Armed with a (new) totebag full of supplies — highlighters, my stack of notecards, pens galore, post-its, flip-flops (so my awesome new boots don’t die if these dark clouds make good on their threats), and two file folders full of paper — I’m ready to work.
Not that I haven’t been ready to work this past week and a half — quite the opposite, actually. Last week was quite a productive one. So productive, in fact, that I looked up this morning and noticed I was verging on an unprecedented two week gap between posts.
Perhaps you assume that I’m working on turning my second draft from clunky to glorious. Or, perhaps you assume that by “productive,” I mean making major progress in getting a friend caught up on LOST by hosting a marathon last Wednesday. Or, if you’re really really really optimistic, you assume that I’m SO BUSY because I’m spending at least an hour at the gym every day.
In these assumptions, you’d be partly right. (An hour at the gym each day is too generous. And the LOST marathon? We limited ourselves to three episodes.) Actually, a big portion of last week, in addition to all of those things, was devoted to learning something new.
For the first time, I’m learning how to beta read for someone. (Feel free to out yourself, special someone!)
“What’s the big deal? Don’t you just read the thing and tell them what you think about it?” Well, yes and no. In essence, you read the thing and tell the writer what you think. Really, though, I’m learning to READ the thing and TELL the writer what I think and WHY. (In case you missed it, I emphasized a few words there…)
Being a beta reader has been excellent practice in both communication and in reading with an observant eye. Does this work? Why does it work? Why not? Do I like this part? Why do I like it? What is going on underneath the surface of the printed words? Do I have any guesses at what’s coming next? Too many guesses, or just the right amount? Am I confused during any parts? At what point did I become confused?
You get the picture. All of these examples can be summed up like this: I’m learning to be specific. To say, “I liked this scene because ______ and _______ and ______, and it really works well with the overall theme you’re trying to communicate (which is _____, if I’m right?) because of ______.” versus “That scene seemed to go well with her character and I liked reading it.” What does that even mean, you know? Being specific, as you go, lets the writer see exactly where she has accomplished her goals, and where she wasn’t as clear as she’d hoped to be.
Beta reading has also taught me how much to insert myself into my comments. It’s a little bit tricky to balance subjectivity with objectivity. My approach has evolved into I’m going to go ahead and communicate my opinions, but not as FACT with capital letters. The truth is, I am a reader, and I have an opinion. Those truths alone make my perspective valid, so if I’m getting something from what she wrote, that means it is possible for someone to perceive it in that particular way. However, the trick is to communicate that perspective with the understanding that I am only one person. My comments and thoughts, while valid, may only represent 1% of all readers, so I should present them in a way that’s honest and sincere, yet objective.
Therein lies freedom. Freedom for the beta reader to honestly communicate what she thinks works and what doesn’t; freedom for the writer to take those thoughts and do what she thinks is best for the WIP and for all readers.
Not only is this helpful for the writer, it’s (obviously) a good learning lesson for you as the reader. It’s a good way to take a break from your own work while still working out your mind — I’m super excited about diving back into my own novel today, now that I’ve had so much practice reading someone else’s work objectively and looking for specifics.
Those of you who have experience in this — whether from the perspective of the writer or the beta reader — do you have any advice or comments to add?
Now! To dive into work…