2.11.2007

Beta readers

Dear Miss Snark:

I've got a draft of a novel that is about to the point where I could use another pair of eyes to critique it. So I'm thinking of printing up a couple of copies for people I know and asking them to take a look at it, let me know what sucks about the book in the hopes I can fix things and make the book suck less before I send it out. Right now I don't have much of a plan besides sending it to people who read the genre and I can trust to be honest with me. Do you have any advice on this subject?


Yea, well, don't send it to me.
Particularly if we're friends.

Friends are useful for many things but beta reads isn't one of them. For starters, your friends are hardly ever going to say "you suck" and if they do, you need new friends.

You need what is called a critique group, or a writing group, or writing colleagues. These are people who have no vested interest in your Christmas card list, being cold shouldered by your mom, or uninvited to your wedding.

You also don't want to just say "what do you think of this". You need a list of questions starting with "when did you first lose interest in the plot" and "which character made you want to hurl".

Not that they will of course, but what you're looking for here are PROBLEMS not praise. Stuff the "you're the best thing since Jack Kerouac" crapraise, and focus on what's wrong. If they say nothing, they didn't read it.

You can have your friends and family read it later, when you are copy editing for the final draft before it's published. Grandmother Snark is still the best person on Planet Earth for finding spelling misstakes.

41 comments:

JPD said...

The writer has no plan... Keep that up, and you'll become the future Governor of Massachusetts...

JPD (we're gonna' look at that, hard, and get back to you on that...)

River Falls said...

I'll say it again at the risk that the Divine Miss S will think I'm on their payroll: Internet Writing Workshop.

http://www.internetwritingworkshop.com

PS: They don't have a payroll.

Happy Days said...

If you don't have a writer's group, join Critiquecircle.com. Their crit circles cover all genre of work.

The basic service is free, but even the cost of premium membership will be less than having photocopies made.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Except for the poems I write for my children, none of my family has read what I write. I won't let them. My oldest daughter is whining over Pixie Warrior. She read the first two pages, and she wants to read more. I won't let any family read it until it's published.

I want "virgin eyes," preferably "educated, virgin eyes." I mean I want reader feedback from someone who doesn't love me. I want an honest reaction. My favorite Beta reader is an English professor and experienced writer. (Hi, Barbara!)

You're family just isn't the way to go. Find a critique group. Find someone who reads the genre. Ignore your family. The only successful family beta reading team was R. L. Stevenson. His wife would tell him something was not up to his usual standard, and he'd toss it in the fire and start over.

chisem said...

About 18 months ago I went to a writers' conference. The best thing that happened to me was meeting a fellow writer who was willing to put a budding friendship to the test with very HONEST critiques which greatly improved my writing. He says I did the same thing for him with my critique.

We each challenged the other with thoughtful (I hope) suggestions for improvements, from plot development to line editing.

No, neither of us has sold as yet, but we both believe we are much closer than we had been. I know I have gotten a request for partials, and two for full manuscripts. And this only after our critique sessions, which happened on the internet since we are halfway cross the continent from each other.

Please follow Snarkadoodles' advice and find a writers' group or someone who will be a straight shooter, as we say in Texas. It will require a thick skin, and maturity, and the ability to probe your work as you can never do alone.

My fellow writer is now a cherished friend because I know he only wanted the best for me, as I did for him.

We have agreed that the first one on Oprah will mention the other.

Good luck to you,

Chisem

Anonymous said...

Might I suggest using the Internet Writing Workshop? (http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org)

I've been working with a group through them for a few months now, and I'm finding it helpful.

Ron said...

There’s also Urbis, http://www.urbis.com. You can get a high volume of critiques there, but they vary in quality. Some are very good, others are from bored teenagers. If anyone wants to join, I’d love to refer you. They give you credits for referrals.

And then there’s Gather, http://www.gather.com, but you’ll mostly get comments there.

desert snarkling said...

Sometimes friends and family are qualified to read your work, often, but not always, if they're writers too.

Tread carefully, but don't rule it out. Sometimes a friend will tell you "this story sucks" (and be right) when you need to hear it. You can have an understanding that such honesty is a thing apart from the friendship, and doesn't imply they don't like you--just your story.

snarkfodder said...

I know I can't trust friends or family to be brutally honest. As for writing groups, I don't feel I can trust them either. By default they seem to function more as a support group, offering boundless encouragement, giving everything they hope to get... except useful feedback. (I will check the links posted in the comment trail and see if they're better. Thanks, y'all.)

Likewise, I refuse to read anything written by anyone I know, even if they beg. They want the truth, they want the truth, but they can't handle the truth! I just say, "I'll read it when it's published."

A Paperback Writer said...

I find my best critiques come from the intended audience for my manuscripts. Several other would-be novelists were lousy at critiques because it wasn't their area. Then I hit on the bright idea of letting my students critique my YA manuscripts. Zingo! They LOVE pointing out a teacher's mistakes. I give volunteers a sheet with questions and a photocopied manuscript, and they've pointed out all kinds of stuff that went under the radar for adult readers.

dan said...

I totally disagree. Give it to friends. Give it to family. Just, not everyone. Among them will be people who can give you articulate reactions. Find them. Cultivate them. I dunno about you people but my mom will tell me "this bored me". She'll never say "this sucks" but she doesn't need to. It someone really thinks something sucks, you'll pick up on it without them telling you. What's another writer going to tell you? How s/he would have done it. You don't need to know that. They're not writing your stuff. A family member or a friend, they're just gonna be ordinary readers. Ask them to tell you what they thought as if they were telling you what they thought of someone else's writing. They won't, but you'll still be able to get what you need. You don't need another writer to tell you they liked X but not Y and they were medium on Z. You need your mom to tell you she loved X. And you don't have to ask about Y and Z because it's already obvious they didn't work. Which, if you were paying attention to your writing, you probably already knew, and just needed a hint to shove you into further revision.

Which isn't to say writing groups or other writers can't be helpful. But sometimes your friends will surprise you with their close readings. Mine do anyway.

katiesandwich said...

I have two friends I'll let read my stuff. One is an English major--soon to be an English teacher--who only reads for technical stuff. The other is my husband, but only because he reads the genre and does writing of his own. His writing is mostly plays, but I've gotten tons of great ideas from talks we've had after he read something of mine.

Finding good critiquers has been really tough for me. I've found two (not the people mentioned above), but since different people have different strengths, I think getting as many good critiques as possible is important. Still, even mediocre critiques can contain something of value. I try to milk everything I can out of my crits, keep looking for more critiquers, and hope for the best in the meantime.

randomsome1 said...

I tell people if their work sucks even if we're friends. I'm just mean like that.

Ok, so it's that I take this edity thing seriously. But I'll at least try to be nice when I tell them things like no, you have to research for your book and can't just base it off of dreams.

anaea said...

That really depends on the friends. My two roommates are part of my writing group. Of course, I met one of them in a writing class and we liked each other for our brutal honesty so much that the relationship developed from there. The way we look at it, it would be utterly disrespectful and dishonest to go easy on a critique or neglect an opportunity to point out suckage. We're all writers, so we all legitimately understand the need for honest feedback. If that's the kind of friend you have, then go for it. Otherwise...people can be trained to be helpful but it might be better to go to a stranger.

Miss Snark's suggestions about the kinds of questions to ask are excellent, of course. If you're nervous and want to start yourself off easy you can try asking a few other questions first. I generally want to know who liked what and why just to make sure that they're liking the right things for the right reasons. It's extremely useful to know when your sympathetic hero is coming off as a jerk to the audience, especially if it's accidental.

r louis scott said...

chisem- was that the Historical Novel Society Conference? Because the same thing happened to me at about the same time. I count myself lucky to have met a great writer that I can be honest with and who will be honest with me. Criticism is given and taken professionally, not personally. I count her as a very good friend BECAUSE she told me that my chapter three sucks!

Anonymous said...

The problem with some critique groups is you can only have your MS critiqued after you've critiqued a couple of other members and as I don't for a minute think I'm qualified to give worthwhile advice on someone else's MS the whole thing has gone nowhere. And vice versa, are those who are prepared to critique your MS worth listening to?
(I'm yet to have a look at IWW.)
Frankly, I think paying someone who hopefully does this for a living some of your hard earned might be an idea.

Richard Lewis said...

Does a beta reader have to be in the genre?

Sure, it helps to know the genre ropes, but I reckon some Big Picture things about telling a story are common to all novels, except maybe ULYSSES, which is a very small picture written very big.

Robert Billing said...

The Forward Motion community at www.fmwriters.com has many genre-specific critique circles, as well as one board devoted to publicising real-world critique groups.

Anonymous said...

snarkfodder, I find the same thing. I used to belong to a wonderful online critique group. The philosophy of the group was to spare no feelings, and not to expect yours to be spared. But awhile after I joined, ONE new member started posting constantly. Her critiques were all warm and fuzzy, and soon we were overrun by other warm, happy-smile critiquers. She single-handedly changed the entire tone of the group. I dropped out.

I want people to be honest. I also want them to know what they're talking about. But I have a hard time finding a group that can do this!

Conduit said...

My oldest friend happens to be a Doctor of Literature and a professional writer (of sorts), and he's also brutally honest - problem is, I haven't been able to let him see my novel so far because he's going to recognise some people...

Southern Writer said...

I posted something in my blog recently I needed feedback on, and a very wise writer said she never "writes by committee." She has a good point. When you try to listen to too many people, all with differing opinions, you don't know who is right, who is wrong, or who to believe. When you try to please everyone, it just turns to mud. Limit yourself to one or two beta readers, make sure they aren't friends, and if they're writers, too, make sure they're someone whose writing you admire. Better yet, choose avid readers, not writers.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Grandmother Snark is still the best person on Planet Earth for finding spelling misstakes.

You did that on purpose... :-)

Anonymous said...

Also try:

www.youwriteon.com

It's a free UK site funded by the Arts Council, England, but you can join no matter where you are.

Apart from getting critiques from fellow writers, you also have the chance to win a free professional critique of your work.

If the site's professionals think it's good enough, you may even get your work referred to one of the agencies that are associated with the site (including Curtis Brown and Christopher Little I think) and be eligible to enter the site's Arts Council backed 'Book of the Year' Award. Might be something useful to put in query letters if you win!

It's a good site, but you need to have a thick skin.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled across a multipublished mystery author who has her beta readers organized into a critique service for herself. You just send her an email to join them. She sends the whole WIP to you, one chapter at a time.

Is this writing by committee, or on-going market research?

Either way, seems very odd to me.

flem snopes said...

Best use of friends as readers -- after they read your WIP, quizz them very carefully about the plot and characters. Sometimes they will sheepishly admit to skipping parts and that is very important information.

dan said...

It's not about writing by committee. You get opinions not to tell you what's good or what's bad, but to see how closely reader reaction gets to your intent, to make sure your own opinions of what you're writing are on the money. Overly simple example would be you thinking you wrote a funny scene and everyone's crying, telling you how sad it is. Should you totally rewrite because you need a funny scene and this obviously is not it, or do you rather like the idea--now that you think about it--that his is a tear-jerker?

I think that's why it's helpful -- well, for me anyways -- to get as many opinions as I can, because then you can start seeing trends in people's reactions. Ten people read your funny scene and don't think it's funny--guess what, it's not funny. That may be okay. You may want to stick to what you've got. Maybe they thought it was not funny but you realize it is, in other ways you hadn't anticipated, way more appropriate. Maybe this, maybe that. blah blah blah.

And lastly, I love Miss Snark.

katiesandwich said...

Okay, one anon said to try YouWriteOn. I'm glad it worked for someone, but I would go the opposite way and avoid that site. I got some really crappy crits there. There's a fifty word minimum for crits, and most of the ones I got were no more than fifty words. They said really vague things like, "I liked this," or "I thought this was dumb." Also, you can't pick the kinds of stories you get to review. They ask you when you sign up what genres you like, but then they assign you something completely different. I write fantasy, and I only got to read two other fantasy stories while I was there. Meanwhile, only four of my twelve critiques came from people who marked fantasy as one of their preferred genres. There is one thing I liked about YouWriteOn's crit system, though, and that is that they have you rate a story from 1-5 in eight differnet areas, like language, dialogue, etc. This, I admit, was helpful to an extent, but the quality of the written crits themselves (with the exception of ONE critique, and one critique only) was such that I dropped out.

KingM said...

One mistake I've noted in many writers is using "beta reader" as shorthand for "draft reader." Don't waste a good beta reader with a version of your story with known errors. Fix everyone you know is wrong before you let anyone see it. Otherwise, people will spend their limited energy telling you what you already know is wrong.

Ryan Field said...

If you even consider letting friends read your unpublished work you deserve what you get.

wonderer said...

I agree with kingm - few things are more annoying than doing a critique and then having the writer say "Oh, I already knew that needed fixing." It makes the writer sound defensive, and it's a waste of the reader's time. If you must send out something that you know has flaws, ask your readers to focus on other things. I just did a critique where the writer had specific questions - was there too much or too little backstory, were there any places where the tension was lost, etc. - and added that we shouldn't do a line edit because this was still an early draft. That was helpful.

I disagree with richard lewis that readers don't have to be in the same genre. I guess it depends on the genre, but I found it mostly useless to be an SF/F writer in a class for literary fiction (where the other students neither read nor wrote SF/F). Sure, they can tell you something about your use of characterization and the quality of dialogue, but not about your plot or worldbuilding or your use of genre conventions. After that experience, I would much rather pick inexperienced critiquers who do read my genre than experienced critiquers who don't. (Happily for me, it hasn't come to that.)

Jena said...

When I give a MS to a reader, I tell them I need to know what ISN'T working. I ask them to write down their questions/comments/reactions as they're reading, so I can gauge whether I'm leading them astray:

-- Where do they stop reading and why, what doesn't make sense, where they get bored/frustrated/roll their eyes in disgust?
-- Where are the logic flaws, the motivation problems, the gaping plot-holes?
-- Who do they think is the killer/love interest/next victim, etc.?
-- What's going to happen next? how am I going to get my characters out of this corner I've painted them into?
-- What made you cry/get excited/get upset/etc.?

When we're reading each other's work, we indicate the "good stuff" with a simple "!!" We also always make sure we start a critique with a positive comment, and end with one -- it makes the tough stuff in between easier to take.

ordinary woman said...

Thanks for the Internet Writing Workshop URL, river falls.

Rachel said...

I agree with Dan -- it depends on your friends and family.

I'm going to dedicate my first book (which should come out in 2008) to my twin brother, who did and continues to do a GREAT job for me as a reader -- he's widely read, extremely analytical, and as brutally honest as anybody could wish. He's just as good at identifying big structural problems as at telling me when I've lost characterization or gone overboard with commas.

I have to say, it's worth searching HARD to find even one really good reader. Maybe joining a critique group could be useful just as a way of looking for a reading partner?

Rachel

Grendel's Dam said...

Remember that "honesty" does not have to be "brutal": something to beware of from the unschooled beta reader (especially a non-writer.) A boyfriend or roommate with some secret envy going on can make cruel, pointless criticisms that have nothing to do with the quality of your work. I've seen great stories destroyed by too much criticism. This is why established critique groups are the best source of feedback. Even then, always consider the source of harsh criticism. It's very often about the critiquer, not your work.

Kanani said...

It's best if you can meet with a group of writers weekly or biweekly. Anything less than that and you're just not going to get the consistency, nor the general prodding you might want or need.

And do it in person. Yes, you can do online, but it's not the same. A close second, but getting to know other writers and seeing their writing is essential.

Now, here's the harder thing.
You need to find the right person for you to give you a critique. Not everyone who reads knows how (or even wants to) help you make your writing stronger. And that's the whole point of critique. It's not to put my ego all over your work, nor is it to lambaste someone personally. It's all about the words on the page.

It's not an easy thing to do -- advising someone on why their sentence construction or choice of words is hindering the advancement or distracting us from the story, or finding a way to tell them that their consistent use of animal similes runs counter to the murder-mystery they're trying to write. But a good person can at least try.

And because you're going to be giving critiques as well, remember you're looking at ways to help the writer make their imagery clearer, the story move at a pace that keeps the reader engaged, and help the writer 'inhabit' the character so that a tie is made between what happens and their emotions.

Check at your local university extension progam and see if they have writing classes. Go over to Border's or Barnes and Noble and see if they have a group. But beware.... it's like anything else. You'll find loonies amongst the gems.

Twill said...

When getting crits, you need to be literate and mature in your receipt of them. That means understanding that faint praise is subtle damnation. That means using a fool as a reverse compass. That means having the courage to ask the next question. That means being willing to confront the truth about your darlings, and strangle them mercilessly when they won't toe the line.

Maturity really means understanding your readers and using them for whatever they are good for, and stopping when they get beyond those parameters.

That often means mentally punctuating the phrase, "I don't read this genre, but..." with a single period after the "but."

Impy said...

I was raised by someone we affectionately called Captain Tact (a perfectionist who had a doctorate in English and who wouldn't even look at my writing until I was willing to view it objectively and accept some rather harsh critiques... my homework essays went unread for a dozen years). It had a certain impact on my approach to editing other people's writing, as well as everything else.

As a result, my friends can trust me not to bullshit them about anything... I view it as a matter of personal integrity. In fact, I don't think my friends would be my friends if we couldn't trust each other to be fairly objective no matter how much we care.

Maybe we're just weird, but I think that IF that is the sort of relationship you have with your friends, perhaps you can entrust them with your beta reading. Just be clear with them that you want back a manuscript that looks like it's bleeding rainbows from all the comments and corrections, and be clear with yourself that editing is part of the job and not a reflection on your value as a person or a writer.

(Incidentally, I do not edit my husband's comic. Every time I have it's wound up being a fight which I won and he resented, so I don't recommend an editing relationship with your spouse. ^-^')

carlynarr said...

For children's book writers, if you're a member of SCBWI, you can hop on over to the SCBWI website (http://www.scbwi.org/), and there's a place on the discussion boards to set yourself up with a critique group or partner.

The Breeze said...

The problem with using writers groups to get you ready for the market is that many of the people in the groups are passionate writers, but have no idea what agents like Miss Snark understand about the other side. This seems to be the constant dilemma for us scribes, understanding where our work fits in, marketing ourselves, and finding critics that do more than keep us from bailing out early, but actually teach us how to be accepted as "professionals."

http://terracottapress.blogspot.com/

j h woodyatt said...

My experience with this is that you'll get better responses from your friends if they also happen to be published writers. I sent mine to a circle of friends. I got substantially better feedback from my friends who've gotten published before.

Something about getting published made them a lot more willing to be honest about the shortcomings of my writing.

Anonymous said...

It all depends. Sometimes someone who doesn't read your genre can actually be the most useful.

My best beta reader is my partner. He doesn't read fiction, specially not my genre, so he sounds like an unlikely test audience - but he has an incredible eye for structure, which is my weak point. I'm good with words, so when I know there's something wrong with the structure of a section but I can't work out what, I tend to throw a lot of pretty words at it in the hope that no one will notice. My boyfriend, who can't tell a beautiful sentence from an ugly one, cuts straight through all that and puts his finger bang on the problem. (And, because he knows how much I care about making the book as good as possible, he tells me what that problem is, rather than telling me the book's already perfect.)

Find people who are a) good at whatever you're bad at, and b) good at articulate, constructive criticism.