the changes and possibly resubmit for further review. If they don’t think they’ll have time to give you timely feedback, they’ll tell you. (I admit to being guilty of promising I’d read something for someone, then not getting to it. Bad me! I have vowed never to do it again.) If you’re not available to beta read, say so (but see the caveat in #6 below). Most likely there are other writers who have the time to provide feedback, even if you don’t.

As a writer, be sure to give your beta readers enough time to read and comment (for an entire book, this could take awhile). Don’t expect comments back on a 80K-word novel in a few days.

2. Be Willing to Give and Take Criticism.
As a beta reader, you do your writer a disservice by simply raving about their book and not providing any constructive criticism. That said, it shouldn’t be all negative, either. In anything someone writes there is some good and some not-so-good, so be sure to tell the writer what works, not just what doesn’t.

On the flip side, you as a writer must be ready for the good and the bad that comes with feedback (chocolate and/or wine intervention may be necessary here). Even great writers like Stephen King or Amy Tan get some negative feedback on their early drafts. That’s normal. Expect it and learn from it. If you think everyone should love every word you write from the get-go, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment (and not just when you ask for a beta read, either).

3. Be Specific.
Make sure your feedback as a beta reader is specific. Comments like, “This doesn’t read well” aren’t very helpful. A more specific comment might be, “I don’t feel the marquess’ sincerity in this scene…he seems fake based on what he says vs. what he does.”

In a similar way, be specific about what you’re looking for from your beta reader. In early drafts, it may be that you’re looking for overarching plot-type things or character development, but as you get further along, perhaps you want to know where there’s too much “show” rather than tell, or you’re concerned about dialogue and anachronisms (something I definitely worry about). Or perhaps you don’t want to know about grammar mistakes (that’s why you hire a copy editor). Setting expectations beforehand will ensure your beta readers look for what’s important to you and ignore what’s not.

4. Create a Dialogue.
This kind of goes along with being specific. Jilly and I have gone back and forth a few times via email about the scene where Nate and Susannah meet for the first time…in part so I could understand her comments better, but also so she could understand where I was trying to go with the scene and perhaps suggest an alternative. Same with Kat (only our conversation was about a different scene and over the phone). As a beta reader, make yourself available to discuss anything with the writer in more detail.

As a writer, reach out to your beta reader. Even if you think you understand someone’s comments/suggestions, it wouldn’t hurt to recap them and, if necessary, suggest alternatives based on their comments to make sure you really got it.

5. Be Polite.
This goes both ways. Don’t slam someone who beta read your book and gave you a bunch of negative criticism (even if it was harsh or personal). You made a bad choice for a beta reader. Next time, find someone else.

Certainly, as a beta reader, be mindful that there’s a person behind the book you’re reading, probably someone you know, and you don’t do them (or yourself) any favors by making personal attacks (“you’re a terrible writer”) or making comments overly harsh. Put yourself in the writer’s shoes…if you read your feedback, how would you feel?

6. Reciprocate.
You can’t always be the writer. At some point, your beta reader (who is likely a writer, too) will need feedback as well. Turning your back on them (unless you have a really, really good reason) doesn’t foster a good writer/beta reader relationship. Naturally there may be schedule conflicts to overcome, but be prepared that as the writer, you may have to adjust your workload/schedule so that you can give them feedback, too.

There’s lots of advice on the ‘net about how to find a good beta reader, so when you do, perhaps keep some of these tips in mind so that you may cultivate a long-lasting beta reader/writer partnership.

What suggestions do you have on maintaining a great writer/beta reader relationship?

18 thoughts on “Justine: Cultivating a Good Writer/Beta Reader Relationship

  1. As a beta reader as well as a writer, I think the most important part is set expectations. I need to know specifically what you want me to focus on as a reader. Please don’t leave it open ended. As a writer, I don’t want a reader to waste effort on sentence structure or grammar when it is my first draft.

    Next is keep talking. Asking q’s as a reader or writer will get you more info. More improvements.

  2. (-: I think it helps a bit if you and your betas were all trained to the same rules. It sounds like many people find betas/critiquers from classes.

    Great points.

    I want to argue a little bit about #3. Specifics are nice, but if you (the reader) don’t know what’s wrong with a passage, it’s better to mark it as “it reads funny” and not try to make up reasons why it’s weird. Malcolm Gladwell gets into the science behind this quite a bit in his books — people will make snap judgments, and not know why they made them — then they will try to find a reasonable reason, and it turns out on closer inspection (or when a writer tries to “fix” the writing to fit that reason) that that reason wasn’t the real reason after all.

    I took this quote from Goodreads:

    “We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.”
    ― Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

    Although, if you’ve gone through a writing class together, you probably know many explanations for a problem. And better yet, you all have the common vocabulary to express those explanations. And in that case, specifics are really, really nice.

    • You make a very valid point Michaeline. I think where I was going with that is as a beta reader, take time with your comments. If you really don’t know why something reads funny, then say so, but I was cautioning more against the “lazy reader” who will say they don’t like something, but then not take the time to explain why.

  3. I think as a writer, it is especially important to learn to take criticism 😀 The first time I got my manuscript back I went into a real funk about it, and thought I couldn’t write etc, because there were so many edits. Then I realised how hard my reader had worked to pull everything out and make suggestions. He told me he really believed in the story and my writing which is why he was so thorough, so as I can be the best I can be at this career I’ve chosen. And my novella is majorly better for it!

    Great post 🙂

    • Thank you! I think it’s a bit easier for me to take criticism because I’ve been a tech writer most of my adult life and I’m used to it. Granted it’s a bit different when it’s a work from your heart vs. a manual on how desiccant dehumidifiers operate, but it’s also very similar…make the work better.

      Like I said in response to Rachel’s post, I actually look forward more to the negative comments than the positive ones. Yeah, I know, I’m weird!

  4. I find the whole beta reader thing a bit scary (not bad, just scary for me personally) – how do you avoid writing by committee?

    • Whatever your reader suggests are just suggestions…you don’t have to take them. For example, Kat made a suggestion early on to remove a line from my intro paragraph and my gut said no. I get why she suggested it, I just didn’t agree with it.

      Also, when Jilly or Kat and I are discussing a change, we’re not telling the other writer exactly what to write…more that we’re giving each other ideas and ultimately it’s up to the writer to implement it. In this last round of edits, Jilly had some very clear thoughts on a scene (that I have been admittedly hanging on to forever…it needs to go). I explained to her what I was trying to accomplish with the scene and she had some great ideas for alternatives, but she didn’t write anything. That’s my job.

      In the McDaniel romance writing program, the scariest thing was giving someone my work to critique that very first time, but once I got through it the first time, and realized what value they had provided in seeing my story from a different perspective, the anxiety disappeared. Now when I get comments back, I do a tiny happy dance for the things they praised, but I look forward more to the things they didn’t. After all, I want to put out the best book I can.

      When it comes to finding a beta reader, the key is trust. Once you find them, you hang on to them!

      • That’s a really helpful reply Justine, thanks. I think you’re absolutely right, the key is trust …. now to round up some beta readers!

        • Proceed with caution, Rachel. It’s the same as finding friends and lovers, they are out there but it might take a while to search out the right ones 🙂

        • Thanks for the advice Jilly – I’ve got a lot of work to do before I could stand the shame of someone else reading it, so I’ve time to proceed with caution.

          On a random different note, do you ever go to any of the RNA events, as you’re in London?

        • One great thing about being a beta for a fellow writer is that someday, you will probably return the favor. That can be a tiny bit inhibiting, but it can also spur excellence. Be the kind of beta that you’d want to have. (With consideration for special requests by your writer.)

          It also helps if everyone realizes that 1) the writer wants to hear what the beta thinks, even if it’s “trivial” or unformed. Feedback provides data points. But, 2) the story is the writer’s. A bit of criticism can be perfect and just what a writer needs. OTOH, a bit of criticism can seem dumb and uninformed, and in arguing against it IN HER HEAD, the writer can find a new direction that is perfect and just what the writer needs. (Or, the writer can find that the “dumb” criticism actually has a lot of merit.) Whatever, the story is the writer’s.

        • Rachel, re RNA, I’m on the mailing list for the RWA London chapter and I quite often go to their meetings on a Saturday afternoon at The Lamb on Lambs Conduit Street. I haven’t been this year because I’m trying to finish the Damn Book instead. Are you thinking of giving it a try?

        • I hadn’t even thought of the local chapter – I must get on their mailing list, I think it will probably be the same one as you – how dim of me! I was just looking at the big party on 22nd May and wondering if I would have the nerve to go. Are you going?

        • I wasn’t planning to go to the RNA summer party, Rachel – I can do parties, I just don’t enjoy them as much as workshops, and I’m not a fan of dressing up if I don’t have to (my characters have much better wardrobes than I do). Some of my friends are going, though, so I can definitely find you a friendly face or two to break the ice if you decide to brave it.

  5. Pingback: Beta Reader Back-and-Forth | Justine Covington

    • I loved this – thanks so much to both of you for sharing. It really made me get the whole beta thing much more clearly – I can really see how this level of constructive criticism could help you tighten up a scene (or even, sometimes, see the wood from the trees).

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