Beta Readers Rock

Over this past summer, friends gave me these comments on the draft of a new YA novel:

Jane Westrick, Untitled (detail), 2007

“I’m confused here. Are the characters sitting? Standing? Walking?”
“What is his motivation for doing this?”
“I don’t understand whether he sees his father as a hard-ass or a nurturing figure.”
“I can’t quite picture this character.”

These and other comments were unbelievably helpful! In some cases, I had quick fixes. A sentence here, a paragraph there. In others, I had to step back and rethink a scene or remind myself of the character’s motivation for doing what he did. But before friends called my attention to these spots, I didn’t perceive the problems.

Beta-reader-feedback is huge because authors totally fail at identifying all the places that aren’t working. Places where we “tell” instead of “show.” Places where we’re too abrupt. Or too wordy. Or use a metaphor that doesn’t work. Or whatever. These are the places that pull readers out of a story, and that need additional time, focus, and polish.

Last year I made the mistake of showing my agent a draft before it was ready, and this year I’m learning to be patient. The very act of circulating a draft requires tons of patience! I have to let go of my manuscript for months at a time, and the letting-go drives me crazy. Of course, I can work on a new story while a draft is out, and I can turn to projects people have paid me to focus on. But I have to admit that when one of my drafts is circulating, it feels as if my heart is circulating, too.

Agent Ted Weinstein
Agent Ted Weinstein

You’ve heard this adage before, and it’s worth hearing again, so here it is in the words of literary agent Ted Weinstein (not my agent, by the way; I just enjoyed reading this article in Writer’s Digest): There are no shortcuts and there is no substitute for doing the hard work of writing and revising and revising again.

Getting and responding to early-reader feedback is essential, and today I want to say, thank you.

Thank you to all of my early readers. Thank you to all the writers who participate in critique groups and take the time to read and encourage friends to polish their manuscripts before submitting to an agent or editor. It takes forever, I know! But the process is essential. And if you’re like me, you’re engaged in this writing gig for the sake of the process, anyway, right? (Okay, so there are other reasons, too, but process is big.) Polishing can make the difference between publication and not. Getting (and giving) beta-reader feedback is worth the time.

Guys Painting
Jane Westrick, Untitled, 37 in x 32 in, oil on canvas, 2007

P.S. – A huge thank you to visual artist (and daughter) Jane Westrick for permission to include her art in this post.

7 thoughts on “Beta Readers Rock”

  1. When I saw the [first] title of this post [when it still said “Early Readers Rock”], I was thinking of those beginning reader chapter books. I was totally wrong about the subject of the post.
    I agree with you. I just sent a novel to my beta readers. I have so many blind spots as an author, I need their input. I can be very vague sometimes.

  2. Hahahaha! That’s too funny. The double-meaning didn’t occur to me, but it should have! During my second semester at VCFA, I drafted a series of easy-readers. I haven’t gone back to them (they need focus and polish and some sort of overarching theme), but when I was drafting this post, they were the last thing on my mind. I suppose I should’ve titled this “Beta Readers rock.” I’ll see if wordpress will let me change this…

  3. Success! I just changed the title of this post from “Early Readers Rock” to “Beta Readers…” See, Linda — you just illustrated exactly what I was trying to say in this post. You’re an awesome beta reader. Thank you!

  4. I had the same reaction as Linda when this post first landed in my inbox, thinking, “Wow, has Anne decided to write for seven-year-olds?” Now that I have time to catch up on my blog reading, I see that you’ve changed the title. I will definitely need beta readers for my WiP, because I’m terrible at judging what works and what doesn’t. My theory is that if I was able to finish the novel, it worked, and if it fell apart in the middle, it didn’t.

  5. Love it, Lyn! And you know… sometimes I do think I’d like to write for 7-year olds. But so far, when I’ve tried, I haven’t found my way. When I write for the middle school age — ahhhh — feels like home. And I wonder: what is THAT all about? I have no idea! But as long as it works, I’ll keep it going.

  6. Anne, great post. I just want to give a shout out to all my early readers, there are five people out there who have sent me back and back again to my draft. They each saw different things, one looked at motivations, one saw the dialogue issues, another showed me where I wasn’t being authentic. Together, they are shaping my work and me. Iron sharpens iron, we need each other!

  7. Absolutely, Meredith. And such a good point — that different readers notice different issues. This reminds me of all the years my son was taking music lessons. One teacher might notice a problem with his posture, and another with his “embouchure” — the way his mouth was on the mouthpiece — and another, the angle of his wrist. Tiny things. But each mattered, and together they influenced the whole. It was all about polishing his technique, and for writers, it’s about honing the craft.

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