Friday, February 6, 2015

Beta Readers

So, you've written something, and you think, man, this is good stuff. But, how do you really know? You have to show someone, and whoever you show it to can give you feedback, right?

Well, the person or people who read your story after you write it up and before you send it off are called beta readers.

I don't like beta readers. No, scratch that, I didn't realize how careful you have to be about selecting beta readers. I've written other things than "the little novel," and I've found that I need to be particular about who is allowed to see my work before I feel it is ready for general consumption.

Once, a few years ago, I asked a friend who happens to be a professor in a local English department to look over a creative writing story I put together. This story was one of the first times since I had left school that I was trying my hand at writing something. It wasn't particularly good, but it was okay. I knew that, but I wanted someone to give a little constructive criticism. Unbeknownst to me, she really either didn't want to read it or didn't have time, but she didn't want to say so because she felt that would be rude. So, she gave it to a friend of hers.

I knew the friend, but not very well. I didn't have a relationship with the friend other than to speak to her if we ran into each other, and, on one occasion, when I'd gotten stuck in her town, I'd slept on her sofa. So, I was caught completely off guard when the woman saw me one day and started telling me that she really didn't care for my story and thought I should try doing something else. I was blindsided, and I was hurt by both the friend who had agreed to read the story and by the woman who felt she had the right to tell me her unsolicited opinion. It was a hard lesson.

Now I'm more careful:
1. I want to know the person has a real interest in the story. If you don't like the general concept, that's fine. I'm not offended, but never say you are willing to read a story if you really don't want to.
2. I expect the person to have a working knowledge of proper English. I believe it's my job to know grammar and syntax, but it helps to have other people read a story and notice if I'm reading over my mistakes.
3. I explain carefully who I expect them to share or not share my stories with knowing that if the person is married or in a relationship, they might talk to the other person.
4. I am willing to reciprocate. If the person reads for me, I have to be willing to read the kind of writing they write, too. I really don't want to get caught agreeing to read something I hate. I don't think that would be fair.
5. I am absolutely clear who I want the intended audience to be, so even if the person doesn't care for the story itself, he or she can form an informed opinion about whether or not they think the intended audience might like it. (And then I try to find someone from the intended audience to read it.)

On average, I write my stories, then I print and read them, then I rewrite them. I wait for a week or so, then I re-read them and make corrections. Then, I send them off to my beta readers (the aforementioned cousin and a sister). I expect that I will have to do rewrites when each sends me their ideas, opinions, and corrections. I always try to mentally stay open about accepting their thoughts.

I am learning this process, but I figure to be a good writer, you have to be willing to look at what you can improve and be willing to do it. And, it's important to learn to whose advice to seek, so that when you get it, you can use it to make your story even better.

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