Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What We Can Learn From Beta Reads


If you're lucky enough to have critique partners or beta readers, you know how priceless they are in our writing journeys. I've learned so many great lessons from the process, and I'd like to share a few here.

What I've learned from reading my partners' pages:

--They're extremely talented, and each time I read their work, I learn more about pacing, flow, language, and character. *waves to Lisa and Leslie*

--We all improve with each manuscript we write. The evidence is clear--the more we write, the better we become. The verdict? Keep writing!

--For me, it's easier to read a novel as a whole, instead of batches of 10-15 pages or so. I remain immersed in the story world, and feel I can offer better critiques.

--If I think it, I should say it. If I think a paragraph or word choice is brilliant, I need to let the writer know. If a section confused me, I need to say that, too. I used to remain quiet, afraid my thoughts would seem ridiculous, but now I know better. We are experienced readers, and if something jumps out at us, whether it's a compliment or a constructive comment, we need to let our partners know.

What I've learned from my partners' critiques:

--Again, they're brilliant. They catch the best stuff! Even if I've combed through the manuscript ten times, I still miss lots of things--big and small. Which brings me to my next point...

--My partners' time is valuable. I won't send them my work until I've read through it multiple times and addressed anything that caught my eye. Once I think the manuscript is clean but crappy, and I should delete the whole file, that's when I send it to my beta readers.

--Marinate on their comments. Once I receive my document back, I read through all the comments. But I don't start working right away. I gush my thanks to my partners, and then I think about their comments for several days. By the time I come back to it, the critique is much clearer and I'm ready to work out the kinks.

--Value every comment. If it caught my reader's eye, then something needs fixing. I address each point with care, and appreciate the thought that went into it.

--Can't think of an easy solution to a story problem? Don't rush it. I keep a list of points I haven't easily addressed. I'll stew over solutions for as long as it takes. No sense leaping into a solution that won't work well.

--Ask for help. I know that if I can't come up with a solution, my partners are willing and able to help me brainstorm. All I have to do is ask. And if their critiques include a possible solution to a story problem? I'm not too proud to use it!

Criticism is tough to take, and in most cases, tough to hand out--even if it's constructive. As a collective unit, we are all trying to improve, and beta reads help us do just that.

How does your critique group or beta read partnership work? If  you have helpful tips for the rest of us, please share in the comments.

Need a reading partner? Mention that in the comments, as well as what genre you write. Maybe some of you can pair up. Plus, I've heard of people meeting in the WriteOnCon and Query Tracker forums.

41 comments:

  1. What a great writeup of the process, Julie! Particularly, I agree with your last thought on "reading"; if your gut/reader-eye feels or sees something, say it. Most important thing in my opinion. People don't (or shouldn't) ask you to read so you can keep your thoughts to yourself.

    I actually treat beta reading like a brainstorm session. I just let my mind jump to things. Sometimes I'm right and sometimes I'm wrong. But I always try to let the writer know exactly what I was thinking. As you said, sometimes it's as simple as an exceptional and awesome word choice, and sometimes it's as complex as, "I think this is what the story is really about and the rest of it should be built around it."

    I'm so not a mean critter, but I definitely say what's on my mind. And I try to approach it as a reader first, writer second. In that way, I'm probably not the best beta for someone struggling with tons of mechanical stuff, but I'm pretty good with the big picture things like theme, pacing, etc.

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    1. EJ, I think I struggle most with my big picture things, so I think it's awesome that that's where you shine with critiques. Heck, it's such a great help to get ANY feedback at all!

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  2. Great tips, Julie! I especially love, "If I think it, I should say it. If I think a paragraph or word choice is brilliant, I need to let the writer know." I really appreciate when someone tells me what IS working as well as what isn't.

    One tip I would add is: If you think what you have to say is subjective, let the writer know. I always say, "This is my personal preference, but you should really ask someone else, too."

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    1. Linda, that's such a great point. It really is all subjective, isn't it? It's nice that we get the best of both worlds...the opinions of valued readers AND the freedom to make our own story choices. Thanks for the input!

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  3. Man, what a great post! I agree that Beta Readers and Crit partners are SUPER valuable!
    I am just barely starting the process of trying to finish my book and get published, but I have many supportive friends that have helped me already.
    When I finished my manuscript, I thought I was actually finished. Until I realized everything that goes into writing a novel. Thats was just the first draft. Now with the help of some AMAZING beta readers, I am revising it again (and again) to make it so much better. They caught things that I cant really believe I let slip by!

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    1. Oh, I totally know the "I can't believe I missed that" feeling! Thank goodness we get to improve with each draft. Otherwise? *shudder*

      And I also love that cartoon. Debbie Ohi has a great way of capturing how we all feel.

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  4. Also- I love the cartoon at the top! :)

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  5. Excellent list of what we should all learn from our critique partners. I have one who is excellent at helping me brainstorm and contributed a major plot point to my next book.
    I've also learned that most of the time, they're right!

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    1. My partners are mostly right, too! Thank goodness we're not expected to be perfect the first time out. Ick.

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  6. Criticism can be tough to take but I more look forward to how I can make my work better so my attitude has definitely changed. I love my betas!

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    1. Laura, criticism is hard to take, no doubt. Letting the comments marinate really helps me with that. Distance gives me lots of perspective.

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  7. If you think you can improve your writing without having an honest critique and listening to it, then you're wrong. Great post.

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    1. I totally agree, Clarissa! I'm amazed at how much better the manuscripts become after each new set of eyes check it out.

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  8. This is a great post. I've experienced the same things with my CPs. I love how we're able to give and take advice/opinions, knowing we only want what's best for each other.

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    1. Exactly! It's not a selfish thing at all...it's each of us working hard to push each other forward.

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  9. Betas are priceless. I'm stil a beginner in this area, but am fortunate to have two cps I trust with my drafts and ideas. Without them to brainstorm with, I'd be lost! If I ever finish my next novel, I'll be on the lookout for more beta readers! christy

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    1. Christy, it's wonderful to brainstorm with your Cps! Amazing what how stories can twist and turn that way.

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  10. Hi, Julie. I have never used betas before until now. I have heard back from one and look forward to hearing more feedback from the others. Thanks for giving me some pointers as I prepare to use what they offer and power forward to a completed second novel.
    I hope you and yours are well.

    -Jimmy

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    1. Jimmy, I'm sure you and your reading partners will benefit each other big time! Good luck with novel #2.

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  11. I agree with a capital A here. I'm the luckiest girl in the world to have you as a cp, Julie. What is totally golden for me about you and Lisa as CP's is that the three of us are so completely different in style among other things. I know I'm getting unique POVs on my work from you two and your loving, yet truthful eyes. I also prefer reading an entire MS and really diving into the world of the story.

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    1. "Loving, yet truthful eyes." So true, Leslie! And I agree about our different styles. It helps so much.

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  12. Great post.

    Sometimes we are just too close to the story to see mistakes, typos, or plot turns. I always learn from my critique partners.

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    1. Too close is right! Holy cow, it's amazing what we can miss, huh? Even after reading it a bazillion times.

      I'm sure your critique partners learn so much from you, too!

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  13. Excellent process! I always learn something from everyone. Sometimes they don't know "why" they don't like something. But it puts a big flag up. And then I can figure it out. Everyone's opinion has value!

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    1. Absolutely! Red flags are red flags. We have the power to change or keep what we want, but it's great to know what stands out to our trusted readers.

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  14. My beta readers are invaluable to me. I know I can rely on them to catch anything I may have missed, to let me know if something's not working, to add where needed. I, too, am a better critiquer when I read all the way through something in as few settings as possible then to do so many pages at a time.

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    1. "Few settings as possible"...I totally agree! It doesn't serve my partners well if I take long breaks in between. I like to save the manuscript for when I know I can power through it. Thanks, Traci!

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  15. Having your work read and critiqued by others is always so interesting. Each person has a different take on what you've set down. Often I'll read through the comments and find agreement among the group, but other times I'll get opposite suggestions. Some readers are detailed, others global. Whatever they come up with, I attend to it in some way. Even if I don't make the changes they suggest, those suggestions influence how I do my revisions. I agree that a good critique group is invaluable.

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    1. The conflicting opinions are tough! Do you just go with your gut then? That's what I tend to do.

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  16. I love that you acknowledge the value in your readers time. I agree. I won't send anything I just wrote and haven't gone over MANY times. And waiting before doing anything with comments is brilliant. We need to let those hackles settle and digest the comments. Reacting before your head is clear wastes everyone's time. Great post, Julie!

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    1. Thanks, Michele. Once the comments have settled, I almost always realize that my readers' comments were totally on target.

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  17. Great points about critters, Julie! I agree with all your points here--especially the one about not being afraid to speak up! Just be kind--that would be my #1 addition. Writing's hard work, so I always try to pad my critiques w/plenty of compliments! :o) <3 ((hugs))

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    1. "Be kind." Yes! Excellent point. Comments bathed in kindness are much easier to take. Thanks for the addition SOON TO BE PUBLISHED AUTHOR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  18. Hi, Julie! Enjoyed the post. Great tips.

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  19. Thanks for the awesome post, Julie. Just yesterday my critique partner pointed out a pathetic plot hole - yikes. She is my saving grace when it comes to writing.

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    1. Ain't that the truth! So glad your CP caught the plot hole. And remember, I'm sure you've caught some doozies of hers, too! We all do it :/

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  20. Yes CPs are so critically important!! I learn so much from critting others as well as their crits back. And I agree about the whole book at a time, but I think you need to reserve one partner to look at one chapter at at time, because they catch different things.

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    1. Oooh, excellent point about the chapter by chapter critique. I never thought of that!

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  21. I'd love to have beta readers. I write Christian Fiction/Romance/Suspense/Historical Fiction or any combination of those.

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