That is a question many new authors ask themselves, as we all try to find out who we are as writers: our style, our voice, our audience, even our genre. Submitting your work to other people for feedback is something many people do, if they are able, but there is a debate in the writing community about how useful this is. Is it necessary for other people to read your work before you...query, submit, publish? Does anyone's opinion matter but yours?
As I said in my last post, I just finished the initial draft of my next book, Bog Body (previous working title Up from the Bog), a dark romantic fantasy, and I'm typing it up to get it ready for...Beta reading. This is the sixth manuscript that I've finished (1 nonfiction monograph, 3 novels, 2 novellas), and the sixth time that I am sharing my work with others before I consider it "finished," in a state ready for querying. As I take a little breather from writing and start to reflect on my various projects, polishing them before moving on to other concepts, I'd like to share my thoughts on the next potential step in the writing process.. Here are four benefits of using Betas, and four drawbacks.
THE BENEFITS OF BETAS
Sometimes your mind and your eyes are in such great sync that you miss your own mistakes. It could be something minor like a typo, or it could be a turn of phrase you thought was eloquent (and therefore overused), or, in the case of a fantasy story, you might have made a logical leap in reality, and left the readers without access to mind-reading behind. Another reader will see only what's on the paper, not in your head. This is good, because you can see if those things match up, and what it might take to make them match, to give the reader the reaction to your work you wanted them to have.
All readers are subjective, yes. But only you love your story the way you do. Another, unfeeling person will tell you what resonated with them and what didn't, and point you, sometimes painfully, to the things that fell flat. Even if you loved them. A certain level of emotional detachment is necessary sometimes to elicit the best product. I have a tendency to hang on to turns of phrase that I like, even when they're no longer relevant. Someone else telling you it doesn't work for them will help you get over the hump of attachment, and force you to be the best writer you can be.
A good Beta will do exactly as I just said: tell you what worked, and what didn't. In an industry that is centered on rejection, and usually with no explanation to accompany it, it's important for budding writers to know that, no, what you wrote may not be perfect, or ready for general consumption, BUT..it had a good premise, believable dialogue, nice worldbuilding...fill in the blank. That kind of feedback can be essential to hear, and I've found personally that it can be a guiding force to figuring out my own personal voice.
Examples: "I didn't appreciate the humor": Know your limitations. "The descriptions made me feel like I was really there" Go all in. "It feels more like fantasy, less like romance." Now I know what I'm writing, and how to pitch it.
The good things Betas tell you can help you know yourself, know your audience, and know what to lead with when talking to potential readers, reviewers, agents, and publishers. And let's face it, we all need help doing that.
This encompasses two different things: your patterns as a writer, and patterns in your feedback. Another reader will notice your tendencies, good or bad.
Examples: "You use the word 'seem' a lot," "your dialogue often starts with 'well,'" "most of the sentences being with 'I'," "you tend to use passive instead of active voice," "you confuse your tenses a lot." Being aware of these things gives you the choice of what to do about it.
Secondly, Betas can provide feedback in patterns. If you have two or three people responding to the same passages in the same way...you should be paying attention. One Beta alone is not enough--a few good ones will do the trick, though.
Now as I said, all writers are different, and perform differently with different methods. Betas...hell, writing careers in general... are not for the thin-skinned, and therefore should be used with caution by those who are more sensitive to the opinions of others. Here are FOUR drawbacks of using Beta Readers.
This is the biggest problem. If you have a hard time seeing past what didn't work, even the best-intentioned notes can wreak havoc on your self-esteem. If it's serious enough, it may discourage you from writing altogether. But if you love to write, you shouldn't stop.
Patterns among Betas are great, and can be really useful. But in the real world, everybody has their own opinion. If you get a slew of readers who say conflicting things, that can leave you in a pickle. Then you have to do the hard, sometimes impossible work of figuring out why something may have worked for one person and not another. If your Beta is a friend or relative, you might be able to guess, but sometimes the best Betas are found in online communities like Facebook or Goodreads, so it's not a guarantee that you'll know your Beta well enough to make that call. In those cases, you can feel like you're back at square one.
I hate it when this happens. You send your stuff out to someone, all excited that you'll finally get some feedback...and then nothing. It happens. A lot. Even with friends and family (especially with friends and family-jk love you guys!). Then what? Hound them? No, that's not sending the right message. Be forever angry? In some families, that works. In an I-talian family like mine, someone's always mad at somebody, but who cares? Then again, it can put you in a perpetual state of feeling "unready" to face the world. Then you agonize about why they didn't finish. That confidence in Betas thing can be a real double-edged sword.
Overly Critical Betas
This can also be a problem, and you should always try to figure out what you want out of a Beta and set the tone before waiting for notes (Questionnaires that address your own concerns can be helpful, and make the Beta pay attention where you want them to.) It is the nature of some people to point out every flaw (which you want, of course, you want complete feedback), but you want someone who will do it in a way that is constructive. Constructive criticism is the name of the game: it's a form of support that is challenging, but ultimately rewarding. If you get a Beta whose sole response to your work is "It was a waste of my time, you should stop wasting yours," then unfriend that person immediately. There will always be people who don't like your work, and that's just life, but you want a Beta who avidly reads the genre you write in, and can try to show you how your work fits into that whole in the mind of a reader. This is why sometimes online acquaintances are best. It's so easy to find people with like-minded interests, and the result will be better than if you, say, foist your steamy romances on a hubby who never read a romance book in his life, even if he's willing (thanks, by the way-love you too).
There you have it folks. Me personally, I have been bred with a tough skin from academia, so I can handle the heat of my Betas. And I know it has made me a better writer. Whether the pros outweigh the cons is for you is for each author to decide. Ultimately, how much the voices of others matter is up to you. They are the Betas, but YOU are the Alpha.