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The Magic of Getting and Giving Feedback

2008 Lori L. Lake

   

Lori L. Lake


You've written a draft of a chapter, a story, or a novel, and now what? Unless you're as skilled and experienced as Joyce Carol Oates, you need solid criticism about aspects of the text that need improvement. Especially because the publication process is so competitive these days, it's important to revise and edit effectively so that the final draft you submit is the most polished, most attractive, and most effective work you can create.

You won't be able to improve a draft, revise, or edit it if the comments you receive are "Real nice. I liked it," or "Outstanding. Good job!" This is the sort of response your family and friends feel obligated to give. Your mom or best friend or lover or sister can rarely serve as a first reader for you. (If someone close to you can give you honest feedback, count yourself lucky. You're one of the few.) Those who love and care about you don't want to hurt your feelings. Their job is to encourage you and be supportive, and you probably shouldn't put them in the predicament of trying to do otherwise. Most of us must get serious critiques from readers outside our intimate circle.

So, you need feedback, not empty praise, but not just any feedback. The advice and observations you want must be useful, clear, and, above all, accurate.

The Role of First Readers/Beta Readers
First Readers (also called Beta Readers because they are looking at the "beta" version or test model) can be a critical resource for a writer. Some writers have as few as one First Reader while others use dozens.

First Readers perform the same task that movie test audiences do: They experience the work and give feedback about what they liked and didn't like, what they thought worked well and what didn't.

Some of these readers may give very general feedback; others may focus on various aspects of the piece including plot, descriptions, characters, world building, point of view and perspective, consistency, plausibility, pacing, and more. Depending upon the world in which you set your story, you may also need expert advice about details, history, setting, etc. In my experience, no one reader can provide all that a writer needs, especially when you first start writing with an eye toward publication.

I've used beta readers since my very first book, and I'll continue to use them because of how helpful they are. Only you can decide if it works best for you to use them as you write each scene or section or chapter or whether you give them an entire finished draft. One way I am different from some other authors is that I rarely share anything with anyone until I have completed the entire initial draft (also known as what Anne Lamott calls "The Shitty First Draft"). Then I make a list of questions or note particular things I want the readers to look out for, and I have them read and comment for me.

My initial readers generally look for:
plot holes
inconsistencies, implausibilities, or errors of any kind
awkward or missing transitions
bad writing and awkward sentences (i.e., "howlers")
details or procedures that the reader is an expert at
For that last item, I like to have people with a specific expertise read and comment. For instance, my first round of beta readers for Gun Shy were generalists who read for content and plausibility, but the second round consisted of a police officer, a scientist/doctor, and an ER doctor.

Ways To Look at the Beta Reading Process
I break up the process of reviewing and revising a manuscript into three general areas:
Structural/Big Picture Revisions - where I get general feedback, general impressions, general advice;

Chapter and Paragraph Revisions - where the readers focus more intently on how things fit together; and

Line by Line Revisions - where readers not only revise, but they may offer copyediting advice as well.
For the mystery I recently finished, I'll ask an investigator similar to my story sleuth to read through and comment for me. I'll also have other types of readers look at it, including a forensic pathologist (to make sure my murder scenes and autopsy are correct) and another mystery writer (to make sure my red herrings, scapegoats, and misdirections actually work).

And then I want three or four others to read it cold and give me commentary on what does and doesn't work and to describe how each section of the manuscript affected them.

All this comes long before an official editorial process. In fact, for those who have not yet published, it's a good idea to get as much help as possible before submitting the novel to a publisher or agent. The cleaner your manuscript is, the better chance you have of it being accepted. I've read submissions for three different presses, and I can tell you that many of the books I read had promise - but the author hadn't done the necessary homework to submit the best manuscript possible, so s/he was rejected.

Serial Readers
Using a Serial Reader process may work to your advantage. To do this, you give the draft to one person with whatever questions you can come up with. (Sometimes this is hard because if you knew what was "wrong" you wouldn't NEED readers.) You make your best attempt to formulate questions for your reader that you think will help her give you good feedback.

When you get those first comments back, ponder them and re-work and tinker a bit with your draft. Then, taking what you learned from the first reader, re-jigger your questions - perhaps making them more specific - and give the manuscript to a second reader, then repeat the process for a third reader. With each reader's comments and suggestions, you get closer and closer to a polished draft. You also escape the frustration of getting five or six or ten different sets of possibly contradictory opinions all at once.

Remember that no single editor or reader is able to cover every aspect of a book. I have readers who are adept with structure but couldn't proofread if their lives depended upon it. There are others for whom line editing is a wise art, but they might not see a plot hole if they fell into it. Many eyes cover the work much better than just yours and that of a single editor. Don't hesitate to have an army help you.

Next Steps
Once my readers comment, and I've moved my "Shitty Draft" through several sets of subsequent revisions, only then will it be ready for a final round with my copyediting friend. She goes through it with the scary red marker and catches all the remaining stuff that a seasoned copyeditor usually finds.

Using this process, I can turn in a fairly clean manuscript. Still, I'll have rewrites, changes, and edits suggested by the publisher's editor, too, which is why I must emphasize that if you can't stand to read though your manuscript at least ten times from the start of this whole process to the final published product, then you're in the wrong business.

Quantity and Quality are Both Important
Especially early in your career, as you are learning the ropes, I believe that you can't have too many readers, editors, and proofers working with you on a project. The more comments and feedback you can get, the better. If you have, say, six people read your first draft, you'll get a better balance of feedback than if you just have one or two, and readings by several insightful people will give you a feel for the patterns - both positive and negative - in your work.

Try to get people skilled in many areas. You want both quantity and quality.

Guideline Questions
I have found that it helps to give the reader some guidelines or questions to consider. For instance, you might ask them to focus on questions like this:
1) As you read, what questions come to mind that aren't answered? What are you left curious about - no matter how small an issue?
2) Where is the story flat? Do you hit any patches that either are dull or don't seem to go anywhere?
3) Are there characters that aren't illuminated properly? Too many characters? Not enough? Is there too much or too little detail - and if so, where do I need to beef up or cut?
4) When you consider X character or Y character, do they seem "real" and well-rounded? Do their actions make sense in the context of what you learn about them?
5) What seems implausible or not connected? Do you see any plot holes?
6) Were you jarred out of the narrative, and if so, can you tell me why?
...etc, etc.
If you give your reader some initial questions to ponder, it will allow her to think about the book in a more structured way and give you feedback that is useful and on-topic.

Tips for Giving Useful Feedback on a Writer's Draft
Reading for an author is a generous and blessed act. Some Beta Readers have confided that they don't have the patience or the particular mindset to write their own novels and stories; others do write but they enjoy beta-reading as a way to sharpen their own skills, see how others work, or simply to give something back - to "pay it forward" because they've received help themselves and feel so grateful.

Serving as a Beta Reader is a bit of an art because no two authors function in exactly the same way. Authors are often looking for specific help when they have people read for them. So right off the bat, you might want to query your author and get a really good feel for what they think they need. I've read for people who seemed to think they just needed a close eye for continuity or for punctuation; then you start reading and find out they have huge problems with grammar, structure, pacing, etc. On the flip side, I've had people give me stories that they bemoaned and cried and rolled their eyes over only to find that the story was solid and what they needed was merely basic copyediting.

When you contemplate reading for an author, I suggest you get a sample of the writing to check out the person's style and themes. You can't go by your impressions of any of her published work. You'd be surprised at how much some writers' drafts change from the early drafts to the last version.

Keep in mind that you're likely to work best when you really like a particular style or genre. If you are mad for mysteries or thrillers, but you basically can't stand sci-fi/fantasy, don't agree to read for someone who writes in the latter genre. If you have the patience to read work in very early draft form (or from an author who is only just learning his/her way around the World of the Word), then you can be a great deal of help. But if you really can't stand reading stuff that's not fairly polished, you might want to be up-front about that at the get-go. Can you read three or four versions as the writer works through her revisions? Or can you only give it one thorough reading? (I, for instance, simply can't read the same stuff over and over as the writer improves it. Once is all I can do. I can hardly re-read MY OWN work after about the sixth read-through!)

Finding authors who know what they want is sometimes tricky. Revision and editing are organic learning processes. Many beginning and intermediate writers really don't understand what techniques and skills they need until they get farther along in learning their craft. If you see potential in a writer, be a cheerleader. Praise and steady guidance can bolster her motivation and determination.

Getting Started
Don't be afraid to be a novice Beta Reader. Everyone has to start somewhere, and the only way to learn is to work with an author. Later, after some time has passed, ask the writer to tell you honestly what she liked and didn't like, or used or didn't use, from what you supplied. Communication between author and reader is very important. That will give you feedback about whatever arrows you have in your beta-reading quiver and should help you to ascertain what further skills you may need to develop. If you were to read one of my first drafts, I would be asking very broad questions, then narrowing down. By the time I'm on the third run-through, I'm concerned with pacing and continuity, character solidity, and any subtle plot holes. By the fifth or sixth version, my focus is on tiny details and copyediting. Although creation of the first draft is scattershot for me, I do editing and revision in a linear process for subsequent drafts. But not everyone works that way, and there's no way to tell the author's method until you just dive in and get your tootsies wet.

Specific Questions for the Author
When you find someone to read for, ask her what she needs. Does she want structural comments? Notes on overall believability/plausibility? Help with jazzing up characters? Does she want you to read through and just ask questions? Make note of things that seem "off"? Does she want a copy edit?

In a perfect world, someone sharing a manuscript with a Beta Reader should provide quite a bit of guidance to that reader so that the responses and suggestions from the reader will be useful. Then again, I've discovered that the vast majority of people find it very difficult to "hear" criticism about their manuscript. Even worse, some writers are intuitive and learn by doing, so they may not know simple elements (like parts of speech, grammar, usage and syntax, internal logic/consistency of a story, or even the most elementary terms). Many don't know the general "rules" of English, so they don't know when they're breaking them without effect. You could find you have your work cut out for you.

It can be maddening trying to describe why something doesn't work when the writer doesn't have even a cursory knowledge of terms and techniques. Yet the Beta Reader has the responsibility of conveying that information to her author.

Being an effective beta reader can be difficult at times - much harder than people generally realize. Don't sign on lightly until you know enough about the writer to be sure you can help her. When I used to have time to read for others, I usually asked the writer these three questions:
1. What is your story about? Please give me a 100-250 word summary of the storyline/plot.
2. How do your characters change and grow from Page 1 to the end?
3. What genre or category do you think this book falls into?
Just those three simple questions sometimes befuddle the writer. If an author has completed an entire novel and can't describe it in 250 words, she's in big trouble. If she can't describe a character arc or the genre of her book, then she hasn't done her homework yet, and it's possible she's not ready for readers to tackle her project.

If the writer could answer those three questions with a high degree of clarity, the follow-up question I asked was "What exactly do you want from me?"

If the writer said, "Oh, anything will do," or "Whatever you notice is fine," I knew I could get in trouble. What if I didn't give her what she wanted? What if she was offended by the comments I made? If a writer hasn't got the slightest clue about her weaknesses, then it's a pretty good bet that she's going to be shocked when I tell her that what I'm seeing is jarring or nonsensical or doesn't follow cause and effect.

Thankfully, though, most writers are happy to get feedback.

Specific Questions for the Beta Reader
When someone volunteers to read for you, it's not wrong to be choosy about their contributions. Not only do you want someone with skills that will assist you, but you don't want to duplicate what you may already have. For instance, if you've got a reader who's very good at copyediting, don't take on another (unless you know this is a major downfall in your writing, in which case using more than one copyeditor may be wise). If you already have enough people adept at pointing out structural issues, perhaps you don't need another.

I also believe that it's good to have a few very good generalists and a couple of specialists. But a specialist is no good for you if their specialty is in an area where you never have any troubles. For instance, if you rarely have trouble with point of view, don't take on a Beta Reader who focuses on that. If, however, you know you have difficulty with plot arcs and cause and effect, you may want to work with a Beta Reader who's very good at isolating plot holes and plausibility issues.

Some questions you may wish to ask a Beta Reader:
1. What is your experience reading for others? What are your favorite kinds of books and why?
2. What specific skills do you know you have to offer? What will you focus on when you read for me?
3. What's the most important reason you believe you can help me by reading my work?
If the reader has no experience reading for others, don't dismiss her out of hand. You may find that you have the perfect opportunity to "train" the reader just the way you want. Then again, that may not appeal to you, especially if you're not entirely sure of your own skills. If that's the case, it's okay to hold out for more experienced help.

The Magic
When a writer and a Beta Reader develop a relationship that works, it feels nothing short of magic. The reader notices things about which the writer is blind, and she shares that information with clarity and precision, often even with a sense of humor. I've been saved from many howlers - particularly ones created because of dangling or misplaced modifiers. Sometimes we just can't see that sort of thing in our own work.

The payoff for the writer is obvious; the rewards for the Beta Reader are less tangible but every bit as satisfactory. It's a wonderful feeling to hold the author's book in your hot little hands and know you had a part in helping someone else fulfill a dream . . . especially because you get that book for free, as a gift, inscribed to you by the author. I'd urge all writers to make it their policy to give all their readers autographed copies. It only seems fair.

Finding Beta Readers - Finding Writers to Read For
One of the best places to find authors who need your help or Beta Readers eager to read for you is through the Golden Crown Literary Society (www.goldencrown.org). The GCLS was founded for readers, authors, editors, proofers, and publishing folks to connect with one another to help produce and promote lesbian works. The GCLS discussion list provides a place for a reader to put out a call for the opportunity to read for someone.

Before you publish your book, one way to get Beta Readers is to participate on lists (such as the one at the GCLS) composed of many readers (and editors-in-training as well) who would enjoy getting involved in a project. It's amazing and heartwarming to find out how many readers love to do this.

After you're published, people tend to come out of the woodwork (if you have a website and e-mail they can find). With the issuance of each of my books, at least two or three readers e-mailed to say they would like to beta-read and comment for me in the future. Also, when people write me and say "Hey, I'm a ____, and you got the details right/wrong in your book," I keep track of them, too. Sometimes I utilize their skills just by sending a small section of what I've written to get advice - or I may send them questions. People are almost always willing to be helpful.

The Fan Fiction writing world has long been using Beta Readers. Lunacy's site http://lunacyreviews.com/beta.php exists to match up readers interested in "Xena" or "Star Trek" fanfic, but you may find some Beta Readers there who would also be interested in other lesbian stories and novels.

Training for Beta Readers
This year at the Golden Crown Literary Conference, noted Beta Reader Pam Salerno is giving an excellent presentation, "Help! Help! The Role of the Beta Reader in the Creative Process," which will stress ways to work effectively in the beta reading process. She'll focus on how to set expectations, tools of the trade, guides to assist the reader, critical reading, constructive criticism, and more. For those able to attend the GCLS conference July 31-August 3, 2008, this may be a useful workshop. (See GCLS schedule here: http://www.gclscon.com/Schedule.html)

Also, Nann Dunne has an article in JAW's archives, "Help Your Beta Readers" http://www.justaboutwrite.com/A_Archive_HelpBeta.html, that gives advice on this topic.

Final Thoughts on Synergy
If you're a writer, don't be afraid to ask for help. If you're a reader, and especially if you have special skills or an expertise, don't be afraid to let people know about it.

I might also mention that I know of more than one Beta Reader who ended up eventually writing her own novels and stories. The synergy between author and reader can be so powerful that they both reach new creative heights.
_____
2008 Lori L. Lake From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author.
Lori can be reached at Lori@LoriLLake.com and welcomes questions and comments.


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