The Specifics: Learning to Beta

5 Apr

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…


8 Responses to “The Specifics: Learning to Beta”

  1. cynthia Monday / 5 April 10 at 8:32 am #

    I do think think this is a great exercise–of benefit to the reader as much as to the writer. The only thing I have to suggest is using a different color marker (I know you have them) for first impressions and 2nd impressions. It’s often helpful to see what a reader first thought and then with more information or time or another read, then what she thought. Have fun!

  2. Rowenna Monday / 5 April 10 at 9:15 am #

    You’re so right that learning to read critically is a skill that every writer should learn! For one, no better community building than being one another’s beta readers! But also, being a good reader is the first step to being a good editor–I found that I was much better at tearing apart my own writing after spending some time reading and commenting on others’.

    I especially love seeing how response can vary–I recently had several writer-friends crit the first few chapters of a work of mine. Some spots encouraged disparate opinion–half loved the first papragraph, half thought it had to go. Learning to read between the lines of “I love” and “Erg, yuck” to see what’s working and what can be fixed is hard, but so glad I’m learning!

  3. islesam Monday / 5 April 10 at 11:37 am #

    I’ve always wanted to be a beta reader! I think the opportunity could help shed a little light on my own writing. It really makes you look back and analyze how your own work is being done and what people might intrepret it as. When thinking about needed edits and rewrites for my own, I always think of my Senior AP English teacher from high school and the things she would pull from a simple passage. Incredible.

  4. Linda Cassidy Lewis Monday / 5 April 10 at 8:23 pm #

    Yes, it’s me you’re beta-reading for. I’m happy to hear it’s of mutual benefit. It’s actually a double benefit for me. I get your terrific feedback and, since I’m about to start a beta-read for someone else, I think I’ll do a better job of it after reading what you’ve given me on mine.

    I’m looking forward to your next installment for me, but first I hope you have an amazingly productive editing session.

  5. Merrilee Tuesday / 6 April 10 at 3:33 pm #

    Damn Kayla. I have been beta reading for years, and you just taught me something new. Thanks! I will have to amend my critical ways and take a more informative approach 🙂

  6. Melissa Friday / 16 April 10 at 3:23 pm #


  7. nduff Tuesday / 20 April 10 at 10:32 am #

    You are so right, there is a huge difference between just reading and giving your opinion and subjectively explaining why something does or doesn’t work. Thank you for point out the importance of looking at things through an unbiased eye (or at least acknowledging your biases).


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