Just Creative Writing

Editing As a Craft: Part I - Beta Readers

When we sit down to write that story, article, essay, poem, or whatever, we have something wandering around in our head. We know what it is, but the question becomes: "Are we sure our reader is seeing the same picture that we are writing?"

Regardless of our experience level as writers, if we are serious about getting our work read by agents, publishers, and the general reading public, we need to make sure that what we've said is what someone else is absorbing.

So, how do we approach this conundrum? There are several steps to take and today I'd like to discuss the first, most basic approach - Beta Readers (BR).

The Beta Reader is our best friend when it comes to reading our work and providing us with valid feedback. The Beta Reader is unlikely to be a literary agent or managing editor or for that matter, a professional freelance editor. The BR can be someone we know well or someone we hardly know at all, which begs the question...Where do I find a Beta Reader?

Beta Readers are generally not a social or professional group of individuals that gather monthly to dote on someone else's writing. That's not to say that we won't find such a group, just that it is unlikely. (NOTE: yes, there are businesses that will provide this service for a fee. Beware.)

First - do we belong to a writer's organization that has a membership list of other like-minded writers? If the answer is no...then we need to find such an organization and join. If the answer is yes, we probably have access to a membership list. Cull through that list and search for members who write similar material to ours. This organization will also be important for locating a Critique Group.

Second - Libraries and community arts councils frequently have book clubs and/or small writers groups that meet regularly to discuss writing - their own or published works. 

Third - academia - high schools, colleges, universities may have groups that get credit for participating in such groups. 

Finally - friends who enjoy reading and share a love of stories are always good to approach.

We need to identify a reasonable number of BRs...somewhere between 5 and 10...with 6 or 7 being an ideal number. We should set a deadline once the selected readers have agreed.  It is important to note that life frequently gets in the way, and this group is a volunteer group. So if we ask 7 people for help, understand that we will probably get responses from 3 to 5 - the rest will fall by the wayside. And that's ok, but that's also why a deadline is important. If a BR knows that they have to get a response to us by the end of the month, the chances are likely that they will not put the story down and forget about it.

So where do we start? We should design a set of questions for the BR to make everyone's life a little easier. Remember, a BR is not an editor or a critiquer. We want the basic feedback: 1.) Does the story hold water? Is there a beginning, middle, and end without the story veering off course? 2.) Are the characters strong? Do they fit their role (protagonist, antagonist)? 3,) is the setting clear? Does the reader experience the world around her/him? 4.) Narrative: is there too much back story? Is the writing active or passive? 5.) Does the dialogue help move the story forward; build the characters; establish the setting; raise the theme? These are just a few of the questions that we should focus on. Before preparing our questionnaire for the BR, we should think about what we really want to know about our writing and how we get that answer. That understanding will help us develop the questions that need to be answered.

As the deadline approaches, if we have not received the answers to our questions, a gentle reminder may be in order.

Once we have received the questionnaire, the real work starts. As we read the responses, we should note where comments agree and where they disagree. It is not the responsibility of the Beta Reader to rewrite our story, just comment on what works and what does not. If someone says "get rid of this character or change the location to somewhere else," it is our responsibility to think about that comment but not necessarily take any action. If we, as the authors, do not agree with the comment, then we should let it go. Find the good comments and work with them. Once we've finished absorbing the feedback, we should find a safe place to save the questionnaires. We never know when we might want to revisit someone's comments for a second consideration.

A note to remember: When we approach others to ask for their help, there is something that we should keep in mind...the give-back. If we are looking for help from others, we should also be ready and willing to return the favor. It is also important to note that the Beta Reader is not our critiquing partner. Their job is to tell us if the story is engaging, and what makes it so, or where does it fail. The critiquing partner will give us much more detail about the creative process.

Next week: Part II of the Editing Craft - The Critiquing Partner