What’s the key to good writing?
I thoroughly believe this. The first draft from even the best of writers is likely to be a pile of crap – and that’s because they know the important thing is to get that first draft finished, not perfect. If you are constantly polishing and editing as you write, you run the risk of never being satisfied with what you’ve created, and in the end you create nothing.
You may have seen this video by Jake Parker doing the rounds; if not, watch it and get pumped.
This is why I think the second key to good writing is to let the first draft be crap. Just get it out there, in the open, onto that blank page. This is why exercises like NaNoWriMo are brilliant: it encourages you to pour your soul out and get something finished in a set time-frame, to a deadline.
That’s what I set out to do with the Jack Hansard Series, and I’ve now completed that first crucial step. Season 1 is finished, exposed, and ready for stage two. The Big Edit.
If you’re a regular reader or you follow my Facebook Page, you may have noticed that I’ve already begun this process. Every Monday I re-upload an episode with its final, truly polished edit: I’ve gone through four episodes so far, and Episode 5 will receive its facelift on Monday 19th. Over the next few blog posts I’d like to share some editing tips and observations which might help guide your own editing process, especially if you feel at a loss as to where to start. In this article we’ll be looking at what is possibly the single most important step towards editing your work: finding Beta Readers.
What should you look for in a Beta Reader?
Finding a group of Beta Readers to give feedback may sound like an eyebrow-raisingly obvious tip, but it might be harder to achieve than you think. What you need is a group – I suggest a minimum of four, but aim as high as you can – that will read your work in its entirety and provide meaningful feedback. Where do you find the people who will make up this select group?
First, Find An Author
A good way to do this is to join a writing community and find someone to exchange work with. You’ll (hopefully) get knowledgeable criticism from a fellow writer who understands the craft and can help you with sentence structure, grammar, tone and voice and so on. They will also be able to provide a totally detached viewpoint: they don’t know you personally, and they have no reason to hold back on the constructive criticism.
By reading their work in exchange, you’re likely to pick up editing skills you didn’t know you had. Evaluating someone else’s writing style is an easy way to learn what does and doesn’t work – and why. And because you have to explain that why to your fellow author, you end up with a deeper understanding of it. They say that to teach is the best way to learn.
What’s the downside? This internet stranger might not actually be enjoying your story – they may be more interested in what you have to say on their work, rather than providing meaningful input on yours. Furthermore, if they are not enjoying your story then you won’t get a true reader’s reaction from them, and it will lack the emotive response – they won’t be able to tell you how it makes them feel, and why – that a truly interested reader can provide. Thus I feel a read-for-read deal like this is best for picking up on technical issues in the writing, but might not inform well on how the actual story is received. I’d certainly suggest taking the time to find a fellow writer who is on a similar wavelength to yourself: make sure you are both clear as to what you are getting out of the arrangement, and that you are both genuinely interested in reading each other’s work (at the very least interested in the genre you write!).
If you can’t find someone to exchange work with, then participate publicly in a writing forum or similar community. Critique lots of people’s writing, learn how to evaluate a range of styles and voices, and occasionally offer up your own work for collective criticism.
However, be prepared to put in a lot of time and effort if this is your only group of Beta Readers, and remember that skill level and effort from others will vary. From my own point of view, I dabble in writing forums here and there but often find I don’t get out the same as I put in: where I might take two hours to write a thoughtful review spanning five hundred to a thousand words, in return I’d receive a short paragraph telling me to change a piece of phrasing and remove a comma. I don’t mean to gripe – I believe it still helps me to understand and improve my own writing techniques. By picking out the flaws of others, you begin to identify those same flaws in your own work, and you can heed the same advice you’ve given people before you.
Now, Find A Reader
So you’ve got your outside perspective from someone completely detached from your writing; good job. Now you need an inside perspective.
This is the section of your Beta Reading group that should be made up of people who have a genuine interest in what you write. I’m going to say something controversial here: Don’t automatically pass off friends and family as being unable to give honest critiques.
I know the standard line is that ‘your friends will lie to make you feel good’, but if that’s always true then I feel you have shitty friends. The thing to remember is that they need guidance: you need to start by teaching them how to be good Beta Reader. As with anything, you need to invest a little time in them in order to expect a good return.
You should be able to explain to your Beta Readers the sheer importance of honest feedback, that they shouldn’t feel obligated to only mention the good stuff, and that criticism is generally the most helpful kind of feedback – challenge them to find the flaws, to search for the things they’re unsure of. If they point out something in a vague way, question them until they make it specific.
And . . . allow them to give you good feedback too! Good feedback isn’t bad, and it can equally inform you how to improve. Instruct your readers to think deeply about why they might like a particular part of the story; why they are responding so well to this character; why they smiled at that sentence. It will help you understand what you are doing right, and what elements you should pay more attention to.
So reach out to friends and family who genuinely want to support you, and reach out to current fans of your work – if you explain things properly, they should be able to find something to criticise. In fact, I believe they are more likely to go out of their way to help you improve, because they are already invested in you and your writing. The key is helping them understand what they need to identify, and that you aren’t going to get all teary-eyed over an ill-received chapter. They are likely to surprise you with the things they pick up, and the additional knowledge they can provide.
Every one of my Jack Hansard episodes went through a single, reliable Beta Reader before being published for the first time on An Inspired Mess: my husband (did I mention I got married last week? News! =D) He’s great at pointing out plot holes and errors in my reasoning, and isn’t afraid to tell me he doesn’t like some of the more surreal aspects of my story-telling. Here’s a great example of where a Beta reader can pick up on something the writer missed:
In Episode 12: Shadows, Hansard’s car suffers from a flat tire at a dangerous time. In the unpublished draft, I wrote that they had been driving on the flat for some time without noticing it, until suddenly the car couldn’t effectively drive any more and that was that.
“How could they not notice it?” said Husband, in response to this. “You bloody well know if you’re driving on a flat tire. And even if Jack has realised and was trying to keep it quiet, there’s no way that his passenger wouldn’t notice it as well. The wheel would make a sort of thumping noise. You’d be an idiot to keep going.”
“Oh,” said I. “Oops.”
That outside perspective is truly crucial for picking up on little details like this. Someone simply asking: “But why did he do that, if it would have been simpler to go the other way?” can make you totally re-think part of the story. It might not change the plot, but it might add a motivation you hadn’t considered, or define more accurate details.
Now that I’m on Round Two: The Big Edit, I reached out to friends and readers of the series to act as my main Beta group. There is an interesting variety in the feedback I’ve received. One reader tends to splurge enthusiastic praise for virtually everything – but she’s brilliant in expanding on the reasoning of why she likes things, and the criticisms she does point out tend to make me pause for thought. Another has very little to say, but what is said is always poignant and useful, and will pick up on character traits I hadn’t considered. Yet another likes to make comparisons with other works in the urban fantasy genre, and has helped me think about the bigger picture where my little world is concerned.
The one thing they all have in common is that they enjoy reading the series – they are a part of my actual reader base, and that makes their reactions the truest reflections of my audience. Think of it as a kind of market research: you focus on gathering information from the audience you are trying to sell to. I’m not trying to impress a fellow writer who prefers sci-fi and knows a lot about sentence composition (though they were very helpful in my early growth as a writer) – I’m writing for the people who want to read this kind of story, therefore their feedback is now the most valuable to me.
This concludes my advice for searching out and utilising your Beta Reading group. Stay tuned for Editing Tips Part Two: The Easy Cut, where we take a look at some quick and simple techniques for editing your work, and Part Three: The Hard Cut, where the soul-wrenching edits happen. Take care y’all!
Was this helpful to you? Do you agree or disagree with how I approach Beta Reading? Let me know in the comments!