Tiers of Beta-Readers
You can’t judge a reader by their age. Or their clothes, or attitude, or they way they roll their Rs. As much as you'd like to.
Finding beta-readers, critique partners, or editors is a difficult task, even if you are willing to pay. Many people don’t read, many people don’t want to invest their emotions into a work in progress. Even if you do find someone who is willing to put in the effort, they might not be very good at it. Just because someone is a Grammar Nazi doesn’t necessarily mean they know grammar very well. And it’s possible that you’ll find someone who is willing to do the work, good at what they do, but not work well with you specifically. It could be because of clashing personalities, a poor give and take, or even just a lack of respect on either or both’s part.
Over the years I’ve found a good number of people to read my work, and I’ve done so by being open-minded. I discuss it with friends and family, go to writers’ groups, go online, talk to coworkers, and even complete strangers. Anyone who is interested is accepted initially, whether or not I believe they’re in my audience, they’re actually going to read it, if they’re going to be too nice or give me zero credit, they know what they’re talking about, or any other speculation against their ability.
The best readers come from surprising places.
Now part of the problem with this strategy is I also have to deal with a lot of excess garbage. I’m not going to go into details, but having someone with a personal agenda or someone who is not in your audience or even someone who is just incredibly inexperienced but thinks they have all the answers can mislead you, taint your feelings on your work, send you off onto wild goose chases, or even make you fixate on something little while missing the bigger issues. You have to be very savvy of your own writing to not get a little screwed up by bad advice.
But what I’ve come to find is that many readers have their own skillsets and even ones who give poor advice in some areas are excellent in others. As the writer, I consider it my job to analyze their qualities and figure out how I can help them work best for me.
Because of this, I give my prime beta-readers the manuscripts at different times. Of course, officially a “beta-reader” is a reader close to when the book is published/submitted, to give some reactions to what is hopefully what the book will actually end up being. But when I say reader, I am referring to anyone who is just reading my manuscript and giving me their reactions. Each one proves effective at different stages.
She is the only one who might receive a first draft or even an unfinished story. She is someone I trust and respect completely. She likes my writing, is in my target audience, and respects my abilities. At the same time, she is great at giving me a reaction to bigger picture issues, and a general idea of how a reader will take my work. She makes a good balance of praise and suggestions, does not nitpick or line edit, and I almost always agree with what she has to say. I never get a manuscript back without some direction I can take it.
I usually don’t give out first drafts because anything people will say I typically could have found for myself. In fact, I often keep it to myself until three or four. The First Reader is an exception when I am struggling to make a decision. Which way do I take this book? Should I cut this character? How should I end it? Because she is a great brainstorming partner, it also helps for her to know what is already written to help me make those big choices.
And while her criticism is genuine and open-minded, which is great in the early stages of a book so as to not taint creativity or get discouraged, she is not as useful later on. She doesn’t push me further, ask the hard questions, or try to pull apart the fabric of my world. While I hate too much focus on copyediting in the beginning, later on it becomes imperative.
These are my avid readers, yet generally not people who are active writers or overly experienced in the field. These too are people who are more open-minded and will not make comments like, “I was told you weren’t supposed to have prologues.” They don’t ban words, line edit, show off or try to enforce something that a writing teacher has told them. For some, I am not as close with as my First Reader, and so they don’t always know where I’m coming from and are more likely to be fresh eyed and objective. They are still respectful, non-competitive, and in my target audience, but they are willing to speak their minds. They don’t give a lot of praise, but are more down to business.
I usually turn to them at around draft three or four, around the time when I’ve made the changes in the manuscript that I could and now need another pair of eyes to point out things I’ve missed.
However, while they don’t have their fallback and blanket advice like people more experienced, they often don’t know how to accurately explain their thoughts and especially can’t tell you how to solve it. Most times I end up writing down what they have to say and using their advice to compare to some of the more hostile criticism I may have a problem swallowing.
Now that I’ve gotten some general reactions, it starts getting down to the specifics of it. Here I look for fellow writers who I can trust. Still respect is very important.
Having gotten some feedback from my second readers, I then make some of their changes before giving it out to people who have more opinions and experience on the actual writing process. Now on the fourth to sixth draft, the book is starting to shape up to what it’s going to end up looking like. It is still not quite there yet, and it is this stage in which I start examining the tightness and professionalism. Up until that point, I am focusing on creativity and taking risks. Now, at this stage, I’ve likely either started to achieve an emotional and intellectual rhythm and effect, or I am incapable of figuring out how to get there on my own.
Bear in mind some of my Second Readers, though few, are actually writers. The main difference between the Second Readers and the Critique Partners is the first sits back and reacts to the book, enabling me to try and create the story that I truly envision without judgment, pushing the original and daring aspects. The second picks it apart and analyzes it, helping me to determine if it really works, why or why not.
The critique group is superior at needling out the real issues, catching common yet subtle errors, having solutions and generally discussing the mechanics of the book rather than just the story. They are better equipped for giving specific directions and predicting reactions. They know what you’re going through, what you’re working with, and are more likely to catch and call you out on lazy writing.
They help to make the story more effective, satisfying, and respectable.
The problem is, they tend to be more closed-minded. They have their ways of doing things, they have their beliefs, and it is hard for many (myself included) to not continually turn to blanket solutions or allow our pet peeves to blind us to whether or not something actually worked. A good portion of them (though not all) tend to ban things like adverbs, semicolons, passive-sentences, and prologues. Sometimes, they can be very right about what they’re saying, and this can push you into admitting that your prologue really didn’t work, or you do overuse ‘decrepit.’ But other times, they might be just trying to prove you wrong, how smart they are, find easy and obvious criticism, or simply are stuck in their ways. You might find people trying to write for you, their problem being, “That’s not how I would say it.”
I give my manuscripts out to these sorts of people because their advice can be invaluable, they can force you to admit poor habits, lazy writing, ego, or an amateurish style. But they can also drain you of your color and voice. By doing several edits myself and having several responses from more open-minded people, it is easier to examine what I’ve already been told, compare it to what I’m being told now, and see what criticism is based more on what I’m doing and not on what predetermined rules I’m breaking. It also makes the opinions of the less knowledgeable more useful because those with better experience can help explain to you what they might have meant.
The Third Readers are a wide variety of both experts and laymen, but what they have in common is they don’t respect me.
Now I would never go out and deliberately get advice from someone who thinks I’m an idiot, but I will often go out and get advice from people who don’t have the same amount of faith and respect that I do them.
Some of these third readers are writers I personally know and admire, not ones I see as peers. It also may be agents or editors at writers’ conferences, or a teacher.
Sometimes, it will be friends or family who I know don’t give me any credit. It’s never someone who believes I’m completely incompetent, but I will give it to people who I know have completely humanized me and think very highly of themselves.
In the case of the people I admire, the reasoning is obvious. I waited until I’d gone through several drafts and gotten it pretty much where I wanted it to be before getting opinions I very much cared about—partially because being torn to shreds by them would be horrendous, partially because the best advice comes from the best work you can give them.
As for those who tend to be critical and sort of want me to fail, I am exposed to how someone who isn’t giving me credit will respond and either find something to do about it, or at least just prepare myself for future criticism.
I find it’s important to not be exposed to too much negativity and judgment early on. By understanding my work, what I’m trying to do, what I have done, and how many people have received it, I’m better armed to take disrespectful criticism and use it to the best of my ability. I am less likely to be scared out of bold choices and I am also less likely to be hurt by extremely honest ones because it isn’t such a surprise.
Over this process, you will have found people who said things you don’t want to hear. Then you’ll be in that awful place in which you aren’t sure if your gut is telling you they’re wrong, or if you just don’t want to agree with what they’re saying. Or sometimes it has nothing to do with whether or not you disagree, you just don’t understand it. Why do they care about this? Are they just trying to make me write like them? Are they rule following? What will this change do? What is the problem they are trying to solve? I don’t see the problem they insist is there. I don’t think that a book has to be the way they say that it does.
For various reasons, you can’t always return to the source of the criticism. Maybe they’re unavailable, or maybe they’re the kind of person who takes offense when you ask questions. Maybe you just hate them and don’t want to talk to them again.
My Formula Checkers are people I turn to in order to help me understand other people’s criticism.
My primary option is my mother.
She is not into speculative fiction or the sorts of things I write at all. She also tends to be critical of me, thinks I lie a lot (she is mistaking me for a five-year-old me), and often sides with whatever alternate party I’m in conflict with. (“Well, he has a point…”)
But she loves me and cares deeply for me. This makes her the perfect Formula Checker. I know she isn’t trying to screw me over or be better than me. So when she tries her hardest to come up with reasons why someone might say something, why someone might be right, when she arrives on an answer, I know she really believes it. She would not tell me to make a change simply to prove the stranger right. Plus, she is empathetic and very good at understanding other people’s minds.
If she can’t come up with any interpretation of what they might mean or writes them off as jerk who’s just trying to insult me, then I have pretty good reason to believe that is exactly what is happening.
My disrespectful readers are often good Formula Checkers for each other because, if we were honest, it’s usually not just me they have a problem with. While most of them will side with another person I’m in conflict with, desiring very much to prove me wrong, all of that changes once what someone else says disagrees with them. They tend to find every argument they can to prove themselves right, so as long as I change the enemy, I can hear both sides of the debate without having to make any argument myself.
But also, they try extremely hard to prove me incompetent, and by the end of talking to them, I’ve usually understood every argument there is to be had for a change.
It should be mentioned that when I find a reader’s arguments too flaky and malleable, I will stop asking them to read my manuscript all together. Someone who doesn’t think highly of you can have good opinions as long as they are really their opinions. Once they start lying most of what they have to say becomes useless.
But this is also a stage for my most trusted and respected readers, my favorite readers. Hearing it said again from a sympathetic mouth can make all of the difference. They don’t necessarily have to read the manuscript, or the new version of it, but act as more of a sounding board about the criticism alone.
After this point it depends on how the manuscript feels. The stages are actually very flexible, and obviously I don’t go through every group for every project. In some cases, if I feel a story is really strong early on, I’ll give it out to all my willing readers at once. Other times, if I have gone through the entire process and there’s still some things I’m missing, I’ll usually go to my favorite readers and have more of a discussion, or ask readers who didn’t end up delivering if they would like to have an updated version and try again.
By the time I reach Beta-Reader stage, it means I’m very happy with what I have and I am ready to send it out. I give it to a few people—offering it to any of my favorite readers if they would like to read the updated version—to make sure they catch anything that was missed.
This copy is formatted as it would be for the specific project is being submitted to, such as, in play and film scripts, having character tags on the same page as a line of dialogue. Many times I’ll include a query letter, if applicable.
I give these readers a strict deadline.
You might find it strange that I have a copy editor after the beta-readers, which is not common practice. It’s not rare for me to do them at the same time, or the betas last, but I prefer it this way because of any line edits or plot holes or sudden changes in the manuscript tend to add errors, while the edits a copyeditor delivers are more cut and dry.
It would/will be different if I ever choose the self-publishing route, perhaps, but I clean up my works for contests, fellowships, grants, journals, directors, and agents, all of which will either see another editor, or the actual words will never be viewed by the public. Beta-readers, for publishers, are intended to catch issues that copy editors didn’t, but honestly, I kind of expect mine to make some sort of suggestion that will inspire an outright change.
Sometimes, for certain projects, the copyeditor is only myself in which I sit down and tediously go through word by word. While I fix typos prior to that, I only do it casually as I see them. I ask my readers to point them out, but I explicitly state I don’t want them to focus on them. The most annoying criticism to get is, “I liked it, but there were typos.”
In other cases, it’s both me and another copyeditor going through with a fine-tooth comb.
There are also some readers who ask for no compensation whose skills make them a better copyeditor than a critique partner. They don’t really give out opinions, just point out grammar errors and words they don’t like. At this stage, I might offer it to them (or finally give it to them if they’ve asked), but you have to be careful; just because they’re anal doesn’t actually mean they know what they’re talking about. If you do not know grammar, spelling, and punctuation well yourself, it is important to find someone who you can trust. (I realize how difficult this can be.) But especially for projects on a deadline, they can be great resources.
Which brings me to the original point of this post.
These are people who I don’t know what kind of person they would be, what kind of criticism they would give. I’m not every sure they actually mean it when they say they want to read it. They probably don’t. I’m not sure if they’re in my audience all of the time. Usually, you can have a conversation about it prior, leading up to the request for your material, but it doesn’t always come up, and asking after (“Can I read it?” “Well, what kinds of things do you like?”) can seem rude.
The other factor is I’m not going to wait until you’ve forgotten all about it. If you’re a new beta-reader, I need you, I want you, I must have you, and I’m not going to let you change your mind. Sure, there are some people who have proven ineffective or even harmful for their feedback, but those are anomalies. It is likely that your opinion, no matter how little, will give me a better understanding of my writing and how it is received.
Trial readers will get the manuscript in its current form when requested and will get little instruction on what I’m looking for. I do say things like, “I want thorough but well-spoken criticism,” (As in, say everything you want, but don’t be an asshole.) and, “I’m looking for reaction not rewriting.” I also point out that I’m somewhat sensitive to overly nice criticism—“It was really good, so don’t take this the wrong way…” But for the most part, I check them out to see what they’re good at and what category they’re in.
If you are interested in being a beta-reader or critique partner, I’m always interested in meeting new writers, trading manuscripts, and getting outside opinion. Send me a message at email@example.com.
If you liked this post, want to support, contact, stalk, or argue with me, please consider...
Liking Charley Daveler on Facebook
Following What's Worse than Was