I follow a lot of writing blogs, as is to be expected from a person in my position. I regularly find nuggets of wisdom on these blogs, ranging from tips and tricks to make my writing better to book recommendations, support for the writing process, encouragement and hints on how to best present work to agents, and so on. One of the things I come across most often is the idea that every author, everywhere, needs a team of CPs (Crit Partners) or, as they’re sometimes called, ‘Beta Readers’.
Frighteningly enough, I don’t really have these.
Very kind people have offered to read bits of things I’m working on (or, have agreed to read these bits after I’ve asked them to), but nobody has ever read a whole manuscript of mine. Is this a bad thing? Well, I don’t know.
I’ve been thinking about the idea of beta readers over the past few days, and about how such a system would work. Clearly, it’s no good asking someone who is not a writer to be your beta reader, because then the system of favours would only benefit one person – you. A beta reader relationship, like all relationships, needs reciprocity, equality and generosity – so, there’s no point in asking your best friend (who works as a hairdresser/architect/toothbrush inspector) to read your book for you. Well, that is unless you have expertise in the fields of tonsuring, house design or dental hygiene, and can offer your services to your friend in exchange. I’m also wondering about how it works when you write a draft of a book, have your beta reader expend energy and time critiquing it for you, and then redraft your book – do you expect your beta reader to spend more of his or her time on the same book, reading and critiquing this next draft?
I don’t think I could ask anyone to do all this for me. It sounds like a massively time-consuming thing, and I don’t know if it’s altogether fair.
The benefits of having beta readers are clear, however. Having another pair of eyes look over your work can only be a good thing; a second reader can see mistakes, inconsistencies, flubbed phrasing, wrongly placed dialogue tags, and more. If they fall asleep as they read or start skimming through certain sections, it’s a reasonable indication that you’ve wandered off the point a bit too much and your work needs tightening up. They can also tell you what’s good – what works, what grabbed their attention, what brought the tears to their eyes, what made them care. Then, hopefully, you can revisit your work and dial down the boring bits while turning up the volume on the interesting parts. But what happens if you and your beta partner disagree? What if you feel your digression about man-eating Venus flytraps in the middle third of your Great Novel about uranium mining on a distant planet against a backdrop of inter-stellar war is not only beautiful, but necessary, and that your beta reader’s assessment of it as being ‘flabby, pointless and snore-inducing’ is overly harsh?
You might think, then, that engaging the services of several beta readers is the way to go. If they all come back with the same report – ‘kill the man-eating Venus flytraps’ – then perhaps it’s a clear indication that the world is not quite ready for your vision. But what do you do, then, if they don’t agree? What if they all come back with different reports? Perhaps one will love your opening scene – a huge explosion cruelly disfiguring your brave and noble hero – and another will think it’s a clichéd mess. Maybe one reader will adore your conclusion, thinking your decision to have the inter-stellar war end on a note of universal harmony as the spaceships, once mortal enemies, fly off together into the sunset, is a work of genius; another reader may (probably rightfully) hate it. What, in a case like that, can you do?
It can be difficult to take criticism of something you’ve created; I know this. It’s a common failing among anyone who writes, or paints, or spends their time making things. I’m sure it makes it even more difficult when a person whose opinion you trust and who knows their stuff tells you, as gently as they can, that the work you’ve done isn’t very good. Not only that, but they can tell you exactly where you’ve gone wrong, and why. This is immensely helpful, but also immensely hard. I’m sure, too, that there’s nothing a beta reader hates more than having to tell a friend they don’t like something they’ve created. The last thing anyone wants is to cause pain, but that is an inevitability.
So, one must weigh up the benefit of having another (very kind, and very generous) person read their work before they do something crazy with it, like submit it to an agent or a competition. Is it worth the pressure put on your relationship with this other person? Is it worth the suffering? Is it easier to receive criticism from a person you do not know?
In a funny twist of fate, yesterday a friend of mine offered to read some chapters of ‘Tider’ in exchange for my reading of some of her work. I was already planning this blog post when her offer came through, and it made me smile. If I was the kind of person who believed in the numinous nature of all things and the benevolent interconnectedness of the universe, perhaps I could’ve taken it as an indication that I am desperately in need of a beta reader; perhaps I should just take it as an example of good timing, and the kindness of a friend.
So. If you write, do you also beta? Is it a good system? How do you get it to work for you? Let me know. I’m taking notes.