Beta Reader, Critique, and Getting Good

I haven’t been published, and I’m talking about craft, so read on at your own peril. All the following opinions are best taken with a grain of salt.

Writing is a team sport. Even though we spend most of our time working alone, we learn the most by listening to other people and seeing what kind of impact our writing has on them. There are people so gifted, creative, and educated that they can write publishable prose on their first try, but there’s no way to know if you’re one of them. New writers aren’t capable of reading their own material and telling if it’s any good.

I’ve finished two novels, and I still can’t tell. Brandon Sanderson said in a YouTube lecture (hopefully I’m not misquoting him) that most people can’t tell until they’ve written four or five. From personal experience, that seems to be the case.

That doesn’t mean what you write won’t be good. It means you won’t know if it’s any good, even if you think you know.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect illustrates this point well. I’ve been taking writing seriously for maybe three years, and I keep sliding lower and lower on the curve:

Dunning Kruger Chart
And like the chart shows, I was never more confident about my writing than when I finished the first draft of my first book.

Blows to my unearned confidence came in two major waves.

The first was the burning of friendly acquaintances. Even though emotionally, I was very confident, rationally I knew not to trust myself. Writing isn’t the first art that I’ve been interested in, and having already traveled the Dunning-Kruger slope once before, I knew what was happening. So, I hid my writing from people I was close to and only shared it with people I liked and trusted but didn’t know well. They were incredibly helpful and taught me a ton about writing, but after a few rounds of reading my crap and realizing that it wasn’t going to stop, they quit talking to me altogether.

I sort of knew that was going to happen, and I didn’t feel good about it, but it was a sacrifice I was willing to make (if that makes me a good or bad person, you decide). Thankfully, they (one or two special people) taught me enough to get the ball rolling and helped me learn to write readable prose.

The second instance was while I was editing my first book. I had been reading V.E. Schwab’s “A Darker Shade of Magic,” when the “Writing Excuses” podcast advocated copy-work as the fast track to getting good.

I sat down with her book and thought to myself (and I still remember thinking this while standing in line at Starbucks) that I was pretty much on her level. Rationally, I knew that couldn’t be true, which is why I was bothering with the copy-work in the first place, but emotionally, I felt like I was there.

I copied a couple pages, read them back, and had my mind blown. I couldn’t believe how much better her writing was than what I was doing. It was like seeing art for the first time.

Finally, I understood why I was having a hard time getting people to read my work. The prose I was handing them was hot trash, and they couldn’t even get far enough in to find the story.

There was no way around the fact that I needed to study prose. Good prose doesn’t mean someone will like the story. It doesn’t mean the plot is solid, or the characters are three dimensional. But, you won’t ever know that your characters are coming off flat if readers can’t slog through the book.

The mistake I was making was spending too much time focusing on big picture story elements and writing 20-80k word books without going back and learning about prose. I spent a dreadful amount of time editing and revising my first completed book without really knowing what I was doing. In hindsight, I should have been writing shorter pieces, revising them, and sending them out for critique.

I improved my writing the most when I was working on short stories, because they allowed me many more opportunities to revise my prose and hear what other people thought of it. It also made it easier for me to retain beta readers, because if I hand someone a seven-page story and they don’t like it, they can tell me why without feeling that bad. Hand them a 300-page story they don’t like, and they will be afraid that their opinion will be crushing.

And with good reason. Most people can’t handle it.

So how does this all tie in to beta reading?

I based this pyramid on Frank Conroy’s “Pyramid of Writing” but changed it to reflect my feelings on peer critique:

critique-triangle1.png

1 – Reading Experience: Tense, Sentence / Paragraph Flow, Grammar, Punctuation, Eliminating Info-dumps

2 – Dialog / POV: Avoiding Head Hopping. Did you select the right POV character? Is the dialog believable? Can you eliminate “as you know” and “on the nose” dialog? Are the physical descriptions of the world presented through the eyes of the POV character, even in third person?

3 – Pacing / Subtext: Is there a pleasing mix of action and reflection? Does the dialog and action convey the idea that there’s more going on under the surface? Are the characters acting in accordance with their motivations?

4 – Internal / External Story Arcs: Are the characters changing as they progress through the story? Does the rise and fall of the internal drama match with the external drama?

5 – Fancy Shit: What’s the theme of the story? Does the language of the story provide a consistent mood? Is the writing invisible? Is it beautiful? Is that what you want?

Levels one and two, for most readers, aren’t up for debate. Some readers can’t tolerate the third level being weak, but everyone has a limit to the amount of friction they can handle before they have to quit. If your sentences are all the same length. If all your paragraphs start with the same word. If you’re head hopping on accident and it gets confusing (sometimes it doesn’t, see Nora Roberts). If you’re dropping the whole history of the seven kingdoms on them for four pages before getting to the orphan farm boy fighting orcs or whatever. You’re going to lose them.

People will stop reading, and you really can’t blame them. Getting those first two levels down cold is vital. Harsh truth: a beta reader doesn’t have to read more than a few paragraphs to figure out if you have levels one and two down.

Levels 3-5 are more subjective. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but writing for everyone is writing for no one. Beta readers can let you know if they think you are hitting or missing the mark. If you get enough feedback from enough people, you can paint a picture of what you need to do next.

If you’re lucky, your beta readers will be competent, kind, and articulate, and they will be able to give you concrete suggestions on what you can do to improve your prose. You don’t need them to read 100k words to make suggestions about the first two levels of the pyramid. If they critique even a couple of pages, you can take what they tell you, pair it with some study / copy-work, and go back through your manuscript improving everything.

This sort of study will eventually allow you to write first drafts of higher quality than your previous attempts at revised and edited work, and you’ll be able to keep improving from there.

Concrete suggestion: early in your writing career, write short pieces, 1-3k words, a chapter maybe, but not more. Revise it. Do some copy work. Revise it again. Find writers or readers willing to give you feedback. When strangers start telling you they like your prose and stop giving you much in the way of sentence level corrections, try your hand at something longer. If you do write something long and your readers don’t make it past the first four pages, be thankful to them for the advice they give you, because you need it.

Even after you get all this down, not everyone will like your writing. Most people won’t even read a Stephen King or John Grisham novel, let alone your no-name early draft. It’s nothing to be mad about.

Because giving people bad news about their writing can be painful, I have largely stopped offering to beta read whole novels by people I don’t know. I don’t want to commit to 80k words before I know what the reading experience will be like. If I have time, and their writing turns out to be on point, then I can always offer to read more.

By that same token, when I give my writing to people to beta read, I think of it being cast out into the void. It’s a blessing if it comes back with critique I can use or word that they liked it. However, I’m not going to get worked up if they didn’t do the hours of assigned reading I gave them, all while worrying about my feelings.

When you’re giving feedback on someone’s writing, be gentle, but be honest about how far you got, and if you stopped early, tell them what caused the friction. If someone is using monotonous sentences, starting every line with the same pronoun, mixing up past / present tense, or using too many filler words (just, very, really, in as much, for that reason…) tell them so. You don’t need to travel up the pyramid and complain about their dialog’s subtext, what you thought of their theme, or if the internal character arc is engaging. If they need help with prose, they aren’t going to be able to utilize higher level advice anyway, and will find it discouraging.

I’m in the fortunate position now of having the best beta readers in the world, including my wife and two Twitter buds who suffered through my first complete book, “Race to Exodus,” and were still willing to read “Wayfaring Princess.” I recently added a couple more writers to my beta reading team and have learned a ton from them.

I hope that was helpful. If you disagree with anything I said or want to drop some advice of your own, please don’t be shy in the comments.

 

6 thoughts on “Beta Reader, Critique, and Getting Good

  1. Hello John. This is the first post I’ve ever read by you and I must say I found it very informative and an enjoyable read. It will certainly be useful to me in future. I wanted to ask you how you come to get beta readers? – because I think I would like to have some to possibly read the first chapter of my novel. I am an aspiring writer and have written about half of my first novel. It is only a first draft and has not yet been edited at all… I have shown loads of it to my partner and he has been very helpful with his critique and advice – it is particularly useful for him to give me his perspective on a teenage boy (one of my characters) as I have never been a teenage boy myself. I also have promised my best friend I will send the novel to her to take a look at at some stage (this is a daunting prospect because my best friend is an editor and although she is kind and sweet she is well used to reading slightly shitty first drafts so may think what the actual hell!). I have never read my work out to anyone other than these two people. My family have not even heard any of my novel writing as I am worried they will think it’s terrible and be too nice to say to me that it is total trash.
    How would you advise that I get beta readers for it?

    Like

    1. Hello, and thanks for your thoughtful posts.

      Getting beta readers is hard when you are starting. If I were you, I wouldn’t use anyone you are already close to. Beta reading is a professional act, and you generally want to trade services.

      I’ll read for you if you read for me (don’t pay for beta reading unless you are paying for some kind of expert information you can’t learn yourself).

      You can find beta readers here:

      https://discord.gg/5mGNgbn
      https://www.facebook.com/groups/betareaderconnect/
      https://www.writingforums.org/

      Or you can go on Twitter and search for #betareader and offer to trade services with people.

      Beta readers usually take a month to get back. If someone needs it back sooner, they should say so.

      About what you send to beta readers:

      No one wants to read a first draft. They just don’t. You might want to share it, but you shouldn’t. A nice person will offer to read your first draft if they don’t know any better, but they won’t want to read a second, no matter what passed between you before.

      It is important, if you want to build relationships and get good, that you polish and refine your prose to the best of your ability before giving it to anyone, so you can share it without apology.

      That usually means writing a first draft, then fixing story elements, then writing another draft focusing on prose, and then reading it aloud and seeing if it sounds good to the ear. If it passes that test, it is ready to be shredded by someone else.

      Writing is really hard, and you should expect your first attempts at polished, refined work to be as good as any other first try at a complex activity: first time surfing, first time playing golf, first time trying to draw a perfect circle by hand…

      And so you should welcome and invite the shredding and not take it personally, because it is your craft being judged, not you.

      All that said, as you get better and better, and you give more critiques, and you do what you need to do to improve your taste, by reading or listening to or transcribing good published work, you will get better and better at discerning who’s advice you should take.

      A lot of feedback will miss the point, or be given by people that don’t like or believe in the kind of writing you are into, and they will tell you that right, published things are wrong. It is hard to tell when you first start who is giving useful advice, but you will figure it out.

      Try letting people beta read a chapter or a short story first, so you can practice writing clean prose. That way, when you polish your novel, you will know for certain you are on the right track.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for your detailed reply. I am so happy to have your opinion on this subject because as an aspiring author it is hard to know where to look for things like beta readers and harder still to know whether or not to pay them and what to send them. Your comment has been invaluable 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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