Beta Readers

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Beta Readers

large_crowdLet’s be honest: you can only do so much on your own. Yes, yes, writing, as Ms. Jessamyn West wonderfully pointed out, is a solitary occupation. We know this. But we also know that networking can help abate just how lonely the writers have to feel. And conferences. And going outside to breathe fresh air every once in a while.

The other way of feeling a little less solitary can come from sharing your work with those you trust.  I’m not talking writing workshops here—although they can, in certain circumstances, be useful—I’m more thinking a great writing group or trusted friend. Yes, writing groups also have their pitfalls, but finding a really terrific group that will be honest, constructive, and sometimes downright brutal about the shortcomings of your work can be really terrific.

Sure, eventually it might be ideal if you can be paired with an agent, or better yet an editor, who you trust to provide this type of difficult feedback that will ultimately make your work stronger. Before you get to this point, though, it could be really beneficial to have others to weigh in about your writing.

So I ask you, oh trusted readers: what have you found has and has not worked when it comes to sharing your work with others? When it comes to writing for children, do you ever involve actual kids and listen to their reactions? Or is it better to move onward alone? Let us know!

  1. I have not joined a crit group because I don’t have time to read more – I’m too busy writing! I do, however, have a trusted writer friend and we read each others work. I also have a few additional beta readers whose opinions I treasure, along with some agents who have been more than generous with their time and suggestions.

    I also highly recommend writer’s conferences. They have helped me in both networking and improving my craft. I can’t say enough about a good writer’s conference.

    Regarding writing for kids, I’m deep into my first YA novel and am fortunate to be surrounded by teenagers. So yes, I listen to them speak and I run things by them. Their input is invaluable in getting things like band references(!), clothing, and dialogue right.

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  2. This is a great topic!

    I’ve been through a few beta readers at a popular writing forum. The experience has really helped my writing – but only after I found the RIGHT readers. By this, I mean people with a keen eye, experience, and a sense of knowing what a good story takes. There are quite a few who are new and the quality of the beta read is iffy at best.

    As for using a trusted friend as a reader, there’s only so much you can get in that department. They absolutely love the story, and then they want to talk about themselves the rest of the time! LOL!

    – Julie

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  3. I wouldn’t think of sending my work to the outside publishing world before running it by my writers group. Then, if I’m lucky, I’ll also share it with a few other beta readers – perhaps children. The 9-year-old daughter of a fellow in my group had some terrific comments on my tween novel.

    I never change everything readers suggest, but if more than one person makes the same comment (“Start with chapter 3!”), then I’m on to something and as a result my work is stronger.

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  4. I’ve found that the smaller the group, the better it is for everybody. And it’s also helpful that everyone be on the same page, not necessarily in terms of writing style but in how far along they are in the process. Past groups didn’t work out for me because one person had a 300-page ms ready to read while another had a few short stories, so eventually that person stopped coming to our meetings because they didn’t have new work to turn in. The group that I have now is with three other writers. We turn in 10,000 words of our completed drafts each month and get together to discuss. It’s worked out great for all of us.

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  5. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Author SM Blooding, M.G. Buehrlen and Upstart Crow, Jo Treggiari. Jo Treggiari said: I luv my beta readers!RT @SMBlooding: RT @UpstartCrowLit Now on the Upstart Crow blog: Beta Readers (http://tinyurl.com/yhjqh2z) [...]

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  6. I’ve been very lucky to be part of a critique group made up of children’s writers. Some of us have kids and some are teachers, so if we wanted kids as beta readers, they are available. Only once have I asked one of their kids to read my MS. More often, we’ll look at a character’s actions and say, “Would your daughter/son do that?”

    I also work at the library, where I co-lead a book club for 9-12 year old girls. I have occasionally asked them for advice, but they’ve never read my WIP.

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  7. My writers group has helped me become better at critiquing others’ work, which in turn has helped me better critique my own. I’ve learned I tend to make the same mistakes over and over, so I keep an eye out for those pitfalls when reviewing my drafts. The camaraderie and support has been invaluable in keeping me going when I get discouraged, too. However, one problem I’ve encountered with regular writing groups is in distinguishing different drafts. Impressions gleaned from earlier drafts, especially when it comes to character, can easily bleed into new drafts. It helps to have some fresh sets of eyes to call upon for each round.

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  8. . . . hocuspocus, best to focus . . . writing is an alternate reality . . . my mom wants to be my agent, my husband is my sounding board and just this a.m. my young son called it a pastime. Did splurge last summer by attending a weekend conference–priceless.

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  9. I haven’t found kids to be hugely helpful. They’re too nice! Maybe I need to give it to them under the guise of someone else and see what they think.

    I have a few trusted writer friends that critique my work and I critique theirs on an as-needed basis. I’ve also found my husband to be a great beta reader. He’s very picky and hard to please.

    I was once with a critique group who critiqued chapters of my WIP as they came, but I found that to be counter-productive. For me writing a novel is kind of like pregnancy. Better to keep it in the womb, let it form and grow until it’s ready to be delivered. Then I can take it to the doctor and give it all its shots. Then I can put it up for adoption.

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  10. My most critical readers are my kids! And my most demanding, when they like it and want the next chapter. Their feedback is fundamentally honest – you can easily tell when they are riveted to their seats during a tense scene and when they’re humming a tune because they’re bored out of their minds.

    But for the really serious critiques I depend not only on my on-line crit group, but have found pairing up with other writers in my genre (MG SF) and doing whole novel critiques to be extremely helpful.

    And, I’ll be attending my first conference soon at Harper College!

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  11. Chris, great post. Obviously, I’m big on critique groups! What has worked for me keeps shifting–as my writing & my criitque partners’ writing changes and evolves; so does the group. We used to crit a chapter at a time. Now we crit large chunks and have sessions just for brainstorming character & plot blocks. I wasn’t going to send my current WIP through the group until after the 1st draft, but found it was TOO lonely. So they’re seeing it, but only giving me feedback I can mull on while I write forward.

    I have a teen son who does read my work, and he’s usually pretty honest & good at brainstorming. He’s also seriously supportive,tho, so I have to take his compliments with a grain of salt. When he slammed his hand on the table at a critical scene in my last book, then stormed off at how the dad hadn’t come through for the kid, I took THAT wholeheartedly, though!

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  12. I agree with Liesl. If you share one chapter at a time while writing the MS, it interrupts the growth process.

    Beta readers of the full MS? Essential. They see big picture stuff (character arc, enough of a climax and resolution, etc.). Some amazingly generous people have given me detailed comments on a full for free. But, mostly, I spend a lot of time reading and commenting on other people’s fulls. We swap. And, I feel lucky to have found these people via SCBWI. I just can’t see my own mistakes that clearly.

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  13. Writing groups have helped me a great deal with writing and with loneliness.
    Beta readers have given me great incite to the need for clarity.

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  14. Not only did I join a critique group and put my book on that one, had it critiqued by many different adults- most loved my fantasy for children, but I also had 3 children read my book. To me,the child is the most honest when it comes to what might sell. I had two 12 year olds read it,and one 8 eight year old read it. They all adored the book ,and each stated their one favorite part. My nephew , age 12, loved when the unicorn made the food appear and disappear for my heroine. One 12 year old girl loved the part where my heroine had to pass the tests before she could even get to the North Pole.

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  15. I’ve recently found a few really good beta readers and they each seem to catch different things, so having more than one is vital in my opinion. It nearly feels like cheating when you have good betas, because you can just go through and correct along their advice without having to stew it over. It feels too easy to not have to suffer for your craft, you know?

    I have a teenage beta reader who is a rabid stalker fan. It’s a big confidence builder and helps me know I’m on the right track.

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  16. I have a fabulous critique partner that I found via blogging, and I have a handful of beta readers who look at my work when it has been completed and revised twice. I find it so helpful to have fresh eyes on it – I always miss a few dumb mistakes that I’m just too close to my work to see.

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  17. I’d love to have an in-real-life critique group. Unfortunately all the people I’ve found locally write scifi or fantasy – not my genre at all. It probably doesn’t help that one in four people in my city are engineers…

    Once I’ve got a clean draft of my WIP I’m definitely going to look for betas of the online variety.

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  18. I do try to use beta readers (friends, critique partners) whenever I can, but I find they aren’t honest enough. I can tell, because I have some really great workshop buddies and they never hesitate to point out that thing that was niggling in the back of my brain and I tried to ignore until someone called me on it (to my eternal gratitude, of course).

    But then I gave one of my half-finished YA novels to an actual teenager. Her honesty was refreshing. She was about two chapters into the novel when she stopped and told me that she really liked the concept and the writing, but she couldn’t figure out why the protagonist would even be friends with the person who was supposed to be her BFF. The way I was portraying the friend, which was critical to the plot, missed the boat completely. Got to love teenagers – they have a way of humbling you.

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  19. I love my crit groups and don’t know what I’d do without them. I’ve found that you learn just as much by critiquing the work of others as you do in getting feedback on your own. I agree with Debbie that when more than one person in your group gives the same suggestions, you should listen. For me, a good group is one that’s encouraging yet provides concrete, constructive criticism.

    I’m in one crit group for my PB’s and another group for my YA, and I found both through SCBWI. I had to apply and submit sample pages and it was a surprise to find out there was competition involved at that level – but as one group involves mostly published authors, it was worth it. As I recently finished my first YA ms, I like that my YA group works by exchanging entire mss rather than chapter by chapter. When it’s my turn to submit, I’ll get feedback on the entire book at once which will be great for revisions.

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  20. I would love to have a real life crit group, but I know no one else in real life who writes. I live in a small town, and all the nearest groups are nearly 2 hours away.

    I’ve thought about advertising to see if there would be anyone else like me nearby, that would like to put a group together, but the thought is as far as it’s gotten.

    Got a beta reader once, but she freaked me out, doing a nearly word by word crit with flagged notes talking about grammatical terms on each word. Kinda made me back up and say “well, maybe not.”

    I’m going to the DFW Writers Conference in Dallas in April…my first conference! I’m very excited about that, it’s a six hour drive, but will be a very productive weekend I hope!

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  21. One thing I did was give my manuscript to a trusted colleague who taught in an alternative school. She’s a YA expert. She booktalked my manuscript and then made it available to her students in her classroom library. A few of them chose to read it and they shared some of their journal entries with me. I loved getting this kind of feedback.

    This worked because I didn’t know the students. They lived thousands of miles from me. If they chose to keep reading it wasn’t because of a personal connection to me. Before I resigned from my teaching job to write full-time I never gave my students my writing. There was too much of a relationship there to get honest feedback.

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  22. I belong to DFW Writers Workshop and it’s been my saving grace. People who have travelled the road ahead are so valuable. I love the feedback and comraderie. Thanks for the post!

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