Author’s Note: Love Your Beta-Reader

When I sat down to write this column for this month, I thought to myself, “I’m going to write about beta-readers, editors, and reviewers!” That just goes to show you how I’m still learning. Talk about biting off more than I could chew! The thing is, I always think of editors and beta-readers as being very similar beasts, but they aren’t. Or at least, they aren’t for me. Even my thought processes and how I treat those positions are different. For a long time, I was quite entitled when dealing with beta-readers. I had the attitude that they should be glad to work with me, that I got to fire them if we didn’t get along or if I felt they weren’t doing a good enough job. When dealing with editors on the other hand, you have to play nice or you get a bad reputation. Typically, your publisher decides on your editor, not you. In many cases, your editor has the power to decide if your publisher is going to pick up your next book, and sometimes has the power to overrule something you’ve decided.

When I started breaking down the differences between editor and beta-reader, I realized I couldn’t cover both in a single column. Add in reviewers and commenters — good God, that’s a whole ‘nother column, too! Writing is a process, and each time I pick up a new form of writing there’s a learning curve. I’m definitely learning about this whole column-thing. But you know what helps? Beta-readers and editors! So this month, I’ll talk about beta-readers in fandom. Next month, we’ll tackle editors!

As I said earlier, I was sadly entitled when dealing with beta-readers. I was a Big Name Fan (BNF) in various fandoms at various times, and it went to my head. When I advertised for beta-readers, I always got three to seven responses, even people pleading to be allowed to beta-read. (Now that I’ve realized my entitlement, I’m rapidly knocking it out of myself.)

A beta-reader can be anything from someone who encourages an author, to someone who nit picks the awkward sentences, corrects the grammar, checks details, etc. I generally want the latter. Mind you, these were the same people who sent me stomping around the room fuming at the injustice of the world, ranting to anyone who’d listen about how unfair and mean they were.

I learned some really important things from beta-readers in between all my stomping, though. The first, and possibly the most important, thing I learned was that your beta-reader is almost always right.

“No!” I hear you cry. “That can’t be true!” In my experience, 99% of the time it was. I remember the times when I would overrule my beta-reader, leave a line or paragraph or detail as it was. When I came back to my story months later, I’d stumble over whatever it was and think, “Why didn’t I change that?” Then I’d remember that, oh yeah, my beta-reader had said to… and I’d vetoed it. The thing was, I knew what it was I was trying to convey. My beta-reader had no knowledge except what I wrote down, so if they thought something was unclear, well, it was probably unclear. If I’d gotten some beta-readers specifically who knew the canon better than I did, then it was in my best interest to trust them. Invariably, I’d come back later with a better understanding of canon and realize I should have listened. The other thing was that even if I disagreed, if I changed it to be clearer, it didn’t ruin the story. Not changing it might very well put a snag in reading, but changing it was seamless: I never even noticed, later.

The other important thing I learned is how well I take (or don’t take) criticism. I learned not to respond to a beta-reader right away. I learned to go through and read the comments, then go through and read just the good comments before I felt like a failure. Then, when I’d buckle down to changing things, I could do only a few pages at a time before I had to stop. (My favorite beta-readers were note-intensive.) I’d realize I was starting to argue over all my beta-reader’s points just because I was tired of reading what I’d gotten wrong; I wanted to say that no, it was all right! I’d have to put it down and come back a few hours later.

One of the harder things to remember, as I became a better writer and a BNF in my chosen fandoms, was that just because these beta-readers had answered an advertisement didn’t mean I could discount them. It was very easy to feel entitled. To think I was wonderful, and they should be glad to work for me. It took editors to bring me some humility again (which I’ll talk about next month), but I’m sure glad they did. A beta-reader is putting in unpaid time and effort to make sure I, as a writer, write the best story possible. They’re picking up on flaws that I might not notice, otherwise. They’re fielding criticisms that would otherwise be left in the comments by pointing those things out to me so I can fix it before it goes online.

Today, the occasional fanfic I write doesn’t go online without first being checked by one, or more, of my favorite beta-readers. When they say “Jump,” I generally say “How high?” Occasionally I might overrule a comment, but I give it a lot of thought first. For the authors out there, beta-readers are a wonder. Get one–or more–and do what they suggest; that’s why you have them.

For the beta-readers out there, my favorite ones were detail intensive. They gave me their reactions to almost every paragraph, good or bad. It might have been a simple, “LOL” or a, “This line is awkward,” but it told me exactly what I was doing right or wrong. Not everyone is looking for that, but it’s a place to start.

There are communities now for writers and beta-readers looking to help each other out, where you can see what someone’s style is (for writing or reading) and whether or not it meshes with your own. (A search under “beta-reader” on Livejournal gave me dozens, for everything from specific fandoms to beta-readers for dyslexic writers.) I strongly suggest making use of them. And authors, remember: your beta-readers are like miniature gods, and should be treated as such!

Jenna McDonald has published five books, and is about to finish her sixth. For more information check out jbmcdonald.com, or her blog at jennabreen.livejournal.com.

Posted on November 24, 2010 at 12:42 by JB McDonald · Permalink
In: Columns · Tagged with: , , ,