Not Just Talking to the Monitor: an Examination of Beta Reading
Revised from a post to the yahoogroups Sentinel Workshop list.
This revision is dedicated to Lorelei, who saw the original post and said she'd probably dispute it on the FCA list if I posted it here. Her reaction to the original strongly shaped how I slanted this version of my essay. You may not agree with me, still, Lorelei, but thanks for the inspiration.
There are two common beta reading situations that we run into. Reading for someone we've never worked with before, and reading for someone with whom we have a long-term relationship. Long-term relationships between a reader and a writer don't need someone else suggesting rules and guidelines for them. They tend to automatically work out rules and guidelines on their own.
But for someone who has never beta read anyone, or for someone who is going to be beta reading someone they don't know well (perhaps participating in a "public beta" on a list) it appears that some guidelines would be very helpful. I just recently participated in a short-term list about how to beta read stories (it was actually for original fiction writers, mostly, and they call it reviewing or critiquing, but it is the same thing.) And I learned a lot, and I thought I'd share a few thoughts about it here.
To give credit where it is due, the short-term list was a special focus-group for the Online Writer's Workshop, a paid-member organization where writers of SF/fantasy and horror can go online to get their works read and critiqued by other writers. I'm not a member, but from what I saw on the list, it is probably a worthwhile organization, if you're writing original fiction in either of those genres. You can check them out at http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com for the SF/Fantasy group, and http://horror.onlinewritingworkshop.com for the horror group. The short-term list was free, and there's an associated yahoo list that is also free that I plan to check out soon.
There are two basic problems in beta reading someone you've never worked with before. What to say, and how to say it. The OWW focus group came up with one little phrase that answers both questions.
Be polite. Be balanced. Be honest. In that order.
(That lovely little catchphrase was written by Charlie Finlay, the focus group moderator. It is so perfect, I thought he deserved credit for the wording.)
And immediately, the more experienced beta readers exclaim, "What! Honest should be FIRST!"
Honesty is the most important aspect of beta reading, but it isn't necessarily the aspect that should take precedence in situations where the writer and reader don't know each other.
The goal of beta reading is to make a story better. To that end, we tell the writer honestly what we think.
But if the writer doesn't listen to what we say and consider our words, then our efforts are wasted and the story doesn't improve. Honest is last in the OWW list guideline not because it is the least important, but because without politeness and balance, the honesty is wasted.
Since the first question a beginning beta reader has is usually "what do I say?" I'm going to look at that advice from the bottom up, starting with "be honest."
Be honest is easy to understand in the general. Don't lie.
But how does that help in beta reading?
In beta reading, honesty means more than "only say true things." It also means pointing out things rather than keeping silent about them. If something bothered you, say so. If you liked something, say so. If something confused you, say so. Not just that, but tell the author why as much as possible. If you figured out what was going on later in the story, tell them where you figured it out. They might have wanted you to be confused there, or maybe they thought they were being perfectly clear. Either way, they know if they accomplished their goal.
A perfect example happened with someone I beta read recently. She had someone say that one of her slash stories squicked them because they felt like it was non-consensual. She asked me about it, and I re-read the passage in question. I remembered that the first time I read it, I got a little twinge of worry that it was going to be squicky non-con, but then I got over it, and the scene turned out to be consensual (in my opinion). If I had been honest and mentioned that to her at the time, she might have been able to fix it so it wouldn't have squicked out that person. Or she might have decided to leave it. But because I didn't tell her, I didn't give her the choice. Our jobs as betas isn't to decide what needs to be fixed, it is to point out possible problems so the writer can decide what needs to be fixed. Even a vague feeling ("I don't know. It just seems a little odd to me--too distant or something...") can be helpful.
And I imagine the experienced beta readers are nodding and agreeing with this. These are the things the writer wants to know, the things the writer needs to know. That's why honesty is so important.
To the inexperienced beta reader, though, honesty can be scary. "If we all walked around pointing out every single thing that was wrong with every story that we try to beta read, or mentioning every single thought that goes through our heads, we'd all have carpel tunnel syndrome from typing too much and no friends from saying bad things about everyone's stories." Honesty also scares many beginning writers. They don't want to be lied to, and they know a piece probably isn't perfect, but most of them have a horrendous fear of being ripped to shreds.
For some reason the beginning beta readers and writers often forget that being honest also means mentioning the good things. Which is where the second part of the guideline comes in.
Be balanced. A balanced beta points out both the good and the bad. It doesn't mean that it is necessary to count the good points and the bad points and make them come out equal. But it does mean that a writer should be able to walk away from a beta thinking, "Well, they hated my dialogue for Blair, but they said they loved the plot and the neat way I described Jim's senses, so it wasn't all bad." A beta shouldn't feel like twenty minutes of ranting about how terrible something is with two little half-hearted complements tacked on the end.
But this is important, pay attention: A beta should not only be nice things.
The goal is balance. Not gushing.
Now we've reached what is probably the most controversial part of the guideline. Be polite.
Remember, this is a guide for inexperienced betas and people who are working with someone they don't know well. Someone who knows you may know that when you say "Every sentence must have a verb. Learn it, love it, live it," that you're teasing, or at least that it isn't personal. And an experienced beta is far less afraid of backlash if he happens to be misunderstood, and probably less likely to make the mistakes that lead to backlash anyway. The goal of this guideline is to protect writers from beginning, kamikaze betas who think that having an opinion is an excuse for rudeness, and to give the more timid betas a set of "rules" that, if followed, make them less likely to get flamed by a writer.
Most of all, the goal of this guideline is to help betas express themselves in a way that the writer will listen to.
"The writer doesn't have to listen to me," some people say. "She can do what she wants."
Maybe it's just me, but if I spend an hour reading and commenting on a story, then goddammit, I want the writer to read what I say, to listen to it and give it careful consideration before she decides to do her own thing. I don't care what she ultimately decides as long as she listens and considers before she makes the decision.
Not listening isn't the same as not taking the advice. I don't care if she take my advice. I do want her to listen, or else I'd simply address my comments to the monitor and save my typing chops for more important things, like my own stories.
Polite beats honesty because if you can't think of a tactful, diplomatic way to phrase it, then maybe you shouldn't be that honest. Many of the truly tactless comments are also the most useless.
"I don't think this story is worth finishing."
(Yeah, well, that's not your decision to make, is it?)
"Abuse stories are overdone."
(There are no new plots in the universe, either.)
But if the beta were to say:
"This story is going to be a lot of work to revise, and it might be easier for you to start over and write the idea again, using this as sort of your outline."
That could be a helpful statement (I still think it is a little pushy, but it is polite and that's all that's required.)
"There are a lot of abuse stories out there and I'm not sure yours has enough of a twist to make it really stand out." Or "Abuse stories don't seem to be selling right now."
Those are helpful statements. They're honest. And they're polite.
Polite also beats balanced, because the writer will simply listen better that way. If you're struggling to find something good to say to balance all the bad, then omitting some of your criticism in favor of a more polite, less balanced beta is wise because the story probably has so many problems that the writer won't be able to handle all your suggestions for correction, anyway. She'd go numb long before you finished. We'd much rather have a writer listen to us about one or two of our points than ignore us about all of them. Especially since a writer who is struggling that hard may well decide that she's gotten so many negative betas because no one likes her, or because "they don't know what they're talking about" and thereafter refuse to improve.
And no, we can't "save" every struggling, beginning writer out there from that fate. But again, if we don't care if they're even listening, then why are we wasting our time?
In the marvellous cases where it becomes necessary to look for things to criticize for balance's sake, then those things that you find are usually small enough it should be no hardship to be polite. And doesn't a talented writer like this one must be (hey, you had to work to find things you didn't like) deserve your politeness?
Like "be honest," we pretty much know what "be polite" means in everyday life. Be as nice as you can when you say what you have to say. And like being honest, there's a special slant to being polite for beta reading that goes just a little beyond that.
The major goal of politeness in beta reading is to make sure that it is clear that what you're saying is your opinion. The writer doesn't have to do what you say. We know that. We accept that. On the OWW focus group, the conversation slipped rather naturally into beta reading pet peeves. And there were different peeves. But they all boiled down to one thing: what made those writers (many of them published in paid markets) the maddest was when someone said something that sounded like it was telling them what to do. Even though both the writer and the reader know that what you write in a beta is just your opinion, the writer is more likely to listen if he's reminded that you haven't forgotten that, either.
Being polite isn't lying. Being polite isn't necessarily "babying" the writer or "sugar-coating" the truth. (What does that mean, anyway? I always see it in discussions about beta reading, and I'm never sure what it means.) Or, heck, maybe it is sugar-coating. Because we want them to listen.
A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. And diplomacy is saying, "Nice doggie," until you can find a rock.
Sugar-coat if you have to. Be diplomatic. Because otherwise you might as well be talking to the monitor.