Thursday, February 16, 2012

Beta Reading

Friends Don't Make Good Beta Readers

by Jessica Ralston

I know last week I said I'd be talking about rewrites but this has been on my mind for some time.

A word on having people read your work.

I asked a friend (rookie mistake, damn) to read the very first draft of my novel. I chose her because she reads the genre that I write and we have a lot of "favorite books" in common. I felt that she would be a good sounding board. And, she said she would be completely honest, to the point of telling me exactly what she thought (this is how she is with everything in life). This is how the conversation went:

"Could you read the first draft of my novel and tell me what you think?" I asked. "No rush, I just need some first thoughts."

"Of course. What's it about?"

I proceeded to tell her what the book is about. Then I said, "What I'm looking for is any plot inconsistencies, point of view mix-ups, and character development tips; anything constructive. Be honest."

"I can be honest, totally. I won't hurt your feelings?"


So I sent her the PDF, she started to read it. Every few days she'd say, "I'm loving it, it's really good!" This made me feel really great, and excited for her feedback.

About three weeks after I sent her the PDF, she announced she was finished.

"Great. What'd you think?"

"It's really good! I'm going to read it to my children"

"That's great, thanks! Do you have anything to say about the point of view switches? Any plot holes?"

"Um, nope, not at that I saw. It was great! When are you going to start editing it?"


"That's great that you like it so much, but what about the things I asked you to look for? I mean, one character has a few chapters of their POV, and another character only has a few. That didn't bother you?"

"No, I thought that worked well."

"Wow. It bothered me. I'm going to fix it."

"All right, it's your novel."

Of course now I'm thinking that she thought it was a pile of shit and that she was just being nice and really, really didn't want to hurt my feelings. Which could very well be the case. I'm trying not to think about it like that; it's the last thing I need.

I realize that any feedback is feedback and should be taken into consideration, but I asked for pretty specific things for her to look for. And all I got was "It's good! My children will like it!" While I like to hear that she enjoyed the first draft and that she thinks her children will enjoy it as well, it's not what I need right now. That's not feedback. I need something that I can work off of, something that will help me improve upon what I've written. I don't know if it was because she was incapable of identifying what I'd asked for, or she just didn't care.

I guess my point here is: be very careful about who you choose to critique your writing. Make sure they understand and you understand what you're asking for. Find someone who knows what the hell they're doing: not just reading to read, but reading with a critical eye. I now need to find a good, solid group of readers who are writers, who share the same literary interest that this book is written in, and preferably not a friend.

Lesson learned.

1 comment:

  1. I had a similar problem. Most of my friends who edited, since I learned this early on, was not to take a draft, read it, and hand it back and say one of the following; "Neat." "I liked it." "It was cool." or any other statement that doesn't actually specifically criticize it.

    After a few runs, I realized who was actually hearing and understanding what I wanted. And then I used those friends.

    The rest, I waited till I was done and just handed to them, and they'd give me an ego boost. I'd be more confident they were telling the truth if it got past my group of friends I considered 'my writing crucible'.

    I encourage other writers to get a group of friends who like reading your work, but are touchy and detail orientated when things don't make sense or confuse them.

    It was easy to pick them out of my group of friends. I would target the quiet ones or anyone who would pick out a plot point or consistency error when we watched movies.

    They got into plots and argued when things didn't follow, they weren't just being entertained, they were thinking about their entertainment. Focus on those people. They'll give you what you want.

    Otherwise, I concur and feel your frustration.