Beta Reading Discussion

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  • #10545
    JaneShuff
    Participant

    Here’s a separate topic for a discussion about Beta Reading. Please feel free to contribute to the discussion both on your experiences of having your work beta read and on beta reading other people’s book.

    I’ll kick it off by repeating that Beta Reading has taught me a lot. I approach it from my experience of the book as a reader. Noting down my responses in the text of possible – where I switched off, where I was gripped, where I was confused – both while I was reading and afterwards – did I love the characters, what did I think the book was about, what can I remember about the plot and so on. I often at this stage see if I can write a short (very short) synopsis.

    I then try and analyse the reasons behind my reading experience – sometimes they’re personal, sometimes they’re to do with the book – and develop that to give feedback.

    #10546
    Athelstone
    Moderator

    Thanks for the topic. May I add that I’m a terrible beta reader. I would like to be more useful and hope to pick up some tips if this discussion develops and hopefully turns into something more.

    #10547
    Libby
    Participant

    Beta reading other people’s writing has taught me all sorts of things. I wouldn’t want to be without it. It’s satisfying too, that link with someone else’s thought processes and their ambitions for their work.

    I can come back with my experiences of being beta read but in the meantime, as Jane says: ‘my experience of the book as a reader.’

    I can’t help reading every piece of fiction, published or not, through a writer’s lens. For beta reading this inevitably leads to an editor’s list of thoughts, but so it can with published books; for instance, the bestseller whose narrative voice inexplicably keeps changing tense; the otherwise supple writer who grinds the gears when moving point of view or going into or out of a flashback.

    In the background there’s a third question. If someone hopes to be trad published, successfully self pubbed or get placed in a competition, it probably matters that they show a sense of contemporary writing and readers. Most writers do. It’s generally not a problem, though sometimes I feel a novel or story could stretch a bit more to reference modern concerns and topics, all while not being clunky! This is different from wondering whether someone’s draft novel may meet an agent’s idea of a coming trend or slot successfully into a movement that’s been running a while. Publishing and its fashions and mechanics are beyond my knowledge. And like a lot to do with beta reading, the question of whether something is ‘now’ is subjective, and my own writing, and reading, is often not of-the-moment which is perhaps why it’s something I look at.

    Here are other things that I consider, some more objective than others. They all rise from what I think important and may not feel useful for other readers and writers.

    Voice – basically, is there one?

    Characterisation – can I see and hear the characters? Are there too many of them for a short story or first chapter?

    Dialogue – realistic? Different characters sound different? Used as an info dump?

    Setting – not enough or too much? If there’s historical detail does it sound right.

    Use of sensory info, not restricted to sight alone

    Sense of a wider world beyond the page (not necessarily relevant)

    Sense of place (again, the role of place varies according to writer)

    Language – rhythmic, varied, good range of vocabulary. If figurative language is used, does it work?

    Style. This morphs with language and probably everything else as well. Too much telling, not enough showing? Over-use of filter words. Not enough variation in narrative/psychic distance, or awkward use of same. Overwritten/underwritten? Maybe a mix of the two, and a patchiness in general.

    Syntax, grammar, spelling. Paragraphs. Novice writers sometimes don’t know how to get the best out of paragraphs but experienced writers can miss the value of a paragraph change, for example — one the things it can be difficult to judge in one’s own writing.

    Structure. I look at this at the end though I’ll have started asking questions about it from the beginning. Starts in right place? Not rushed towards end? All sorts can come under structure. Right point of view? Background details slipped in effectively or too much/little backstory? Narrative drive/rising tension and appropriately varied pacing? Is there an authorly awareness of taking the reader with them, and conversely of letting the reader work out stuff on their own.

    Themes/wider questions – are these interesting? This is where I’d think about the general contemporaneity of the story and writing, applying the same questions to historical stories as to modern ones.

    If this is a competition entry has it fulfilled the brief.

    For all writing, does it achieve its own aims? Does a dystopian narrative feel dystopian – that kind of thing. With novice authors it may be impossible to judge the aims if they don’t yet know themselves what kind of writing theirs is or really what they want to achieve. But, for example, if something starts off reading like literary fiction, does it keep this up. And where does the writing feel most comfortable.

    • This reply was modified 2 months, 1 week ago by Libby.
    #10549
    JaneShuff
    Participant

    Wow. So so much interesting and useful stuff, @Libby ! It would make a brilliant checklist for anyone. It will take me a bit of time to assimilate it all. I will say though, with my ‘Being betaread’ hat on, that I wouldn’t expect a beta reader of a whole novel to cover all that for me in one go if anyone is feeling a bit daunted.


    @athelstone
    Why do you say you’re a terrible beta reader?

    Let me throw this out as a thought. We write for readers. I have asked people with no knowledge of the craft of writing to beta read my books and to tell me where they got bored or confused. Which bits they enjoyed. Which characters they liked or felt strongly about and which they forgot about straight away. I ask them to tell me what happened in the book (very illuminating btw!). Just straightforward stuff. Obviously they can’t give me any insight into why they felt as they did but nevertheless their comments are gold.

    So I don’t think anyone can be a terrible Beta Reader. I don’t think there is only one blue print for beta reading.

    That’s enough for now – going away to cogitate a bit more.

    #10550
    Athelstone
    Moderator

    Why do you say you’re a terrible beta reader?

    It’s a bit like when I had to read books for exams at school. It was no reflection on the work itself and I’ve read many of the books since with great pleasure. Something about picking up a book for a purpose (a meta-purpose if you like) that isn’t simply pleasure, idle curiosity, whatever, and my focus is all over the place. Curiously enough, at university when I was struggling with philosophers who are generally amongst the worst prose writers who ever lived, it was somehow easier, because trying to extract a meaning from their tortured syntax was a different exercise altogether.

    #10551
    Thea
    Participant

    Libby and Jane have come up with some excellent questions and I can’t add much except for:

    Does the writer have any specific questions? This might be something that’s crucial to whether the story works or not, e.g. Did you work out whodunit? If so, when?

    Did you notice any discrepancies / inconsistencies in the story?

    Were you conscious of writing tics?

    Beta reading is a good exercise for the writing muscles and I don’t think one has to write in a specific genre in order to critique, though it helps if one enjoys reading that genre and has a knowledge of its conventions.

    #10552
    RichardB
    Participant

    I don’t reckon myself as much of a beta reader either. Partly it may be lack of confidence in my own opinions, but mostly I think it’s because I seem to have trouble thinking analytically about writing, including my own. Years ago when I did the S-E Course, I repeatedly had the experience of Debi, or one of the others, telling me I’d been clever and thinking, ‘Really? Is that what I did? I just banged it down that way because it felt right.’ When I’m writing I don’t think about plot structure schemes or character arcs but play it by ear, pants it if you will. Maybe that’s one reason I’ve never got anywhere with my submissions…

    I am in awe of Libby’s check-list, as Jane calls it. I could never think that clearly and hold all that in mind as I read.

    Also, I worry about hurting people’s feelings, especially since I know I react badly to negative criticism. You’re not doing any favours if you gloss over imperfections and problems, but how do you break it gently if the writing is really bad?

    A year or two after my S-E Course one of my fellow students asked me to beta read her novel, now more or less complete. I readily agreed, for she’d come over on the course as articulate and intelligent and I knew the book had a compelling concept, but when I came to read it – oh dear. The honest verdict would have been, ‘Sorry, but this hasn’t a hope.’ I agonised for ages over what I should say. I even asked Debi’s advice. And when I did finally reply the lady said she’d now decided to abandon it! Not that I blamed her.

    The experience rather put me off beta reading.

    #10556
    Kate
    Participant

    I’ve found beta reading an excellent way to learn. I think it’s easier to see crafting mistakes in others work, and then I try to carry that knowledge across to my own writing. Easier said than done.

    I always jot margin notes as I read to record my initial reactions. It’s harder on a reread to see the parts that jolt me, and you only get one chance to suck your reader in, so I think first impressions are important.

    Libby’s given a fabulous list of things to consider when beta reading. I must make a note of them.

    #10557
    Knicks
    Participant

    This is a really great thread! The checklist and things-to-consider offered up so far are treasure. I’ve only beta read twice, and the fact that the writers are gorgeous at their writing probably made it easy for me to gush feedback and even get critical (mostly just asking questions for my own clarity, and hopefully theirs as well) without hurting their feelings at all.

    I empathize with what Richard has said about lacking the ability to break it gently to those whose storytelling still has a lot of work to do, in a way that doesn’t hurt their feelings. But I think being direct is best, not only because they asked, but because it is there to help and not hurt at all. You kinda just got to get yourself out of the way, get out of your feelings and pride, and be open to learning and improving your craft. If you’ve reached the stage where you’re asking for beta readers, then you’ve reached the stage where you are so serious about the success of your work that it isn’t really about you feeling good in the moment, its about the work being good and having a future.

    That said, I’ve never been beta read for before, not by writers anyway, and so I might sound real good saying all the above, only to end up sobbing hideously into my pillow when my feedback comes in, haha. After the tears though, I intend to take all that is said, and continue the work in the hope that considering and trusting the expertise of my writerly peers and their experience with my work, will pay off.

    I don’t know how good I am at beta reading, I tend to stick to my first general impressions and I don’t think I get hyper-analytical or critical or anything like that, but I do try to be as thorough and comprehensive in conveying my impressions as possible. Not only what I felt, but why I felt that way, what about how they wrote affected me, and why it did, what I really love about the writing, the characters, the story, what I didn’t understand, my favourite lines or bits of prose, what called me back to read more, what lingered for me long after I read. I give bits of feedback using track changes in Word documents like a little cat bringing gifts of dead things that I hope to be useful, lols. I hope they are useful.

    I think I’ll end with the following questions that can be added to any beta reader’s checklist, including my own.

    1. Does the story feel complete? Does it feel like it is missing anything? What can I improve on?
    2. Do the characters feel like real people?
    3. Does the dialogue flow, does it sound natural, is it readable?
    4. Are the details that are shared and revealed to the reader as the story progresses done so in a satisfying way, or do they need to be tweaks to the angle of how those details are introduced?
    5. How is the writing style and voice? Are they consistent, do any areas in the prose stand out as hitting an odd/off/sour note?
    6. Is the balance between what is happening, the dialogue and the emotional resonance of the characters well done?
    7. Do the character development and interaction feel complete?
    8. Does the world feel real and true, and if not, in what ways you would suggest this be improved for that sense of clarity, authenticity and completion?
    9. What did you personally enjoy about the direction this story took, what were you curious about, and invested in? What did you want to see happen, and what questions did it leave you asking?
    10. Do you have any other thoughts or impressions you’d like to share, not covered by these questions?

    I hope this was useful too 😊✨

    #10563
    Libby
    Participant

    I think I’d be a different kind of reader, @RichardB, if I’d been a more instinctive writer. It took me a lot of patience and many disappointing surprises to learn how fiction works, and how my own writing didn’t make the grade. I still have a way to go. Having been quite good at academic writing – though a plodding academic for the short period I tried it – my skills weren’t generally transferable.

    I’ve never come across any creative writing which had absolutely nothing to recommend it. Even when the author hasn’t yet grasped the role of imagination in making themself and the reader think, there’s usually a germ of an interesting story idea or a sense of rhythm in the sentences.

    The possibility of upsetting the writer too much is always a concern. As well as finding things to offer encouragement about I try to show I’m taking the writing and author seriously, that whatever their aim is I think it’s a worthwhile one.

    #10564
    RichardB
    Participant

    I’m probably too instinctive for my own good. I’ve been told at various times that I have a natural feel for plot and pace, that my characters speak with their own distinctive voices, even that I’m good at that notoriously difficult thing, sex, but I never step aside and coldly think about any of these things. When I see phrases like ‘transformational arc’ my eyes glaze over. As for writing for the market, well…

    I take your point about writing with nothing to recommend it. That MS that gave me so much heartache had a quite fascinating, nay chilling, presmise (think John Wyndham meets Alfred Hitchcock) and a strongly drawn, believably flawed heroine, but it also had clunky writing and massive plot holes.

    #10565
    Libby
    Participant

    This discussion is really helpful. I feel a bit fraudulent talking about this stuff as though I spend hours every week beta reading and have heaps of experience. Apart from requests from my self-edit group I generally feedback on short pieces of writing about once a week, if that, on Jericho Writers’ Townhouse. I might also review a synopsis or pitch or respond to other critiquers’ comments.

    I do wonder if I offer too many/unwanted suggestions. I like it when critiquers do it with my writing but this may not be a universal wish. It would be useful to know what other Denizens prefer.

    Hi @JaneShuff , you’re right, my list looks daunting and I don’t think I’d ever include all these topics in a beta read. Two reasons really. An experienced writer will be good at most of these things already. A novice might sink under this amount of detail; it could put them off writing and off me too. Also, novices often seem to have one or two main things which are stopping the rest of the text working, such as too much backstory or too much telling, so those would be the topics I’d focus on.

    Having said that, when it comes to experienced writers, especially if they’re getting ready to submit the ms, I would work through the full checklist and add in whatever else came to mind, otherwise I’d feel I was serving them short. They can always ignore what I say 🙂

    #10567
    Libby
    Participant

    School literature lessons often had a lot to answer for @Athelstone . I gave up with them and returned to Eng Lit A level ten years later at evening classes. A vastly improved experience 🙂

    #10581
    Squidge
    Participant

    Wowser…beta reading…

    As a beta reader, I do try to find something good to say as well as making suggestions for improvements. I don’t think I go into it with a checklist per se – I use gut feeling a lot as to what feels ‘right’ to me as a reader. But I sometimess feel that I’m not an objective enough beta reader – I don’t always ‘get’ other authors’ writing so worry I’m making recommendations that aren’t suitable for particular authors. I always state accept, amend, reject, and that I’m not perfect at picking up everything that might be wrong. I’ve had some unpleasant experiences too – one in particular springs to mind, when I was asked to edit something and the author ignored absolutely everything, and the finished product (which needed some pretty major improvements) was published as was. She never spoke to me again…

    Being beta read…very hard to receive the critiques sometimes, but I’m far enough along the road to know who I can approach for beta reading that will give me honest appraisals and whose own writing is of such a standard I trust their opinions. And it’s been completely invaluable in terms of making progress or ironing out glitches.

    Beta reading others’ work helps you to see mistakes in your own, and being on the receiving end makes you more sympathetic and thoughtful about how you present your thoughts to the author you’re beta reading for.

    I quite enjoy doing it, if I’m honest. I love to see a less-than-perfect piece polished up to its absolute best when the author’s taken everything on board and decided what to do with it…

    #10588
    Bella
    Participant

    I also don’t beta read to any sort of checklist. I will always check first with the author what they particularly want feedback on – if they feel something might not be working, but aren’t sure, or whatever. Then I will make sure to address those issues, as well as make other comments as I think necessary.

    I have quite a sharp eye from the proofreading point of view, so will point out typos if I spot them, unless specifically asked not to. (Or I may get so carried away by the story I stop bothering to notice typos, in which case I will say at what point that has happened.)

    Any beta reading I’ve had done for me has been very useful, helpful, and given more feedback than I had been promised. It can be tough but the worst I’ve had is a paid-for full manuscript assessment from Jericho (as WW). By “worst” I actually mean a reply so quick that I could not believe the editor had read it thoroughly, and one so padded out with boiler plate information that there was not a great deal of helpful material in there. The editor clearly thought it was crap. It was, I now realise, truly grim – but it was salvageable and I was none the wiser really on why it was grim, so at that point I couldn’t salvage it.

    I always try to point out the good as well as the stuff that’s not so good. That said, I have beta read a lot of work for one author and now know her pretty well. So in her case if I am short of time we are both happy for me to read and only to point out what’s not working. That would be depressing if you weren’t expecting it, though.

    The biggest down side of beta reading is that I now tend to “beta read” novels I am reading for pleasure. Sigh.

    #10591
    Libby
    Participant

    This is in answer to Thea’s post about asking the writer if they have questions. It’s also a general comment.

    Knowing whether the writer has specific questions is very helpful. Re genre I’m less confident with those I know little about and would rather leave them to someone else. Women’s commercial fiction or literary fiction, though the latter in particular is a bed of subjectivity, are familiar territory, as is realist fiction in general. But fantasy, for instance. I haven’t read enough. And very long novels: it’s generally only first chapters I look at any case but with drafts of 200k words plus, such a large structure is too foreign to me. Police procedurals: if a PP isn’t working, I wouldn’t have much sense of what’s amiss unless it was generic problems such as showing vs telling or character development.

    #10608
    Sandra
    Participant

    WHOOPS and apologies – I missed this, through being away and then returning with much to catch up with.
    I’ve many, many reasons to be immeasurably grateful for the careful reading, insight and sensible, sensitive suggestions put forward by several beta readers of my novels while being aware that I am likely a poor beta reader, partly because I lack much in the way of analytical ability (a houseful of scientists hammered that home!) and partly because I am a passive reader, i.e. I accept what and how the writer tells me as their intent and adjust my expectations accordingly. That said, I do read just short of 200 books per year, so it’s not that I lack experience, just that anyone asking will get more of a reader’s response than that of a writer. And it’s no good asking me to read something from a genre I dislike.

    I’ve not properly read through all of this absorbing topic but will return to do so ASAP – thank you Jane for starting it.

    #10609
    Libby
    Participant

    Hi @Thea , I’m answering your post in a new box – I’m sure that’s not the technical term – so the conversation doesn’t slip into a Den Bermuda Triangle 🙂

    I’m happy with a maximum of 3k words unless it’s for a writer I have a friendship with, in which case a whole MS is absolutely fine and, indeed, a reason to celebrate. With a new or relatively inexperienced writer, I feel 3k is enough to pick up most big issues except for plot structure, and a synopsis can deal with plot though if the writer doesn’t want to send one that’s fine. Three thousand also works OK in terms of time required and reading from a screen. I can miss things on a screen that I’d pick up easily in hard copy, but in truth I don’t want to print off whole novels for people I don’t know and who might not take much or any notice of my comments! I sympathise with @Squidge .

    With experienced authors, however, I’ll happily print off an MS, even a very short one, so that I can really get into the writing and think about it. I printed all the stories in the Den winter challenge and was very happy to do so. (I also carefully dispose of them later, doing a mix of hand shredding and putting on the fire.)

    • This reply was modified 1 month, 3 weeks ago by Libby.
    • This reply was modified 1 month, 3 weeks ago by Libby.
    #10612
    Sandra
    Participant

    @ Libby – I confess I never print off an MS even for my own novels, but I do, when I’m feeling confident that the end is nigh, order it as a paperback book from Blurb.

    @ Richard – thank you for that description ‘instinctive writer’ which very accurately describes my creative approach (and as an artist too) It may sound like a talent but the effect is that not consciously knowing what I’ve done or how I got there means I am equally incapable of seeing how or why it hasn’t worked. (Which may be one explanation for why I am still gratefully working through the feedback returned in March, much to the novel’s benefit.)

    I’d also suggest it may be unhelpful to have too many beta readers, especially once you’ve found three or four who ‘get’ what you are doing and like it. (but only use two at a time).

    #10619
    RichardB
    Participant

    Credit where credit is due: I believe it was Libby who first used the phrase ‘instinctive writer,’ even if she was replying to me.

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