Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Beta reader basics, a guest post

by Jim

For something a little different today, we have a guest blog post from my wonderful and talented client Jennifer Schubert whose hugely exciting thriller, BROKEN, is out on submission right now!

Jenn contacted me last week about whether we wanted to post on our thoughts on authors critiquing each other’s work. But ours is such an outsider’s perspective on this. My take is that feedback is always wonderful if you can take it in constructively. I’ve never been in the position of taking it since I don’t write, and when I offer it, it’s from a sales perspective. So I thought it made more sense for the expert herself to offer up some bon mots. And happily, Jenn provided us with the below!

Why a beta reader?

Every writer needs feedback. We crave it, for one. That’s what writing is about, the exhibition of the soul, the desire to tell a story and to be judged by it. Every piece of work should be run through a filter, preferably an impartial one, to show where we’re going wrong. Because we are going wrong somewhere. No one is perfect. Everything can stand improvement.

One of the best learning tools is to switch sides and be a beta reader. I’ve learned as much about writing by critiquing others’ works as I have by writing myself. It’s much easier to see the flaws in other people’s work than our own.

How to give a crit without breaking a heart

I’ve been privileged to do a lot of beta reading in my writing journey. I’m a believer in the “sandwich” technique: single out a good thing first, then tackle some of the problem areas, and close with another good thing. Not everyone agrees with this approach, but I’ve found people respond better if criticism is softened with praise, and there’s always something to praise. (An English teacher of mine used to tell people, a bit desperately, “You have lovely handwriting.”)

How to take a crit without throwing a fit

The reaction to a critique ranges widely, but generally falls into two categories. The first group meets a critique, no matter how gentle, with defensiveness. Their reaction is to argue. You, the beta reader, just didn’t understand what the writer was trying to say. Sure, you say, but if you have to explain it to me, it wasn’t very well-written, was it?

The second group says “thank you” and buckles down to edits. A few hours, days, or weeks later, you get the material back and it’s better. You suggest more changes, more tweaks. They go back to work. Maybe the end result isn’t perfect, but they’re willing to work hard to make it as good as it can be.

Like many of us, I started out in the first, or thin-skinned, group. I was fortunate to have a mentor who talked me out of that. Because I wanted to be a writer so badly, I toughened up. Of course hearing that your work isn’t letter-perfect is hard, but the critiquer’s job is to help. Maybe they’re paying it forward. Maybe they believe in you, believe in your work, and want to help make it better.

My question for you is: which group are you in? Are you thin-skinned, or are you tough enough to take a critique designed to help make your writing better? And are you critiquing for others? If so, what are you learning from it?


  1. Oh man, I love Critique. LOVE it. I don't even need a sandwich. When I get my stuff back, I want red ink EVERYWHERE--or you know, those little comment bubbles in track changes. If people don't rip into my work, I'm disappointed. I guess that makes me thick skinned-- because even if the person is insulting me while offering critique, I can always sift the good kernels of what are the problems and what I can work on from the trauma, and come out the other end with a gleeful grin of joy as I prepare to attack a new revision.

  2. I'm in the second group, but it helps to receive the sandwich technique. I'm with the first commenter. I get rather disappointed if there isn't red ink on the page. If I'm submitting it for critique, I know it isn't perfect and I'm looking for help.

  3. I'm thin-skinned. I like my sandwiches made with THICK bread. But I take them with thin bread or no bread at all, if necessary. It's the only way.

  4. "IF" I want to make it in this industry, if I want to be successful at my passion - then I need to be thick-skinned. Bring it on - give it to me! I know we all have our different opinions and will tackle a piece differently, but when it comes to fundamentals - it should be pretty clear.

    If my beta is honest with me, if I've found a good beta - and if I listen and really think about what is being said, how can I NOT be a better writer?

  5. I think I'm somewhere in the middle. I still have to bite back the urge to argue. I thank the critiquer then give myself an hour or so before looking at the critiques again. The hour lets me get a more coolheaded, and much less arrogant perspective.

  6. I'm in two critique groups and LOVE tough feedback -- I'm quite thick-skinned as I want my book to be the best it can be. Giving feedback to others helps my own work immensely as I can identify mistakes that I make as well. It's easier to see what works and what doesn't in the work of others -- you can be more objective when it's not your 'baby.' This allows me to fix my own ms before I send it out again to my groups. I'm a huge believer in the power of a good crit group. Thanks for a great post and good luck with the submission process!

  7. Anon, that's an excellent way to go about it!

    One of the reasons I like to give positive feedback, and not just red ink, is to show the writer what they're doing well, like a carefully turned phrase, or a tiny detail that shows the reader something about a character (rather than tells). I'm a big fan of positive feedback--I think it can be just as worthwhile as negative.

  8. I take the same approach as you, Jennifer - I try to say some positive things, too. Once I forgot to make my positive comments, and the writer thought that the work didn't have any hope (which it did, and a lot of it, I was just focusing on everything that could be fixed). Positive feedback is helpful because it's like saying - yes! show me more of this!

    I think I'm in the more thick-skinned group. There are comments that get me down every once in awhile, but then I buck up and fix the problems. I can pinpoint the moment I turned to thick-skinned, too. I was in a crit where I couldn't talk, and everyone was talking about how they didn't believe the character would respond a certain way because it didn't match a reaction to a past event. I wanted to tell them that they just didn't read it right, but then I realized that I actually hadn't written it right. Now I know - if you have to answer too many questions, you are leaving too much to be asked.

  9. Once I'm in revision mode, I'm honestly really happy to get criticism. I've been a journalist and an editor for years so I've been on both sides of the fence, and I'm not only used to taking edits, but I'm totally convinced that *everybody* needs an editor. So I practically beg my critique partners for more criticism. I need to know, and I want to know, where the weak areas are so that I can fix them.

    That said, there is a point in the process where I can't handle negative feedback at all: while I'm still engaged in the first process of creation. One time I was working on a story and my husband came through the room, and I read him a stretch of dialogue that I'd just written and thought was hilarious. "I don't know," he said, "it sounds kind of wooden and trite." And I was just crushed! I was in tears, and it destroyed my ability to work on that story--I couldn't come back to it for months.

    For me, the creative state of mind is fragile and needs pure encouragement, whereas the editing & revising state is a totally different way of thinking and feeling about a work. I think a lot of writers find it hard to take criticism because they're still in the creative mode rather than the much more detached and analytical revision mode.

  10. Jen, you know me. (A little too well I think.) I started out in the "thin" skinned group and eventually, with much help, in the "thick" skinned group. I love it when I get lots of feedback on my MS. It makes me see where I can improve, because as its been said, no one is perfect. Thanks for all you do.

  11. Jenn,
    I've been lucky enough to have you as a critter, so I can vouch for your effective sandwish technique. But as I"m sure I've told you, I crave honest feedback. Whenever someoen tells me something nice, I fear thay are avoiding saying "It's awful, give up." Reverse paranoia, maybe?! But betas are a vital, crucial, wonderful tool and, as I always tell (beg?!) them, please be honest, even if it means being harsh.
    Great topic!

  12. I want a thorough, detailed critique. I don't want my beta readers' opinions to be soft-pedaled in any way -- other than not being mean, of course.

    I want my editors to edit me and I want it to be ruthless. I want my beta readers to tell me what isn't working for them. I don't want it soft-pedaled or worst of all, omitted. I absolutely MUST know what isn't working. If I'm not getting that from my beta readers, they are doing me a major disservice.

    I'm a big girl, and I can figue out when someone is pointing to an issue I need to solve and when someone just didn't get it or reacted as I hoped. A critique is about the writing, not about me.

    I can't improve as a writer without that honest reaction, and if I end up with pages and pages about what didn't work, then so be it. Bring it on.

  13. It's important to develop a thick skin. But it's also important to develop a good filter. Lots of criticism has more to do with the critic than the work being criticized. If you don't know your beta reader well--especially if it's an online critique--it's important to ask yourself if this really helps YOUR vision of YOUR novel. Many readers want to turn all books into their favorite genre, or make them all about themselves. If it doesn't resonate, and no one else has made such a comment, ignore it.

  14. Annerallen, you make an excellent point. Sometimes beta readers are wrong. That's why more than one helps. Ultimately, the decision rests with you, the writer.

    Thanks, Kristi, for the good luck wishes. :)

  15. I try to have a thick skin, but the truth is criticism hurts no matter how well-meaning. With that said, I would much rather someone point out the problems in my writing and teach me than be allowed to believe I'm a brilliant writer but undergo no personal growth.

  16. My problem is either people don't finish it (or say they haven't) or just tell me it's good. I'd kill (not literally) to find a good beta reader, but thus far...no luck.

    I would prefer to have people be honest with me, although the medicine goes down better if there are a few kudos mixed in.

  17. I've always thought it's much nicer to hear what's wrong from a beta reader and have a chance to fix it versus piling up rejection after rejection because you can't see what's wrong. And I bet agents prefer to see stuff that's been around the block a few times, so to speak!

  18. Writing is really a giant oxymoron. You bare your soul on the page, giving a part of your innermost being with every word, paragraph and page. You share what normally you would keep hidden from your best friend when you write.

    But when you also write to be read, and there is the paradox that can hurt or help us the most. All these personal things, these deeply held parts of yourself are put down for others to read. You do it ON PURPOSE.

    Beta readers are the first people to see these things, and they can be the best friends you have. I have a wonderful one who tells me when something is great (rarely), and when something stinks like Mike Rowe after an episode of "Dirty Jobs" (often). And that's what she's there for. Better your beta reader telling you something is broken and needs to be fixed than the 132th agent sending you a form rejection letter. I ask you, which can you learn more from?

    Beta readers, if used correctly, can be the single greatest tool a writer can have outside of an imagination. Jennifer has done a fabulous job in this post. Nicely done, girl!

  19. Thanks, Todd. :)

    Elizabeth L, I'm wondering where you've looked for beta readers. Are you hooked into sites like Absolute Write? What genre do you write in?

  20. Learning to critique has been immensely helpful to my writing. Not only am I learning to spot writing issues which can be applied to my own work, but I'm learning to communicate. Just like I don't want to write a story only to have a reader say "I didn't get it" or "I couldn't get through it", I don't want to write a critique which, when an author reads it, doesn't communicate the problems I had in their work.

    Just as valuable - since I am also writing - is learning how (and when) to suggest solutions to those problems (without making assumptions about what the author *intended* for the story). After all, if I might make the same mistake and then identify it, I'd surely be able to fix it, right?

  21. Claire Booth16/2/10 11:59 PM

    I agree wholeheartedly with Shannon. Everybody needs an editor. As a journalist, I've always had them, and plenty have not been of the "sandwich" school. There was just time for the criticism, so even now, any praise is just a treat.

    I would recommend finding different beta readers with different talents or world views. I am lucky enough to have three former colleagues who read my work. One is great at the big picture, and one is great at tone and emotion. And then there is the copy editor. She's an honest-to-goodness, soon-to-be-extinct newspaper copy editor, and there is no one more valuable for any kind of writing. She catches every mistake -- whether it's continuity, grammar, style or just plain bad writing -- she calls me on it. If you can find one (and sadly, there are many laid-off copy editors right now) who will give your work a truly professional read before you submit it, jump at the chance. It will be well worth it.

  22. Jenn, I think i fall in the second group. Definately not the first as i don't like to argue. Thank you for writing this. I always love reading EVERYTHING that you write. Big fan!!!

  23. I'm definitely in the second group - my desire to become a successful, published writer pushes me to listen and learn. I love critting other peoples' work, and I always use the sandwich technique - I've not had any complaints so far. I learn a lot when I'm critiquing - especially about story and character devel. I have two crit partners - one is brilliant at the "big picture" and dialogue, the other is excellent with grammar and consistency. I couldn't ask for better crit partners (and funnily enough they don't sandwich!).

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