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November 9, 2010

Beta-readers NOT beta-writers

8.28.09Image by aprilzosia via Flickr
I was recently writing an email on critiquing to a young writer friend and it gave me the idea for this post, because it's something I've been thinking about lately.

I've read several blog posts by others sending thanks to the members of their online critique groups etc. And this made me realise that many, even most people who work with critique groups or partners, are pairing themselves with others of the writing fraternity/sorority to do so. Well yeah, I hear you say, scratching your head. That's the way it always seems to work. Writers in critique groups with other writers. So?

I just thought I'd mention that that wasn't the way things worked out for me. I did go down the path of trying to join a couple of critique groups after finishing my second novel, one online group and one face-to-face. I'm not sure why I didn't do so earlier. I think I was too focused on just writing! And when I did go through the exercise of trying to connect with other writers, I found the whole process less fruitful than I'd expected.

Main reason? I'm not actually good working with groups. And I don't particularly like getting broad feedback on single scenes or chapters as I write, partly because I don't write consecutively (meaning I often don't start at chapter one and keep going until the end, I write scenes all over the place and fill in the gaps later). And partly because sharing work at an early draft stage is something my inherently perfectionistic personality tends to rebel against. So standard critique groups which meet regularly and share feedback on short pieces of work in early draft form just aren't a good match for me.

There! I've said it!

But I do find it extremely valuable to get feedback on my work, and I sought and received very useful feedback from a core group of beta-readers before I ever joined a writer's critique group. Each of my beta-readers read the entire manuscript at an advanced draft stage. And the key difference between my betas and the members of a critique group is that they are all readers not writers. A couple of them admittedly have dabbled in writing but it's not a major focus for them at the moment, or is something they're fairly new to. They're readers first. Literate people who enjoy books - reading them and talking about them. They're women, which is who I primarily write for. And they already enjoy the genre I write in.

The feedback they give me varies from person to person; some just comment on whether they liked the characters or not, whether they found certain things confusing or got caught up on a particular point. They sometimes identify continuity issues, or highlight something which needs clarification. Others give wonderful and very insightful macro-structural comments. All approach their feedback from a reader's perspective.

Now I'm assuming (because I really don't have much experience with the other side, that is, getting feedback from other writers) that the feedback from the two groups would vary. So I suppose it's a matter of each individual writer working out what sort of feedback they find most valuable and who can best provide that for them. Even if I was to form a critiquing arrangement with another writer, I think I'd always prefer to share a complete manuscript rather than isolated chapters, as I like feedback on a whole project. At least I've finally identified the way I prefer to work, which is a good thing.

I certainly realise that plenty of writers out there benefit from and love having a close-knit critique group who are there throughout their entire writing process for a particular novel, providing feedback and encouragement along the way. Because that's the other big thing regular sharing of work offers to those who need it: motivation to keep writing. That's what makes events like NaNoWriMo such a big success every year.

But I suppose I just wanted to point out something which to me seems fairly obvious, and which perhaps gets a little lost in this blogging world of writers writing about writing for other writers. We're all doing this for the readers, and that's who I want the bulk of my feedback from. They buy books. They read books. A small minority of them may also be writers (who tend to love books too) but most are not.

Have you identified your preferred kind of feedback, and found people who can provide it? What areas have readers of your MS helped you most with?


L'Aussie said...

Thank you Adina for this great post. I read every word. You sound a lot like me. I couldn't stand all that on-going feedback/suggestions either. However, I like the idea of Beta readers and have begun dipping my toes in, trying to find a suitable one. No hurry now that NaNo has interrupted my previous revisions.

The only feedback I've had on any of my work is that I can get confusion with POV, so now I watch that closely and like you, I now prefer to write in scenes, not chapters, as that makes putting it altogether easier. Clarissa Draper has a great post on this today.

Happy writing!

Rachael Harrie said...

It's an interesting question isn't it. At the moment I feel more comfortable having critique partners who work with me as my manuscript progresses - it's been so valuable for me to get the input of other writers. But I definitely agree it is important to have beta-readers on board as well :)


chicklit1028 said...

I'm not an early draft sharer either. No one sees the manuscript until I've revised at least once, usually twice. And I get (and give) more valuable feedback with an entire draft rather than the chapter by chapter approach. (Barring that, I do find it useful to critique whole "acts" of novels, so I at least get to see some of the arc.)

In defense of beta writers, they are usually just as well read as the readers-not-writers. And I think the value they provide is that they have probably done some studying about the craft and are able to better articulate why they lost interest in a scene or why the main character isn't appealing to them. On the other hand, there is the danger of writing for other writers, which I think eventually everyone in my MFA workshops eventually succumbed to. There's definitely a balance to be found.

Hart Johnson said...

I've come to a place where I don't want chapter or scene level feedback either--I think it's because I finally get the EDITING process and know THAT STUFF will all change a bunch... no POINT. And when I start to edit, I want 'big picture' feedback FIRST which requires a read of the whole thing.

I think if I wrote literary fiction, where the words mattered as much as the story, I might then want a critique group that helped perfect the WORDS, but I ask my writer's group (2 or 3 at a time) to do the 'big pic read', then the continuity/pacing read, and I have one, generous soul who does a careful beta (line edit) read.

They are all writers, but at different stages and with different strengths. I am with you though--I don't want to get chapter at a time feedback again.

LadyJai said...

I want to thank you. I recently got back into my writing and I thought a critique group or partner would be a good thing to have. I have been struggling to find one and felt that if I couldn't get the guidance I needed from someone "in the biz" I was lost. I felt lost. I felt inadequate.

I now see the "other side" of it. Maybe I should focus on beta-readers. As you said, we write for our readers, not write for writers! Thank you for opening my eyes. And here's hoping I can find some beta-readers for children's picture books. Any suggestions? :D

Madeleine said...

I have also had bad experiences of CP's and online groups like youwriteon. I even took an OU course which made me feel like I was a terrible writer because the tutor was so lousing at feedback, but since blogging I am finding much kinder and more genuinely helpful CP's. So I can fully empathise with you. :O)

Adina West said...

Thank you all for your comments!

@l'Aussie: I feel your pain. Finding good beta readers is never easy. And nice to hear from another 'scene' writer. :-)

@Rachael: The main thing is you've found what works for you, which evidently is more frequent feedback as you shape your manuscript. I think you're in good company as many other writers prefer to work this way.

@chicklit1028: I agree with you - having fellow writers on the 'beta' team can give insights which may not come from a beta reader who has no background as a writer themselves. I absolutely wouldn't rule this out for the future - but I agree it's a bit of a tightrope act finding the middle ground between feedback and constructive 'improvement'.

Adina West said...

@Hart: Good insight about lit vs commercial fiction. :-) And it sounds like you've assembled a wonderful team around you. Don't let 'em get away...

@LadyJai: I know it's hard when you're writing children's fiction and don't have illustrations to help along the story - but you could do worse than test your stories on the target audience - kids! If they're enthralled then you're onto a winner.

@Madeleine: I couldn't agree more. It's so important to find CPs who are the right match for your needs as a writer. And every writer's needs are different! I've read your poetry, and you are most definitely not a terrible writer. :-)

kangaroobee said...

Really interesting topic Adina. I wish I'd have paid more attention to it earlier. I in fact gave my rhyming MG novel to an eight year old neighbour yesterday who is a voracious reader. A close friend of mine has read about three pages of it so far, but this boy will get to read about four and a half pages before anyone else. I can't wait to hear what he thinks about it. My friend loved it, but she's my friend and she doesn't read much so I am very curious about his reaction. I haven't warned him I have a ton of questions I'm going to pick his brains on once he's read it. After all Adina, we writers don't get as much time to read as young kids I guess.

Adina West said...

@kangaroobee: Sigh. I don't get anywhere near enough time to read. Childhood was wonderful that way...

Jenny Beattie said...

Fantastic post. It reassures me that I can be different in my approach. I don't like feedback until I feel ready for it and the readers I am anticipating using are all as you describe: "They're readers first. Literate people who enjoy books - reading them and talking about them. They're women, which is who I primarily write for. And they already enjoy the genre I write in."

Perfect. Thank you.

Kittie Howard said...

Thank you, Adina, for voicing what I've been thinking (and thought I was alone.) Beta writers can muddy the creative waters. It's like we're writing for each other. A beta reader, now, that's a prize worth searching for. I'm almost to the point where I'll need one but don't know how to go about finding one. So you've brought up some very realistic points.

Adina West said...

@Jenny and Kittie: I'm glad I'm not alone! I think the key is remembering we all work differently as writers, and the kind of 'constructive' feedback one writer finds useful might be disastrous for another...

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