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So You Want to Commit Novel: Beta Readers

Originally published July 2010

One of Heinlein’s rules of writing is to never revise except under editorial direction.

Um…I am not a one draft writer.  Never been one, never will be.  My creativity comes in layers over several drafts.  I’m down to 4 or 5 drafts, but I need feedback from at least one other reader in the middle of the process.

Almost every author I know gets too close to their work and needs an outside opinion before submitting.  We know what we meant to say so we can’t see what we really said. Those who don’t use outside critique might want to give it a try.

I work with beta readers or a critique group.  But how do you find the right group of readers for you?  Do you ask for feedback on each chapter as you write it?  Or do you wait to send off a completed manuscript?

Let’s start with critique groups.  Mostly these groups meet on a regular basis, either on line or in person, every week or two.  The important part is the regularity.  In my early years as a writer, my productivity was slower.  For me to write a new chapter every two weeks felt comfortable.  The obligation to take something to the group kept me writing when I didn’t feel like it.  I found four ladies in my Romance Writers of America chapter willing to form a new group on a similar schedule to mine.  I learned a lot about writing and the business of writing from them and made some lasting friendships.  We commiserated together over rejections and celebrated together over our first sales.

We worked together for six or seven years.  At times we added new members.  And we also kicked some out.  Not every person fits every critique group.  Two travel writers trying to break into mysteries didn’t understand my fantasies.  I won’t mention the level of misunderstanding in Science Fiction.  It’s okay for an ongoing group to audition new members.  If you run across someone who can only make their own work look good by belittling yours, they probably are not compatible.  Raw beginners don’t always fit with experienced groups.  In another group later on, I found I was producing ten pages a day rather than the ten pages a week my group wanted to read.  By the time I had feedback on chapter one, I’d passed plot point one in my writing.  Finding the right fit of people who can give honest critiques without attacking the author is important.

When I first started taking my writing seriously, email was still restricted to professors of higher education.  Easy access to the world wide web was only the dream of a few geeks.  Finding an online critique group was not an option.  Many of my professional colleagues and students have found compatible groups online and are quite comfortable with them.  By the time I tried working with distant friends online on a regular schedule, my process fell apart.  I’d grown beyond the obligation of a regular group.

While working on my second book, one of my long time critique group friends gave me a such a bitter critique on the rough draft of a contracted work I almost abandoned the project and my career.  The reassurance of another member that I was indeed on track with the book and had only a first draft, not a finished product kept me going.

I am a better at revisions than drafting.

But it was time to leave the group.  I’d moved beyond the other members.  I could no longer trust all of them.

The friend who reassured me became my beta reader.  No more chapter by chapter analysis.  I sent her complete manuscripts only.

While developing a new project I will now sometimes run early chapters past a reader along with the synopsis.  They may get those same revised chapters back when I finish writing the book.

Over the years I have taken on new readers and let others go their own way.  Reading an unpublished manuscript requires a huge commitment of time and thought.  Beta readers don’t have to be published writers.  Critical and experienced readers can dissect a manuscript with wonderful precision.  Writers who are early in their career can also be marvelously observing because they want to learn from your experience.

The important part of finding and using beta readers is to develop trust.  They need to be honest when they find something that doesn’t sit right.  You need to be receptive to their critique.  Listen, process their concerns, and then apply changes–or not–in your own style.  Remember this is your book not theirs.  You make the final decision on changes.

There is an etiquette to requesting reads for your precious masterwork manuscript.  Always ask, do not demand or assume they have the time to do you this favor.  Listen politely to their opinions, even if you don’t agree.  If you ask someone to read for you, expect critique and accept it graciously.  Your mother, spouse, and best friend will probably gush and enthuse over your work because of their relationship to you.  Going with an outside reader is supposed to be for the truth, not simply what you want to hear.

Be willing to accept no for an answer.  I have a cadre I share reads with because not everyone is available on my schedule.

Requesting someone read for you carries return obligations to read for them if they too write.  For non writers I make sure I buy their lunch when they return a marked up manuscript, mention their names in the acknowledgements, and give them an autographed copy of the book when it is published.

After all, I wouldn’t be anywhere near as accomplished a writer as I am without them.



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