The Beta Question

The above quote from the inestimable Neil Gaiman is a lot of why I’ve had beta readers since my fanfic days, but have never had a dedicated critique partner in another writer, at least not since leaving school. Writers have a much, much harder time resisting the urge to say how we would do something — which is not always helpful when talking to another writer. I think it can be hard to detach on both ends: if you’re being critiqued, it’s easy to get your back up or to be far too anxious about impressing another author, and if you’re doing the critiquing, it’s hard to see the work through clear eyes. When you know how the sausage is made, it’s a little harder just to enjoy the taste without thinking about what went into it.

The problem with getting a critique from a non-writer, though? Can be exactly the opposite. “I really liked it!” is encouraging, but not constructive. Not all beta readers have the tools at their disposal to give you the sort of feedback that will really help you dig in and improve your manuscript. The advantage that other writers have is that they know the craft and they have the vocabulary to talk about pacing, stakes, character arcs, all those nuts and bolts that your editor will press you on later.

Getting the best of both worlds, then, means finding beta readers who are not just voracious readers, but who also know at least a little bit about storytelling and wordcraft, enough to be conversant — and, it means knowing how to ask good questions. Honestly, I think that’s my number one advice when it comes to getting feedback on your work: know what questions to ask and what conversations can come out of the answers.

Here are a few articles that sum up some good questions to help coax your beta reader into giving you a thorough assessment:

How you ask these questions is a matter of personal comfort. I like to have a conversation with my beta reader. I’m an extrovert and an empath; I like being able to see their eyes, their posture, their emotions when they’re talking about my book. I also like that it allows for a little more free-flowing conversation, which I think leads to more expansive commentary. And I like it to be informal: something we chat about over coffee or a meal, in a totally low-pressure environment. When I went over From Unseen Fire with my thaumaturgical adviser, John, we were sitting at the smokehouse restaurant at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, utterly destroying two platters of barbecued chicken. It was awesome.

But if the idea of listening to someone critique your work out-loud, to your face utterly terrifies you, I get it. I became inured to that particular petrification in grad school, when my adviser’s way of reviewing my thesis was by reading every single word out loud and commenting on it while I sat there and tried not to squirm. So if it makes you more comfortable and your beta reader is willing, make a sort of questionnaire that they can fill out.

Finally, remember Neil Gaiman’s advice, and take all feedback with a dash of salt. If you have multiple beta readers or CPs — and you should — they’re probably going to disagree on some points. Not everyone likes everything, and not everyone who likes a thing likes it in the same way or for the same reasons. Writing is largely subjective. See if there are common threads in the advice you get and work on improving those, then sift through the rest of the feedback to see which parts resonate with you. Some of it will likely ring true, things that were secretly bothering you or that you were already worrying might be weak. Some of it might be surprising, holes you hadn’t seen. And some of it? Well, to some of it, you might just have to say, “This is my story, and I’m telling it the way I want.”


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Cass Morris lives and works in central Virginia and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University in 2010, and she earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart.

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