I think the worst part about writing is taking other people’s advice, and not because of pain or ego. The hardest part is the uncertainty, and when advice just adds to that uncertainty. Recently, I gave the first few chapters of a manuscript out to over twenty people, and each of what I got back had complete inconsistency with the others. It was up to me to find the common denominator, the subtle cohesion, and to really question my preexisting notions; I had to be the objective judge in something I was the least objective about.
Looking impartially at beta-reader’s opinions is difficult, especially when someone has been competitive or close-minded. To take advice you don’t understand can often make the story worse, even if the advice, in its original form, was good. If it wasn’t, then heaven help you.
I’ve found that by coming to terms with a certain few misconceptions I had, the process got a whole lot easier.
Misconception 1: It’s horrible to leave a critique without taking any advice.
It feels like a waste of time. You went in there, exposed yourself to possible ridicule, surrendering your power to others, and then left with nothing. Why go at all? Why subjugate yourself to that? And more to the point, you start questioning, “Do I not take criticism very well? Is it just an issue of me being unwilling to see that they are right?”
But it doesn’t matter. The reasons it doesn’t matter are vast and complex, but there are a couple of simple ones that benefit the author who waits before he randomly tries to fix something.
First, it sometimes takes a while to digest. This is true for me, and this has been true for many of my more stubborn students. No one can just recognize the truth instantly, so people will either immediately accept it until proven wrong, or reject it until proven right. Both tactics have their benefits and both have their consequences, so there’s nothing wrong with giving the advice a little time to sink in, especially when you’ve been given a hell of a lot of it in one sitting. I rarely know for sure what I think about something until at least three days later, when I’ll be sitting there and suddenly, bam, epiphany; I get what they’re saying, and I get how to fix it. Sometimes it’ll be months before I fully understand.
The other part is that most criticism tries to make the author normal, typical, and abide by the rules. This isn’t always a bad thing, but because it is so much harder to go from being normal to weird than from being weird to normal, and because so many people will balk at anything unusual without taking context into consideration, the author wants to error on taking risks and being noticeable. He will constantly be pulled back by everyone for just doing so. So, when he isn’t sure if he should use the expected word or the “creative” one, he won’t have a hard time finding people cautious about it. No matter the context, many readers err on the side of playing it safe. In reality, the criticism often isn’t as big of a deal as it seems, and leaving it isn’t going to destroy the story, and may not even change anything at all. Sometimes the reader’s problem will be solved vicariously by some other fix.
Lastly, sometimes it takes a lot of information put together to see what the real problem is. In the case of the chapters I gave out, a lot of the suggestions were simplified, blanket-solutions told in extremes that I had no reason or desire to take in that form. (“Simplify everything.”) The first person I got to review it said it was confusing, and I attempted to fix it. The next person said something along the lines of, “You need to describe everything a whole lot more,” the next person said to simplify my language, and the person after that said I needed to set up the world. Another person told me to use the character’s names every time, not physical labels. In context, none of these made sense on their own, (also keep in mind that these were tiny detailed advice scrunched in a pile of different suggestions) but when I looked at the big picture, I realized what they were all getting at. I agreed with them about the problem, but used their solutions gingerly. Simplified this sentence, added a descriptor here, used his name more often there. Had I just done what they had asked in the way they’d said it, the problem wouldn’t have been solved—what people were confused about was varied—and I would have sucked the creativity from the writing—which was not something I was interested in doing. Often times advice by itself isn’t useful, but when it’s tied in with other advice, it creates a bigger picture.
Misconception 2. It’s important not to argue with them about every little detail.
The mistake here is to treat your beta-readers like you would the editor at a publishing house. They’re not, and it’s a good time to get what you need before you can’t. It helps the author to really find answers he wants, which requires skepticism and extraneous discussion. Beta-readers grant him the option of not needing uncertain faith. It doesn’t really matter what they think of you, and it doesn’t really matter what they think you think of them. It’s really the only time to discuss why they find that word so awkward instead of just hoping they’re right and making the change.
The author should never talk in a way that makes the reader shut down. Yes, it’s the writer’s job to make the reader want to help him. That being said, it is also the perfect place to really analyze why you did what you did, bounce it off of another person, and come up with creative solutions that aren’t just what the beta-reader said. When an editor at a publishing house says something that seems inane, it’s the perfect time to demonstrate your faith in them. If it’s kind of a wash out no matter the choice, go with them. It’s better for your relationship, and being that they have a personal investment in the quality (probably), a higher experience level, giving them blind faith isn’t stupid. But when you have the feeling of, “Why do you care about this?” with a beta-reader, it’s the best place to actually ask.
If you’re going to argue with them, be upfront about it in the beginning. When I need to brainstorm, I often get my friends involved to discuss ideas. The problem is I usually need them because it’s going to be a hard answer to find, so most of their solutions are going to be rejected. I’ve found that as long as I tell them that, they are more likely to keep working with me and not get discourage.
Nuance is far more complicated than most critics will make it, and the time to figure out how nuance works is not with someone who you need to keep a good professional relationship with. Your readers, while valuable, on the only real interval for you to discuss those seemingly tiny details with in length.
Misconception 3. They have the typical perception on reality.
Here’s the question: How many people have to react a certain way for it to be the reaction the author’s concerned with? If fifty percent of the people hate a character, and fifty percent of the people love it, should the author change that character? How about if the first fifty weren’t in your target audience? Does that mean it’s bad? What if they were influenced by an especially bad review on the internet, not really developing the opinion for themselves? Does that mean the author should alter his methods?
Someone’s not going to like a choice you made. Someone’s going to interpret something differently than the author. Someone is going to not want to feel the way you made them feel. The question is, how many have to feel in how similar of ways for that to be important.
So here’s what happens: Author uses a word. Let’s say, “heave.” Reader interprets word differently. Author meant, “breathing heavily,” reader read, “trying to vomit.” Reader says, “It’s awkward,” implies, “You have to change it.” Author then questions whose perception is right. Other author says, “Why wouldn’t you just change it?”
The more you get critiqued, the more it happens. The author realizes that her perception of reality—what a word means, the image a phrase implies—and her reader’s perception is different. And no matter how many times she tries to change it, even altering it completely, there will be some reader who does not understand it the same way. “Fixing” everything that a reader has a problem with would often mean a lot of inane work, often times making it worse as she goes. So she has to, and should be, careful, about whose perception is determines is “normal.” We assume that beta-readers are normal people, but really, they may be the oddball out, and you may be the normal one. Just because one reader doesn’t understand a reference doesn’t mean the majority won’t, and it’s important to determine how many people constitutes “typical,” and then try to figure out which opinion falls into that category.
Misconception 4. The author shouldn’t explain anything because he can’t do that for his readers.
Again, this ties into treating beta-readers as what they’re not. Beta-readers aren’t just readers, they’re critiquers, and they should be used to their full potential.
Authors need to be careful when explaining what they meant to do because readers can be convinced, confusing them as to how they really feel. They also can use your words against you, trying to prove themselves right by any means, thus diluting the true reason why something should be changed.
I think there should be a time in which the reader gets out most of his opinion before being influenced, but doing that, he’s making assumptions about what he thinks you’re trying to do, and so poses his suggestions accordingly. By knowing what you actually wanted, he can better come to an understanding about solutions, and even the problems. At first he was giving suggestions how to make a character more likable. When he realizes you didn’t want him to be likable, he can give suggestions on how to make it more evident he wasn’t supposed to be likable, for example, and consider why he didn’t think he was supposed to think the character was likable in the first place. If advice was always clear about where the reader was coming from and why he was saying what he was, and what he was saying, this might not be necessary, but the fact is you don’t always catch the assumptions the reader is making. Sometimes you need to show him the target before either of you realizes he was aiming you somewhere else.
Misconception 5. Beta-readers have the author in the palm of their hands.
The author is boss. As boss, he is responsible for the employee’s morale, but he is also responsible for the project, for making the decision best for the project, and gets to dictate how the process goes.
Many writers go through a stage where they supersede their needs and opinions because the person is doing them a favor. This can be in critiques or even real life jobs. The beta-reader is doing a favor, and of course needs to be treated so. It helps no one to treat him like an idiot. But that doesn’t mean the writer doesn’t know what’s best for his process, and if the author can sit down and develop a system to get himself to listen, to protect himself from feeling hurt, everyone benefits.
Because writers are notorious for lacking self-control, many places are set up to protect the beta-reader. But, in the same way you’re not in high school anymore (even if you are), you don’t have to deal with mechanically-created situations or bureaucracies developed to protect everyone. You get the option to say, “This is how it’s going to work,” and as long as you are considering your “employees” in the process, it’s not wrong of you. Sure, it’s better to make your own place over trying to overhaul another (some people might like the way it’s set up.) But remember you don’t have to put up with anything. Take charge, take responsibility, and create the environment that best benefits you. As long as you’re not being contradictory or selfish about it, many of your beta-readers won’t have a problem with it. People interpret being nice and palatable as being unprofessional and inefficient, but I guarantee that when readers say what they want in a way the author is willing to listen, everyone is better off.