The Etiquette of Readers Part 2: Beta Readers

Last week we identified and discussed the role of Casual Readers. Now we’re going to focus on the more popular role of a Beta Readers.

While Casual Readers tend not to be writers, Beta Readers are usually on the path to becoming editors and are writers themselves. First thing to recognize about Beta Readers is there is not a one size fits all. You may not agree with someone’s method of critiquing because they’re looking at it all wrong, and they’re always negative, and you just can’t seem to do anything right. If this is the case, try getting another Beta Reader, but always do a trial run with them first. Send a sample of your writing, see how they critique. If you two seem to get along, then work from there.

With Beta Readers, it is up to them whether or not you send your work as a complete manuscript at one time or chapter by chapter. This is something the two of you must discuss. Simply be aware, the more you send, the longer it will take to get anything back to you. It is also important to remember that you should have revised and edited your work at least once before sending it to a Beta Reader.

With a Beta Reader, it is important to understand one thing: their job is to tear your work to shreds. Yes, this is difficult. It’s hard. It’s painful. However, it is important. This is also preparing you for when your work must go before an editor. It’s helping you understand your work better and develop thick skin.

Now, on this topic, there is something very important to realize. If you have people read your work, and they stop at a certain point and can’t read further, you must investigate—not only where they stopped but from the beginning all the to that specific point. Look at description, dialogue, character development, scene setting, plot development, writing style. Are the characters cliché? Are they too perfect? Are they relatable? Is there a moral issue in the story that’s causing the problem?

Most people won’t tell you why they didn’t like the story because they don’t know. Some might know, but if you’re stubborn and stuck in your way when it comes to writing, they’re not going to be very honest with you because it takes a lot of time and energy to explain to you the problem.

I don’t volunteer to read anyone’s writing anymore. If I can’t finish a story, I find out exactly why that is, and it’s usually more than one issue, but this one issue brings up this other issue which breeds another one and so on and so forth, and the writer is left thinking, “I can’t write!” And I’m respond, “No, you can! You’re very good at it, and you wrote an entire story which is an awesome accomplishment!” but then I’m lost at how to encourage them to step back, have faith, and tackle things one at a time.

If you’re confident in your writing ability and believe the story you wrote is important for the world to know, then nothing can tear you down. Yes, there are people out there who want nothing more than to completely rip writers to shreds. It doesn’t matter how much effort you put into something or the importance of certain elements and specific scenes, they don’t care. I don’t understand those people, but when I encounter those people, I don’t bother to justify my writing or explain myself. They have a right to their own opinion, and no matter how many times I revise my work, it won’t make them happy, so I just nod and tell them, “Thank you. I will take it into consideration,” but then I’ll go back to my story and set the criticism before the characters and listen to them protest loudly, “Why would I do that?! What would my motives be? That makes absolutely no sense. No, no, and no!” And they cross their arms, threatening me with Writer’s Block if I even attempt to revise in the suggested manner.

This is why you must know why you wrote everything in the story, why it’s important to see how the pieces connect.

However, there are some unofficial guidelines we can all use.

WRITERS, if you give your work to a Beta Reader to critique, expect them to do several things:

  1. They will read your story from beginning to end in a timely manner.

  2. They will make notes on everything that jumps out at them.

  3. They will ask questions.

  4. They will point out errors.

  5. They will not correct or change anything for you.

  6. They are not your brainstorming buddies (unless agreed upon otherwise).

  7. If a Beta Reader cannot complete your novel for lack of time or simply disinterest in the story, you should not be offended but find another Beta Reader.

  8. You must remain professional.

  9. Honesty is key.

BETA READERS, if you volunteer to read someone’s work to critique it, there are a few things you must recognize:

  1. You are obligated to read their entire work and critique it in a timely fashion.

  2. If you cannot complete their work, you must inform the writer of this and explain why.

  3. Do not volunteer to read someone’s work out of pity especially when you’re disinterested in their story.

  4. Look for positive aspects of the story as well as the negative.

  5. You must remain professional.

  6. Honesty is key.

Now notice, I said Writer and Beta Reader should ‘remain professional’ and that ‘honesty is key’. WRITERS, your story may be your baby, but when you’ve reached this stage of your story, you must distance yourself from it and become professional about it. This makes any negativity toward your writing easier to accept and to view objectively rather than subjectively. BETA READERS, being professional while you work allows you to do your work properly without fear of the author lashing out at you and blaming you for your criticism. Even if that were to happen, you can take everything in stride and carry on.

Honesty is the most important element in this process. Writers must be straightforward and honest with their Beta Readers of what they expect from them and when they need the story’s critique completed and returned to them—set a deadline. Beta Readers need to be able to say ‘no’ when they have too much on their plate or when they feel their style of critiquing will not work well with a specific author. Beta Readers should be able to express their opinion without too much concern of how the writer will react since the writer should react responsibly.

Are these hard and fast rules? No. They’re completely unofficial, but they could help to eliminate stress and frustration on everyone’s part. You may approach this subject any way you want.

To summarize: while you are writing or in the middle of revising and editing but need encouragement, find a Casual Reader (or several) to be your cheerleader. Once you’ve revised several times and are now ready for the next step, find a Beta Reader and understand everything is about to get serious, so be professional, and keep honesty between the two of you. This will help you face the harsh realities of publishing.

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When NOT to Use an Outline

So, why should anyone not use an outline? Because it’s fun. Admit it. The recklessness of getting in the car one day and just driving without any plans or any idea where you’re going is appealing. Some mysterious stranger stops by and says, “Hey, I’m going on this quest. I could use your help,” and you’d jump for the chance of an adventure. You don’t know where you’re going or who you’ll encounter or how it will all unfold, and that’s what makes the journey all the more exciting. And when the story falls flat on its face, you might be able to step back and point at your characters, “It wasn’t my fault! They made me do it!”

That’s what it’s like writing without an outline. Is it wrong? No. Remember, a lot of writers will switch between being a plotter (one who uses outlines) and a pansters (one who doesn’t use outlines). I am one such writer. I prefer to outline my historical fiction mainly because of all the dates, events, and actual historical figures encountered in those books, so an outline is useful. However, being stuck to the rules get mundane at times, and I want nothing more than to break free and just write—for fun.

However, there is one thing you should keep in mind when considering not using an outline when you write. Writing without an outline is best when you don’t have a deadline. Now, it’s not impossible to have a deadline but write without an outline, yet deadlines demand principled writing, and they don’t give room for the exploration of random scenes which may or may not be in the story or for Writer’s Block.

Writing without an outline puts the writer very in tune to the story and the characters. The author constantly has his finger on the pulse of the story, listening for any signal from the characters of changing the course of the story. This also gives the WRITER a chance to be surprised by the story. A protagonist character may do an action that shocks both you and the antagonist. Someone else you thought was dead may suddenly appear in the story with a longwinded explanation as to how he really didn’t die. Two characters you thought for sure would end up together happen to be third cousins twice removed, which makes for complications.

As you can see, there isn’t a shortage of surprises you can experience when writing without an outline. It makes you go, “AHHH!” then “That’s awesome!” then “Bahahaahahaha” then “Wait—no!! Now what am I going to do?” It’s commonly said if the author is shocked or cries, the reader will then be shocked or cry. This is part of the addiction to writing without an outline.

So, if you’re tired from writing with everything mapped out, and if you don’t have a deadline to meet but just want to explore the writing world and characters, writing without an outline may be what you need. If you haven’t written for a while, but every time you sit down to write, you find yourself discouraged because you think you need to do all that planning and prep work (world building, character questionnaires, etc.) stop for a second. You might give yourself Writer’s Block just thinking like that. It might be that you need to write and step away from the norm and expected and just try writing without an outline.

You may find this isn’t for you—doesn’t work for you, and that doesn’t make it wrong. Everyone has their preferences, and it varies from person to person. What works for you may not work for someone else, and that is very important to recognize.

However, sometimes in the middle of writing a story that you’ve outline, you find the story isn’t going that direction, so what do you do? Is it possible for you to both have an outline and not have an outline for the same story? We’ll discuss that in next week’s post, and then we’ll finally move on from the topic of outlines!