Every writer needs a good Beta reader.
There’s no such thing as a story that’s perfect from the start. Every story has little dents or gaping holes and bad grammar and sentences that only make sense to the person who wrote them. While we writers are expected to know how to identify these things and edit as we go, we can’t be expected to catch all of our mistakes. So, we ask our parents and friends to look at our stuff and tell us what they think.
Sometimes they fix our spelling and point out really huge details that make no sense.
Other times, they tell us they love it and it is the best thing ever and are totally useless in helping us improve.
I think it’s generally advised to find a Beta reader in someone you don’t know, so they won’t feel the need to hold back their critiques. To me, that’s a bit of bullshit. You can get friends to look into your stuff. Just make sure they’re the right friends.
As a student of professional writing, I spent a lot of time interacting with other aspiring writers. We’ve learned about the critique sandwich. You offer a compliment to the reader, then a critique, and then another compliment. We always went farther than that: overall impressions, what we liked, what we didn’t like, favourite lines, lines that need improving, suggestions. Workshops with the Professional Writing program were the best.
Several of us remain in contact even though our big workshopping class, Publishing Prose, has ended. I trust these people to read my work. While our group has dwindled, I do have a group I can regularly count on to review my work.
I love these guys because they get so sucked in and involved in my story. I can rely on them to tell me when something really doesn’t work, and then make me laugh in the very next comment.
As I was struggling with the second draft of my second book, I asked my friend Sharayah to look at a few chapters. She did, telling me that she didn’t get a good sense of who my protagonist was and felt he was acting contrary to the character I was implying he was (polite, but always seeking to go unnoticed). Further down the chapter, she also called another character a “werewolf-prostitute.” Because of her, I got into seriously thinking about my characters, and am now looking at changing the entire setting of the story.
Aaron usually gets my chapters once during our workshops, and then possibly again if there’s some big thing I had to re-write. He isn’t afraid to tell me when something just doesn’t work and always has some form of suggestion to offer. Other times, he whips out these random facts that he thinks might fit into my world, some obscure historical detail I would have never thought of. It makes me question whether or not he’s one of those guys who spends hours looking up weird, obscure facts on the internet.
And sometimes he does stuff like this:
Finally, there’s Grace. My Alpha-Beta, if you will. She’s reading the first draft of my novel so that I can edit it before sending it out to the workshop group for mass critique. She’s super involved in the story, and that makes me unbelievably happy. She points out my logistical fallacies, sentence structure mess-ups, and questions about character consistency. She asks the questions I neglected while writing. She makes me think on things.
And then she posts comments like these (note: all from the same chapter):
NO YOU GET OUT RIGHT NOW I KNOW WHAT YOU DID
NO SHE IS NOT FUCK OFF AND DIE
THAT BASICALLY MAKES YOU A DINNER RAPIST
D’awww. I love it when she calls him that.
BASIL LIKE SERIOUSLY WOULD YOU STOP SMASHING DOORS
YOU ARE SINGLEHANDEDLY KEEPING LONDON’S DOOR-MAKERS IN BUSINESS
Stuff like that. Granted, I do the same thing to her. Between stating that I don’t think certain aspects of her story are clear, or that her child protagonists probably wouldn’t really love the orphan matron who beat them, I constantly tell one of her characters to “Go fuck [himself]” because I hate him just that much.
Is all this text screaming professional? Probably not. But as long as I’m improving from it, who cares?
What about you? Do you have someone you trust to critique your work?