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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Flying Lessons from a Beta-Reader

"You can't do that. Your character would crash..."
- Actual comment from beta-notes

One of the worst mistakes an author can make is trying to write in vacuum. I think I've heard every excuse under the sun, from the popular "But someone will steal my work!" to the humble "I want to make this my writing, no one else's, you understand." Authors like to believe they can edit without any help other than a spell check and the trusty Strunk & White (please don't even start on the S&W - and don't buy one either).

Here it is in black and white: YOU CANNOT EDIT IN A VACUUM

Period. End of discussion.

It doesn't matter what letters you have after your name, or what grades you earned in school, or even how long you've been a professional novelist, you need outside input. At some point during the writing process, you need someone to give you input. You need someone to tell you what works, and to find the dumb mistakes you brain glosses over.

Stop Making Excuses
Everyone who doesn't have a beta-reader has a reason why not. The only reason you shouldn't have outside editing input yet is because you're not at a stage that needs editing yet. By draft three, you need editing input. If you think you can write a novel in under three drafts, good luck. There are a few legend in writing who can pull off such a feat, but I doubt they read my blog.

Find A Critique Partner
I'm not sure I can recommend any one way of finding someone to edit your work. Over the years I've made friends with, and critique partners with a variety of people. Each has their unique "how we met" story. I've found beta-readers ...
- at an online critique group
- at book club
- at the library
- in class
- on Twitter
- on a blog
- chatting with strangers on a bus
- at the park after discussing a novel we were both reading

I have different beta-readers for each stage. One is my designated cheerleader, she's there to get me through the woes of rough drafts. Another excels at line edits. I have several who are good for all-around feedback.

They all see my work at a different stage, and they won't see every project. I don't always need a cheerleader. On a short story or novella I may not need all-around feedback, just a line edit. One a short story I might be able to have an all-around person do the line edits. It all revolves around what the project needs.

Learn To Edit Your Work
Despite the excuses and vanity, most young authors don't know how to do this. I don't mean young as in "under 25" I mean young as in "has been writing full-time for less than ten years" (a category I still fall into by the way). Editing a novel isn't like punching out an essay an hour before it's due. Even writers with near-perfect memories need character indexes when they have dozens of characters running around.

- Get your facts straight (no exceptions)
- Make a character index (eye color should not change three times)
- Read your work out loud
- Follow the rules you make
- Learn when to use the delete key
- Save old drafts
- Practice makes perfect (or something very close to it)

Image of the crashing key courtesy of and copyright to Fighting Darwin. Used under Fair Use Laws. I believe no one was injured in the crash.


  1. I cringe at people who won't even run a spell check before sharing something with the critique group. I can totally understand the punctuation and grammar issues. But typos in nearly every sentence? Really? My inner editor cries.

    I used to have a cheerleader for my rough drafts. I miss her! Beta readers are wonderful things.

    Oh, and I gave you a blog award! ;) Irresistably Sweet

  2. The hard part is telling the good notes from the bad ones. Some notes are pure genius, and following them will improve your story in ways you never imagined. Then there are those rare notes that seem like they're from outer space. One of the most memorable notes I've ever heard was to an animation writer: "When the monkey takes off his underwear, please make sure he's wearing another pair beneath them." Because the alternative, I suppose, is just too horrible to contemplate. The truth is, every note is a creative challenge. It's an obstacle that you need to find a way to overcome. And that, I think, is the best way to look at notes: not as criticism, but challenges.

  3. I'm always jealous of writers who have betas they can just e-mail whenever with a project. I feel like I have to beg and plead when I need a reader.

    But maybe that's because I so infrequently go there because it takes a while to get a first draft and I like to edit a time or two before sending it off to someone. (Meaning I like to go through and catch the major plot inconsistencies and fix typos and stuff. Then someone else can read it.)