I may have mentioned this before, but I really love beta-reading for my fellow authors. It’s a lot of fun to get a first glimpse at a fellow writer’s work and to be able to ask questions and offer suggestions that could lead to a better book. We always need independent opinions in order to write the best book possible, and it’s satisfying to be able to give those opinions.
I’m actually beta-reading for two of my author friends right now. The books I’m reading are very different from each other and even more different from what I write. But again, that’s half the fun of it. By helping each other out we get the chance to sample a wide variety of styles and topics and to give feedback about them.
And therein lies the point.
Yep, it’s immensely helpful to have people beta-read your work. It’s essential to get that outside opinion on something you’re so close to that you can’t see the flaws in it. It can be hard to let that story go, knowing it will come back with scars, but that’s what makes it a better story and you a better writer.
But it also makes you a better writer to be on the other side of the process. When you beta-read for someone else you are actually working on your own skills. Yeah, you heard me! Reading someone else’s unpolished work helps you to become a better writer.
There’s a difference between reading a book and beta-reading a manuscript. When you’re just reading a book you can let yourself go, immerse yourself in a story. But when you’re beta-reading for an author who has asked for an opinion, reading becomes an exercise in perception. Sure, you can read for a gut feeling, but you will better serve the author by looking to get under the bones of the story.
When I beta-read I go looking for mistakes. Sounds horrific, doesn’t it. It is, in a way. I’ll be the first to admit that when my editor and beta-readers send me their opinions I cringe and whine and rage at the things they point out. Then I put the grumbling away and follow their suggestions. So it follows that when I beta-read for someone, I point out the pimples, call out the continuity errors, and pick things apart. Why? Because as hard as it is to hear criticism, it makes me much sadder to let a fellow author publish something that will garner criticism.
But beta-reading for our peers is not just pointing out someone else’s mistakes. Too often we can’t see the faults in our stories because our minds know what the book is supposed to look like. We gloss over our own problems. When you read someone else’s unfinished work it gives you a chance to identify the same mistakes that you make yourself. The more you notice what doesn’t work in someone else’s writing, the more likely you are to develop the ability to see those things in your own work.
It doesn’t stop there. The point of beta-reading for others is to give them feedback. Feedback is a funny thing. There is a right way and a wrong way to do it. Sure, you may have spotted a glaring plot error in your peer’s work—something so egregious that you just know they’re going to get criticized for it if they don’t fix it before publication. However, telling your friend “dude, that sucks SO BAD” is not the way to go about doing it.
I know I have made the mistake of being too harsh in giving feedback with some of the people I’ve beta-read for. In fact, I’m surprised that Samantha Warren still wants to be my friend. Ha! But she is my friend and I believe in the power of her imagination and I want to see her succeed. I sincerely hope that I am able to deliver the bad news in a constructive way and that I encourage her by pointing out the good news too. That’s what I aim for, at least.
Ah, but pointing out the things that work in a peer’s story when you’re beta-reading it is more than just a way to soften the blow of things that still need work. As writers we can get awfully critical of each other’s work and our own. It’s far easier to point out flaws and faults sometimes than it is to praise what’s working.
The things that work in a story are just as important as the problems. We need to learn to see those things clearly in our own writing as much as we need to seek them out in other people’s writing. The things that work are generally our greatest strengths, and knowing our greatest strengths is essential to our growth as writers. Knowing that we excel at creating vivid characters or that we have a crazy-interesting imagination or that we craft sentences that slither up and down a reader’s spine and never leave them encourages us to do more of that. Again, finding those things in the works of others not only encourages them, it can inspire us.
That’s the heart of it, really. I find beta-reading for my peers to be unendingly inspirational. It enriches my writing life to be able to help them. That’s why I encourage all writers to beta-read for their peers. I hope there are no writers out here who think that they are above reading someone else’s work to give it an opinion. Even New York Times bestsellers beta-read for each other. It is our first line of defense against publishing sub-par material and our greatest source of inspiration to keep on writing.
So are you beta-reading for someone?