Friday, 21 February 2014

A Bit Better with a Beta

Writing seems like such a lonely practice, doesn't it? You sit alone in a room and type away on your computer, with nought but the bright monitor before you to keep you company. Personally, I don't mind this. It's good to get away and put your thoughts on paper, to construct your own ideas into transmissible words, it's a wondrous gift for both writer and reader. Yet some people don't like it. Especially if you spend too long writing and not enough time out and about, or if you're working on a particularly nasty story and you don't want to risk spoiling it, it might seem like the loneliest thing in the world.

But writing doesn't have to be lonely. In fact, I find that your writing will get better if you get someone else to help. They can help you along the way, although they don't have to, but mostly they're there as a safety net and a guiding influence if you're having trouble writing.
I'm actually one myself for my Beloved, and she is one for me, but these people don't have to be someone so close to you. They could just be a good friend, someone that reads through your writing and helps to find those little mistakes that you missed due to familiarity.
These wonderful, magical people are known in writing circles as "beta readers", The Word of the Day is: 'BETA READER'
Beta reader /baytə reedə/ n. A person who reads a work of fiction with a critical eye, with the aim of improving grammar, spelling, characterization, and general style of a story prior to its release to the general public. Also, betareader; beta.
If you write without a beta reader, that is perfectly fine. I did so for the first twelve years of my writing experience, and it works out very well. Especially if you are trying to find out who you are, it's a good idea to work on your own. However, if you are taking that next step and are a bit worried about striving ahead on your own, you should look into finding a beta reader.
In my experience, the best kind of beta reader is a writer, and a good friend. For two reasons, firstly, because writers understand what it's like to write, they have a better understanding of what you're trying to do, and as a friend they will be honest; Secondly, because if they're a writer then you could become their beta reader as well, making for a fair partnership.

However, today, I am not telling you how or why to get a beta reader. I mean, yes, I sort of already did, but that's not the point of today's blog post. No, today, I am going to tell you how to be a beta reader!
When I began beta reading for my Beloved, I took over for her other beta reader (they had an argument) and so I saw what he said about her reading from the notes he left on her drafts. I have to say, they were really crap. He didn't know what he was doing, and with the feedback I get from other people that have critiqued my work, I have an understanding of bad critics and beta readers.
That's right! Today, I am critiquing the critics, because everyone can have an opinion or find faults, and I'm going to tell you how to do it well, with a few tips. Here we go.

Don't Rewrite Their Words
Everyone has a different way of writing. Everyone has their own style and voice, and so if two writers were told to write the same thing, they would write it different. Even if they were told to emulate another author's style, they would still write differently, because everyone has a life, personality and history that feeds into how and what they write.
Famous writer E.B White once said - "Writing is Rewriting", and I find that it's very true, if you're a writer you will probably have proofread your own work. As a result, if you're a writer and a beta reader, when you proofread someone else's work there's a tendency to treat it like your own. Now, when you do this, their work will sound "wrong" and you'll feel this urge to write something they've written "better". This is because, when you proofread your own work, you often edit it to make it suit your own voice. But since your writing voice is different from theirs, to edit this down will mean editing out the original writer entirely. For instance, I often write around action and motions. "Someone did this, this and this, feeling like this while they did this". But my Beloved, often writes based more around poetry and emotion, something like: "Someone was feeling, like an element of the mysterious something". I think it's beautiful. But if I were to edit it down, all of that poetry, imagery and emotion would be lost, replaced with action.
So, as you beta read, don't look to write stuff for them unless there's simple grammatical error (and even then, make sure your writer knows, so that they can put their spin on it). This is like babysitting, you don't take over and start breastfeeding, you're just there to make sure the story is behaving itself. If you think something feels off, read it a few times to make sure it's not just editing it into your own voice, then if not adjust where necessary. I find that the best way to do this is to find out what your writer's voice is like. That way, you can reinforce their writing to sound more like them, and assist their blossoming talent and abilities, rather than forcing them to write like you.

Balance Critiquing and Reading
I have a lot of fun reading stories, and if your writer is a very good one (or just having a good day), then it's easy to get lost in their story. This is a good thing, don't think it's not. However, the purpose of beta reading is for the writer to test the waters of their audience. If you're not giving enough feedback, then you're not doing as well as you can, as a beta reader.
I have a rule, which you should follow: If you feel a strong emotion, comment.
You are a measuring stick, a test sample, of how an audience will react. So if your writer is doing a good job, they should be told, so they know their strengths and what they're doing right.
But also, when commenting, there's this habit to go overboard. I use Google Drive to critique, whereby you can leave comments/notations in the margins of the page. And if I'm having a lot of fun, sometimes I have this urge to comment after every sentence; this is just overdoing it. More worrisome is that, if I'm particularly flustered by something, I sometimes start ranting in the comment section out of frustration.
Keep all of this to a minimum. If you're annoyed, then that's worth mentioning, but don't spend a long time whining if a simple: "This is a plothole, I suggest you do this." will suffice. If you love it a simple: "great dialogue" or "I love this imagery" is all you need. As for negative comments, I find swearing helps to get your aggrevation across succinctly. For positive comments, it's a good idea to talk to the writer later, so if you want to gush about the parts you liked then that is the time to do it.
For this reason, I prefer to ask a question instead of make a statement in my comments, since that often helps the writer to think of the answer. It does depend on how you critique, but when I ask questions I often get unexpected answers, so it's a good way of sparking the imagination.

Be Cruel to be Kind
Why not start with another author quote, hey? Arthur Quiller-Couch famously said, in a lecture about writing: "Murder your Darlings". He was talking about your own writing, because you sometimes have to be brutal. Well, with other people's writing, you shouldn't be cruel, but you will have to be brutally honest. You might think you're being sweet going:
  "Oh, see, this dialogue. I'm not quite sure if it's as good as you're capable of."
But if you what you really want to say is:
  "I don't like any of this, it adds nothing to the story."
Just say so. Don't be mean, don't insult the writer because you don't like a piece of their work (that is what lead to the arguments between my Beloved and her last beta reader), but don't be afraid of expressing your opinion, unless you think you're in the minority, and even then, you should still share your criticisms, so long as you are fully honest. The fact of the matter is, you're not going to love every story. But if you're honest with your writer, then they will be honest with you, and you can work together to make better stories. Although, I must add one HUGE Addendum to this:
If you think the story needs a total rewrite, be gentle. Having to write a whole story again is rough after spending so much time and effort the first time, and even worse if your told by someone else that your work isn't good enough. So, if you honestly believe that a work needs a complete overhaul, be apologetic, nice, careful and honest about it. If possible, it's a good idea to offer help as well, since you're asking a lot of someone to start again from scratch.

Think About the Big Picture
When your working with someone else, in a small space, on a single story to fix the little pieces, it can seem like a fun little club. You and them, side by side, or working in the one document can be quite intimate. But you need to remember what you're working towards, and that is writing for the public. It might not be, if not, work towards that, but most writers are writing for some kind of audience.
So, for one thing, you need to remember that other people are going to read your Writer's work, so it needs to be clear. Especially if you're good friends with your writer and like to talk shop all the time, there might be back and forth trade secrets that you both know, so you may then forget to say it in the story. A few times, I've asked my writer a question, only for her to tell me the answer, and I will have to remind her: "You haven't told the reader that."
As well as that, you need to remember that this isn't all about you, just because you're the beta reader. As a major example, there is a story that my Beloved wrote which I do not like. It really bugs me and I don't understand the point of it, let alone the way the magic works or why . . . it bothers me. However, when she sent it into a magazine, it was accepted immediately. When she showed it to her friend, she also said it was amazing, just like a fairytale.
So, don't go losing sight of the fact that, as much as you may try not to be, you will be biased. Sometimes your criticisms are just opinions and you don't have all the answers, sometimes you won't like something because it's a genre you dislike, or it talks about something you disagree with. So, if you do dislike something, it's a good idea to find out why. That way, you will have a better understanding of whether or not your criticism has merit. If done properly, you can find yourself critiquing a story you don't like, and yet still manage to make it better for the audience that does.

In conclusion, beta reading can be a lot of fun and having a beta reader can work wonders on your fiction and writing endeavours. I honestly believe that writers have to be a little crazy to be writers, locking themselves away from society to live in a fantasy world. But a problem shared is a problem halved, and misery loves company. So if you can find someone else to share your madness with, you might just find not only a better story, but also a friend for life. And don't think this is some kind of amateurish trick to get into the big leagues, because it's not. Some of the most famous writers in the world had friends they worked with that wrote together and helped to make writing easier.
Writers like J.R.R. Tolkien; C.S. Lewis & Roger Lancelyn Green were all members of the Inklings literary discussion group. Agatha Christie; Dorothy L. Sayers; G.K. Chesterton & many more mystery writers formed The Detection Club [they even wrote a book together, I wrote a post that mentions it]. Even famous, modern writers like of Neil Gaiman; Diana Wynne Jones & George R. R. Martin have also taken part in the Milford SF Writer's Conference to critique and read the works over others. The list goes on. Just because you don't like working alone doesn't mean you're an amateur . . . because you don't have to be alone.

I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and until next time, I'm off to have some fun with my mates this weekend. Because sometimes, the best thing to do when you're having trouble writing, is to have some fun and be social . . .

1 comment:

  1. As an addendum to the second point, COMPASSION is really important when talking about a short story or novel that does not work. While you should say if a story doesn't work, and remain honest, you must also tread the fine line between brutal honesty and harsh criticism.
    Writers write terrible stories; that's a fact of life. All beta readers can do is help to make the terrible stories better, readable, and perhaps worth publishing.


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