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Better with Beta

May 17, 2010

Beta reading is where good stories evolve into greatness.

This is the first and perhaps most important lesson I have learnt about beta reading. Granted, not everyone agrees with me.

There are writers who refuse share their work because in the past they’ve born the brunt of bad and hurtful critiques. Others say art is art – and therefore a critique will always just be someone’s opinion, and of little value to the end product. However there are writers, like me, who believe beta reading and critiquing is a must if you are serious about writing and getting published. Dale’s post from last week showed how the beta reader is often the slayer of the inner critic!

While composing this article over the last week or so, I asked several of my writing colleagues to share their experiences of beta reading. Thanks to Annie Evett, Chris Chartrand, Dan Powell and Benjamin Solah who all opened up and shared, and the many, many other writers whose experiences will shape and inform the columns still to come in this series.

Improving by Degrees

When I asked Wednesday columnist Annie Evett about her take on beta reading she said:

Asking close friends, family or partners is one step into Trust with your work. Asking a beta reader – often someone you have never met, is a new level of Trust both in yourself and your work. It’s the next step in maturing as a writer and becoming confident that one’s work stands on its own.

I want to become better writer and including beta readers as part of the process, I will.

I have seen a huge evolution in the quality of my stories since I ultilising beta readers as an regular part of my writing practice. The jump in quality has seen a jump in the number of stories I’m submitting for publication and the number of stories being accepted.

But how does beta reading improve your work? Here are a number of reasons why I believe beta reading helps your work.

It’s All Perspective

All new mothers think their baby is the most beautiful baby alive. It is a biological imperative for them to think and feel this way. But anyone who has been around babies knows why the saying “a baby only a mother could love” exists.

Writers are like new mothers, thinking each new piece of writing is the best ever written. There are others, as Dale pointed out, who believe it is the worst ever written. Beta reading is an opportunity for you to see your work through another’s eyes – or several eyes.

“A beta reader provides not only fresh eyes on a piece but a distance from the work that as the writer I simply don’t have,” shared Dan Powell. “They are more able to see what needs to be done to make a piece its best and are not afraid to say so.”

Highlighting any areas of concern in the beta reader’s brief, provides the writer with an opportunity to test the strength/weakness of the area. It also offers the writer an opportunity to get some ideas on how it may be strengthened if it is weak. Ending are always a bit of a battlefield in my work.

Sometimes you just need to know you’ve hit the mark. Has your story got lost in translation?

Lost in Translation

My favourite show Spicks and Specks has a great segment called “Turning Japanese”. They take song lyrics and plug them into an online translator – turning them from English, to Japanese and back to English. Each team is challenged to pick the song from the illogical lyrics. The result is mind-bendingly funny.

Writers assume their idea has hit the page, but has it? Because beta readers are removed from “knowing” what the writer is trying to convey so they are able to objectively reflect back what is actually on the page. Often there is a distinct gap between what the writer started off with and what appears as the story.

I know what I’m trying to convey, but being too close to the story, I can’t always tell if I’m getting it across clearly,” shared Chris Chartrand. “Having a beta reader ask ‘Is this what you mean’ early on can be the difference between mediocre and wow.

This process of translation is something beta readers are perfectly positioned to comment on. Being poorly translated might be funny on a comedy show, but in writing it will mean the difference between rejection and publication, or at the most basic level conveying or losing your message.

In one case, beta readers forced me to clarify what I was trying to tell with my story,” said Benjamin Solah, “to make it truer to what I wanted in my mind.

Too Little, Too Much, Too Late

Sometimes writers are too in the story to know where a story should end or start. A beta reader can look at a story and see where an “organic” beginning and end is. For most of my stories there is a red line at least several sentences above my actual ending.

Having recently read some of Jeffrey Archer’s early short story… they all suffer from long winded beginnings choked unimportant back story or have middle sections labouring on the same thing over and over again. It made me wonder who read his stories before they went to print. Writers may be enamoured and caught by literary bloat, but beta readers, and by extension editors, are not. Nothing turns a reader off quicker than blather.

There’s always the risk of giving away too much of the story, or not enough, because as the writer, you  know everything, but you can’t obviously tell everything and often there is a need for a slow, teasing reveal. Beta readers will let you know if you’ve struck the balance. I used to be pulled up by my writing group for not giving enough information and losing the reader early on because the story hadn’t been grounded. It is something I keep in the forefront of my mind when I’m penning early drafts now.

Standing On The Outside Looking In

Writers have tunnel vision with their work. Think of how many times you’ve read over grammatical or spelling mistakes in your work for them to be later picked up during proof reading by someone else. The same can happen with larger elements of your story.

It takes someone from the outside to highlight what’s missing from your story.

My greatest lessons came in the rewriting of Bondi. One of my core themes was guilt. There is nothing inherently wrong with writing a story about guilt, but over the course of writing the story, the indentity of the character who died changed. As a consequence guilt had a lesser role to play, but I didn’t make the necessary adjustments. It read perfectly fine to me. But it was pointed out by a beta reader, the intensity of the guilt was over the top and threatened to make the main character thoroughly unlikeable. It was a big reality check.

Then a few days later, one of my beta readers emailed saying she felt the story wasn’t about guilt it was about grief, predominantly to do with the changing relationship between mother and daughter.

She’d seen into my story and to a place I couldn’t because of my proximity. I was able to incorporate both these insights and Bondi took a subtle but profound shift. It went from a good story to one which reached right into your heart and dragged it out.

Beta Readers Aren’t Precious

The only person precious with your work is you.

A good beta reader… often mercilessly points out that what might have been a particular darling in the drafting stage really needs to go,” Dan Powell shared, “Where the writer will try to hold on to certain parts of a piece, a beta reader’s distance means they have no particular attachment to any of the writing going in to their reading of it.

Beta readers help to clarify what is important to you as a writer, compared to what is important to the story. They are not always the same thing. And because of this – beta readers are amazingly talented in bringing down word counts.

I remember feeling I would never be able to bring Bondi to a suitable length. At 6100 words it was too long for internet publishing. In the brief I sent to my beta readers, I asked them to specify what could be cut. One beta reader suggested removing a two sentence reference to a Pearl Jam song.  It was like holding a red rag to a bull. How dare he suggest such a thing? I brooded and contemplated a tiny creative tantrum! Two days later when I had got over myself, I hit delete without a second thought, because the reference was important to me, but not to the story. Another suggested merging two characters into one and now it is hard to ever remember there was a son named Bart!

Having beta readers who are ruthless is the perfect counter balance to a writer who can’t help but be a little precious.

Beta Readers Get You Over The Line

Having several people invest time, effort and skill improving a story stops me from bunking out of submission at the last minute because of a flood of self doubt. I know there are people out there who believe in my story. In a way I feel as though those people are counting on me and I would be letting them down, and showing complete contempt of their contribution if I didn’t submit.

A strong group of beta readers is one of the most valueable resources any writer has. Use them to the best of their abilities to hone your writing and give yourself permission to take your writing to the next level.

Next week I look at how to be a beta reader – a few common sense guides.

Image via Career Realism

Other articles in this series

With a little help from my friends
Beta Who

Jodi Cleghorn is looking forward to a break in Melbourne after a rather crazy week of rewriting and beta reading. She’s off  to take in the Emerging Writers Festival – and will be catching up with guest columnist here at WA, Benjamin Solah. You can find more of Jodi’s musings at Writing in Black and White.
8 Comments
  1. May 17, 2010 4:25 am

    Great post, Jodi. I would add a couple of things to what I said to you about beta reading, and that is the great pleasure it is to read work in progress from other emerging writers. It’s inspiring to read work from so many talented people and a pleasure to be able to help with advice and encouragement.

    I would also recommend doing the beat read critique over voice chat. The hour or more we spent discussing my novel chapter was the most helpful criticism I have ever received, forcing me to clarify why I had made the choices I had and giving me a much clearer idea of how to tackle key scenes. Anytime I can return the favour, let me know.

  2. May 17, 2010 7:12 am

    The pleasure was mine – believe me. I love nothing better than sitting around talking about stories and possibly narrative trajectories or character traits.

    But you do bring up a really important point – and I’ll jot it down perhaps for another column – how to give your critique/ideas and the pros and cons of each of them.

    As you would have noticed – I’m the least articulate of people in real time conversation and part of my prefers the ability to sound like I have my act together on paper. Though I am finding more and more – especially with people I know and trust – my on paper critique is becoming a little more stream of consciousness.

    Being given an opportunty to stand in suport of your writing (which you don’t get with a written critique) is one of the most profound experiences you can have as a writer. At least you know a phone call from your editor isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Chris, however might beg to differ.

  3. May 17, 2010 7:46 am

    Excellent post! I am always unsure of myself, and it’s nice to know if my ideas are actually write worthy or not coming across on “paper”.

    I agree with Dan, too. I love being asked (or offering) to be a beta reader. It’s magical… being part of the birth of something new and exciting.

    ~2

  4. May 17, 2010 9:07 am

    You do your self a disservice Jodi. You hide your “inarticulate” manner so well that some might be fooled into think that you are in fact a bit of a guru.

  5. May 17, 2010 9:34 am

    Another fine article Jodi. I don’t disagree at all about phone calls from one’s editor. I love the story that resulted from that phone call. OK, OK, I was a bit sad that the first story wasn’t going to work, but that’s how it goes. The first story still exists and with a little tweaking could be used somewhere else.

    I’m looking forward to next week’s article too. This has been a great series.

  6. May 17, 2010 1:55 pm

    This is such an important post. I would like to add that it’s important to get a variety of beta readers and make sure that in additon to people who regularly read within your genre you also get some writers used to giving and getting tough critiques. Just because beta readers love the work doesn’t mean there isn’t something that needs improving or clarifying. I’ve learned the hard way that if beta readers are too kind, they are probably caught up in the plot and not looking carefully enough at the work to recognize whether it’s too soon to query. This doesn’t mean their opinion isn’t worthwhile and important, or that it isn’t great to hear good things, it just means you owe it to yourself to keep getting feedback that makes you question yourself. That’s when a manuscript gets really solid.

  7. May 18, 2010 1:19 am

    Adventures in Children’s Publishing, I have this problem too with beta reading, I’m one of the people that gets caught up in the plot sometimes so can’t objectively find things to point out. Sometimes things jump out at you but otherwise, I need to give it a second read through.

  8. John Smith permalink
    May 19, 2010 4:14 am

    The sixth collection of engrossing 15 short stories from Sir Jeffrey Archer is inspired by people and situations from all around the world. The fact that Sir Jeffrey Archer needed some time on his own to work on the book “And Thereby Hangs a Tail” was accepted happily by his readers (read me). His latest book “And Thereby Hangs A Tale” is available at huge discount at http://www.uread.com/book/and-thereby-hangs-tale-jeffrey/9780330513685

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