Dearest unknown being, I salute you,
Today, I would like to say a word about an essential step in the writing adventure: receiving constructive criticism! Obviously, what I will say in this post is only the reflection of my own experience and other writers may feel differently about it.
For sure, using another fresh and different perspective is a crucial way to spot the flaws in your brand new manuscript. But be careful what you wish for! Writing is an intimate act, it is never neutral, and someone who is writing is experiencing a very sensible part of herself/himself/themselves. Always keep in mind, dearest unknown being, that creation requires both a lot of courage and the ability to make yourself vulnerable, even fragile sometimes. When you are writing, you are facing the inner mirror of creation.
Writing makes you vulnerable
So if you are a creator, do remember that your creative passion is your most precious ally: you have to take care of it, to protect it, to help it grow. To do so, you want to choose carefully when you’ll submit your text to another eye (in the middle of the writing process, after the first draft, after a massive amount of corrections or after rewriting ten versions of your story… choose wisely). You should also decide what kind of input you need, what will help you make a better version of your story. Unless, of course, the purpose of your writing is the pure pleasure of the first draft and sharing it as it is – which is completely okay too, by the way.
But, yeah, if you are a writer who wants to get past the first attempt at a novel or a short story, who wants to be sure your ideas will be understood and not diverted (spoiler alert: you can never make completely sure of that, but you may reduce the gap between your own mind and your readers’ mind). If you hope for a larger audience than your inner circle, if you want to make it better, let’s be honest: it will require a lot of work. Sometimes, you will have to make different versions of the same story, you will correct, and correct, and reformulate again, one hundred times if you have to, and you will need to be able to hear and take in consideration how others are perceiving your story.
Readers and beta readers
You can get different kind of notes on you text, depending also on the person looking at it. A reader could give you a very interesting feedback on your story. Most of the time, your reader will tell you how she/he/they felt reading you. That is always good to know and to consider. But a reader is most of the time not a beta reader.
(disclaimer 1: anyone may learn and practice beta reading, it is not a private turf.)
(disclaimer 2: it is very useful for writers to become beta readers as well. It will considerably help them develop a sharper eye on their own writing process.)
But, Siècle, you may ask, what is this strange and tasteful creature you call a beta reader? I am very happy you ask, dear. A beta reader is someone who learned how to look deeper into a manuscript, how to study the narrative schemes, how to check a character’s story line, how to spot your writings’ darlings (style habits which dies hard), especially the ones you are not even aware of. Then, a beta reader is also someone who will know how to give you a feedback that will be useful. Remember: writers are vulnerable creatures, if you hurt them too deeply, they may bury their work forever, blow their own creative flame, never show their stories to anyone else ever again. So you should be careful about the way you are talking to them about their work. Everytime.
Beta reading in 5 key points
★ – Understand the perspective of the author. What does she/he/they want to do with the story? Your purpose is to help the writer improve his/her/their own story, not to make it better your way. This is a point to constantly keep in mind when you are beta reading.
★ – Do say (but do not lie) what is already working for you in the manuscript, what you like, because the writer will need the motivation to swallow your criticisms in order to integrate them. She/he/they needs to know there is something to save, there is potential, that you did relate to some part of his/her voice or ideas. If you do not see anything good in the text, please, be wise enough to renounce. Say to the author it is not a story for you and stand by it. When you like nothing in some artistic work, your input will not help the writer to make a better manuscript/project, it will undoubtedly contribute to diminish her/his/their creative flame. It is never worth it. To be a good beta reader, my dear, you need to love.
★ – Do explain your criticism. It is not useful to know you do not like (or like) this part of the text if we don’t know why. The writer will need to understand what is not working for you, in the most detailed way possible. Then, she/he/they will be able to create solutions accordingly. You may use logical explanations, crazy images, philosophical tales, structural boards, anything to make your perception clear to the writer. Make it fun if you can – cleverly used, humour is a great tool of communication.
★ – Do not reformulate the text. Writer will always find their own way to reformulate, to transform a sentence or a part of the story which is not working for now. If you reformulate, you will give a direction, a touch to the story which is yours. The writer may take it, but know that if she/he/they includes too many reformulations, they will probably feel dispossessed of their story in the end. We do not want that.
★ – Stay available to discuss your notes with the writer, always be patient and try to explain (not to push) as many times as necessary what is not working for you and why. Know when to stop. Do not take it personally when the author doesn’t take some of your notes in consideration. This is never personal and a good writer has to select what he/she/they will keep (or not) in your feedback. Sometimes they have to trust their inner vision, even if you cannot share it. The writer is the ultimate master of his/her/they creation and always has the final word.
These 5 key points are not set in stone. An experienced beta reader may sail at view and adapt his/her/they notes, even skip some of these points while understanding the specific process of a specific author. But anyway, knowing this is a good start for anyone who wish to beta read. No one is born a beta reader. You become one by beta reading. Simple as that.^^
Once you are working with a team of beta readers, know they may give you different kind of feedback: an alpha reading or a beta reading or a simple reading with a general feeling about the manuscript. You may use these various prisms at different state of the writing process and for different type of projects. You may also require a concise number of beta readers (not too few, not too many) for one project (or its different versions). I may detail these options and how I am using them in my own writing process in another Blueberry thought… later… or not, we will see!
Where can we find experienced beta readers?
Good question, dear! I found mine online, on a French forum dedicated to help writers to progress through beta reading. It is a place where you can learn to beta read (I did) and where a lot of writers also become beta readers and exchange beta readings with one another. All that happens in a very kind, positive and fun atmosphere. I am sure equivalent online places exist in English language, so if you are writing in English, please do not hesitate to search for such a community on the web – it will be a considerable help (and you may make loads of friends on your way) to become the writer you always dreamed to be!
Well, well, well… If you are still here, dearest unknown being, I give you a big hug, a full bag of blueberries to savour on your road and the fresh touch of wind brushing your forehead. Please, always believe in yourself, whatever you feel to create, do create. You matter and your creative fire contribute to enlight the world. It is your most amazing gift and your undeniable privilege.
May you shine,