I beta read for a couple of reasons.
First, I beta read because I feel like I owe it to other aspiring authors to help them with their work. It’s a shark filled pond out there, and we’re all the little fish in it together.
Second, as someone said about OF GOLD AND FIRE while they beta read for us, “you are the doers. So many people talk about these other things they want to do, but I want to help you because you’re actually doing it.” Truth. The doers are going after their dreams. If I can be a part of all that, that’s where I want to be, not with the people who talk about doing but don’t.
Third, believe it or not, helping others helps me improve. We read about the “rules” of the road when it comes to writing, but putting them into practice is a separate issue, one of execution. It’s one thing to know how something is supposed to be done; it’s quite another to actually do it.
After receiving some negative feedback on one of my pieces, I decided it was time to learn, time to research. So, as I do for just about everything, I started reading. I used websites and hard copy books to learn, and learn I did. There are so many great resources out there! I’ve been particularly impressed with Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. Something just clicked in my mind when I read Chapter Two.
I’ll give an example of a rule I read about in both the Selling Writer and many other sources: the “show don’t tell” rule. We hear about this technique all the time. Show don’t tell it; it even has its own Wikipedia page.
We can talk about show don’t tell all day long. But why does it help to read from amateur readers? Because you can see the mistakes and identify them in an amateur work. These lessons cannot be learned from a published, polished novel, and you will not see it in your own work. You’re too close to your own work to properly apply learned rules to it. To identify this and other problems in your own writing, you can practice by identifying the problems in others’ work.
Why beta read?
Because you’re too close to your own work to properly apply learned rules to it.
Helping others can ensure you are able to spot trouble in your work and won’t be blind to your own mistakes.
Another example of something I learned from beta reading is about dialogue and thoughts in italics. I don’t know where we all got the idea that every piece of dialogue in quotes requires a “said,” “asked” or “mumbled” behind it. I also don’t know who it was that taught us all to put characters’ thoughts in italics. Websites and books will say that this slows down the story and disrupts flow. IT TOTALLY DOES! But I wouldn’t have made this connection without seeing how it does this in an amateur, unpublished work.
Putting the rule into practice is easiest when you see it needing to be applied. Rather than reading a edited, polished manuscript and trying to mimic others’ style, improve or correct. Authors weren’t just born able to write. Some have natural talent, but many worked very hard to get to where they are and had excellent help.
But be gentle in your critiques. Other people (REALLY) don’t like negative critiques of their work. I don’t particularly care for bad news on something I’ve worked on for literally years either–nobody does. But after my first bit of bad news about my own work, I’ve tried to change my line of thinking and my reactions to something more constructive. Basically, I trick myself and try to see feedback as an opportunity to improve, not as an attack.
Lastly, When critiquing, do your best–think critically about the message you want to convey. And certainly, don’t forget to tell the writer the strengths of their work–there are always strengths. And always end on a positive note. 🙂