Wednesday, January 26, 2011

How Do You Do It? And How Do You Want It?

I'm talking about beta-reading, of course.

I knew nothing about critiquing fiction when I hooked up with my first and primary crit partner, JD. I'd been a voracious reader all my life, but I'd never taken a writing course or spent time around writers. The only thing I knew about critique was from my years in academia. Guess what? People are harsh in academia.

The first time I got ahold of JD's writing, I think I frightened her. But she's really brave and totally open, and it ended up working out just fine for both of us. I've been a beta-reader for a few others, too ... with mixed results.

Every beta-reader has a different style. Here's mine: I do several things at once because I CAN'T ignore ... anything.

I line-edit:
  • Surface stuff: missing words, simple typos and spelling errors.
  • Simple mechanics: I have a low tolerance for grammatical errors. I have a lower tolerance for complacency about making them.
  • Word choice and language precision: choosing the proper word, phrase, and image is key to strengthening a sentence, a scene ... and sometimes, I do not think that word means what you think it means. I mark clichés and things that just sound off to me.
  • Unintended repetition: I mark words, phrases, and dialogue tags if they occur more than once in the same chapter or ... if they bug me.
  • Sentence construction and flow: Variation is lovely, and precision is essential. A present participial phrase (if indefinite) must reflect simultaneous action, for example. I'll mark awkward/clunky constructions, flabby prose, say-nothing sentences.
I also mark all the turns of phrase and images I think work really well, passages that are particularly powerful, and lines that make me laugh or pause.

Next comes:
  • Scene: it had better be necessary and multifunctional (e.g., not just to show me more about a character, but showing me more about the character while moving the plot forward). I might comment on length if it feels draggy or redundant and suggest a way to trim or rearrange so the scene is tighter. Sometimes I suggest deleting scenes altogether.
  • Backstory: only when it's needed, and no more than is essential ... but enough so I can understand what the heck is going on. I comment on the timing and extent of the backstory.
  • Setting: Must. Have. Sense. Of. Place. But it must be integrated into the story so the pace is preserved.
  • Dialogue: stilted, redundant, boring and purposeless, cover for info-dump, inconsistency in vocabulary/voice/pattern of speech, or anything that just doesn't sound like natural conversation will get marked.
  • Characterization: consistency within the character and with the character arc, including intensity of emotion, inner thoughts, mannerisms and other external behaviors, and relationships with other characters. If there are child characters ... I will comment on whether that child's behavior and language is consistent with what I know of child development. And if there is psychopathology or trauma, I will address it both from a technical perspective and a story perspective. For good or ill, I will describe how I feel about the character at any given point.
  • Plot arc: I will comment on general plausibility and tension, and identify things that seem illogical or inconsistent (plot holes). I might make predictions for what I think will happen so the writer can see how I'm understanding and interpreting the story--and so the writer can get a sense of how predictable the story is.
I tend to leave a lot of red ink on the page. I thought this was how everybody did it. I was wrong (and
Now ... as I mentioned, I've had various reactions to my crits. Some were met with gratitude, and a few were met with radio silence or defensiveness. It was an important lesson: writers have different goals and needs, and different betas serve different purposes (you all probably knew that already).

There are lots of reasons writers seek beta-readers:
  • Simple validation--they just need someone to tell them they're good
  • Encouragement--they need gentle suggestions and a ton of positive feedback
  • Tell-me-if-I'm-crazy or genre questions--they need someone to honestly tell them if an idea is crap (JD does this one for me all the time) or to help them decide the genre of the piece
  • General impression/overall style--more of a broad review of theme, voice, style, plot, and/or characters/relationships
  • Specific questions/expert review--review of smaller-scope issues like making sure something is correct from a technical perspective
  • Getting the piece ready for agent or editor eyes--this would be the no-holds-barred crit

Which brings me to: BETA, know thyself (no such thing as being all things to all writers)

Followed closely by: Writer, know THYself (if you don't, you're going to get frustrated. Or hurt.)

I'll tell you where to shove
that red pen ...
When you are seeking a beta, ask yourself what you need (it may not be the same as what your writing needs), and be really honest in your answers (about both you and your writing, preferably). Then seek a beta who can meet those needs. Know which need you're meeting.

If you are the beta-reader, know what you can offer and communicate that to the writer. Know when to tell the writer you might not be the best match. It could save you some grief.

What kind of beta are you? What do you do well, and when are you not the best fit for a writer?

What are you looking for in a critique, and why? Do you have different beta-readers for different stages of your process, or who have different purposes? What makes you trust your beta(s)? What makes that relationship work?

On the Sisterhood front: be sure to check out Deb Salisbury's post on her writing goals for 2011!


  1. I'm like you in that I struggle to ignore anything -- people ask me for big-picture problems and I'm twitching because this sentence doesn't flow well, and clearly the world will come to a tragic end if I don't point it out. I also like to suggest fixes for both major and minor issues, not because my way is better, but as an example of something that wouldn't bother me the way the original did.

    Although I've beta-ed for a decent number of people, I don't actually know how well-received it's been -- only very few commented specifically on how much they appreciated this or that. Others just thanked me and went on their way, and one or two never even acknowledged it. So I may just suck and not know it :D

    In critiques, while I may sometimes ask about specific issues, I tend to invite any kind of criticism. If the reader feels it's important enough to point out, it clearly paused their reading, so I need to hear it.

    I also tend to like discussions: "If I do X and X, do you think that would fix the issue you were having here?" and follow-ups. I suspect not everyone likes that as much, though.

    If you ever want another beta reader/critique partner, by the way, just send me an e-mail -- I'm usually pretty fast!

  2. Great post! You KNOW I'm a big fan (*grin*), but what I realised about MY writing after your critique is ... I don't apply the same rules to myself as I do to others I'm critiquing.

    I think we get too close to our own story, and when you do so many re-writes and a heap of editing, you can no longer see where the problems lie.
    When I'm reading for others, I'm super-critical of flow, character development, spelling and grammar, and plot holes. I compliment descriptive passages and point out where I think more description should be added, and where dialogue or actions don't make sense. If I think some parts of the story don't have the impact I believe they were aiming for - I'll tell them that, too.

    Finding a good beta-reader who can tell it like it is, is rare. It's important to have beta(s) who encourage you in the beginning, but come the time you're getting serious about seeking agents, you need a beta who's going to kick your ass and push you to be the writer you know you can be.
    Just today I gave a beta a re-write to read. It was only a few pages, but she was crying by the end. She's great for letting me know I'm on the right track, but I know I haven't hit the mark until I've received the nod from ... a certain other beta ... *grin*.

  3. Great, great post! I beta pretty similar to you in what I look for/comment on, though it sounds like you are a bit harsher than me *mental note, do not give sarah an ms to read* Just kidding! Sounds great, actually. When I exchange with betas, I always tell them go all in and give it to me rough. Much better from a crit partner friend than agent seeing it or getting it ready to go out on sub. Great post!

  4. Jaime was my first beta, so she got the inexperienced Tracy. Back then I did a read-thru and gave my overall opinion and pointed out some plot issues, as well as mentioning what I DID like.

    Now, I've learned to dig a little deeper, but I go with whatever the writer wants me to give them. Justine just wanted another set of eyes and to point out any major holes or issues. Misty wanted a dig-deep-and-give-me-everything-you've-got set of revisions. (And I do believe I'm starting to get pretty badass in my beta editing)

    Bottom line: These days, I always check with the writer first to find out what TYPE of critique they're hoping to get and how deep they want me to get in there. That way you don't run the risk of offending someone, or leaving them feeling like they got nothing out of it.

  5. OMG, are we working from a similar brain??? I'm posting about this very topic next week (wrote the post a few days ago and will auto post on Wed...)

    Anywho, yes, these points are important! And I do many of the similar things you listed. :D

  6. I self-edit like you beta, but I've yet to have the pleasure of finding a critique partner to scare the pants off. Solid advice, then, for when I do!

  7. Sarah is an A.M.A.Z.I.N.G. beta, which is why this post is so freakin' fantastic! I don't know how I got so lucky to find her. Her words ring true (maybe a little too true


  8. Well, I think the most important for mis to find betas that are in the same general stage of the craft. My betas are all people who have been writing about the same amount of time I have, have learned and made a lot of the same mistakes and learned from them. We enjoy eachother's 'style' and it leaves us open to critique the bigger issues like pacing, plot, and characterization.

  9. I beta read a lot like you apparently :) I kept going through your list and nodding. What you say is totally true, the writer and the reader really need to know themselves and their "type" to get a positive outcome.

  10. This is a GREAT post, Sarah, thank you! Lots of good reminders for my beta-ing!

  11. wonderful post sarah! i wish i were as helpful a beta as it sounds like you are! :)

  12. Corinne--yes. I cannot overlook stuff. Some can, I cannot. I'm glad I'm not alone in that. And thanks for the offer--I might take you up on it sometime!

    Jaime--I am really looking forward to reading the rest of your book!

    Tracy--I admire your ability to switch-up the level of your crit to match reader needs. I'm not quite so good at that. I assume the writer wants to know every little thing that could or should be fixed to make the piece perfect, so if there's an error (and I am horribly persnickety), I feel like I'm remiss if I don't mark it. But I think it can be overwhelming and discouraging sometimes, so being able to modify is helpful--good for you.

    aspiring_x, Lydia--thanks :)

    Jennifer--I will beta for you ANYTIME.

    Justine--well. You know how I feel about you.

    Laura--I'll return your frontal lobe in time for next Wednesday.

    Katie and Beth--yes, the developmental stage of the writer is critical to determining needs, and a mismatch can result in a lot of disillusionment. Finding someone you're comfortable with is important. But if you want to get better, I think you must find someone who will push you. Hard.

    Josh--Ah, excellent. When you do jump into the beta pool, just remember to add positive stuff, too. Sometimes I get so intense about marking what needs to get better that I think my feedback seems negative. Making an extra effort to notice and identify strengths makes the rest more palatable and, therefore, more helpful.

  13. Great post Sarah! I'm a lot like you, I prefer to give a comprehensive critique rather than just a few comments here and there. And I like to give train of thought impressions as I read as well. But I've learned to ask what people want beforehand (otherwise my hundreds of comments can be a bit daunting) ;)


  14. BAD EM! I was prepared to answer a different question based on the title of this post. Seriously though, this is a great post. I love how thorough you are.

  15. You sound like my kind of beta.

    I need people to read without telling me how wonderful it is...

    I want to know if the story makes sense to someone who never met me in my life.

    It's also very likely that I will beta a lot like you.

    Anyway, just dropped by to check out your blog. :-)

  16. hi miss sarah! is a beta reader just the same as a cp? after reading this for sure im scared of you. ha ha. this is just a real big help for stuff i could look for on my own before i could wanna send it to a beta reader. for sure im gonna do a copy of this post for my writer folder. for me i just wanna be a really good writer so if i got zillions of read stuff on my wip from a beta its ok. but i gotta tell you the first time pretty much shocked me out and got me some frustrated cause of all the stuff i could need to do to fix it. ack! then i got going and now that storys way better. hooray for betas!
    ...smiles from lenny

  17. At this stage of my writing career, my critiques concentrate more on trust fall, plot issues, character development and such things. I stay away from the grammar, unless it's obvious and pokes me in the eye. I mark up repetition anywhere I see it.

    Your critiques sound like manuscript boot camp and I'd LOVE a CP like you! If you can't take the heat get out of the kitchen, right?... *ahem* Sorry for the cliché :)

    Award for you over on my blog today, btw!

  18. I joined a critique group almost a year ago now and they've been very helpful. My critique group has been completely though one of my novels and I'm planning to starting bringing another. I didn't thinking about wanting different things in a critique until I decided to begin bringing in the my other novel to my critique group because the two stories are in different stages. In the novel they just finished, I wanted critique on everything I could improve because I want to get it ready to show agents. In the novel I'll be starting to bring soon, it's barely past the first draft and I'm still deciding who my audience should be so I'm not looking at every little thing yet.