There’s probably nothing scarier than asking for a beta read of your book. Most writers are very defensive of their writing, and I fully understand why. The amount of hard work it takes to write a story is nothing to make light of. It’s even harder when you are writing memoir, because now you are talking about some really personal stuff. I’m certainly guilty of diving into the defensive mode:
NO, I am NOT changing that! I like it this way.
But do you need to listen to suggestions, or ignore them? I’ve learned over the years I spent perfecting my story, that refusing to make edits may hinder or prevent a better book. In fact, that is one big reason why publishing traditionally worked for me. Had I been the one to make the decision alone, or based on a few reader comments, I would have published long before it was ready.
After my memoir was published, I started beta reading (reading final drafts for fellow writers, and offering advice on story flow, construction, and looking for typos, minor grammar issues, etc.) Many have been wonderful to work with, and even remained in contact with me. I have no problem with writers who choose to ignore my suggestions. That’s their prerogative. But what really upsets me, to the point that I am tempted to refuse to help, are the people who retaliate with nasty comments, or who say absolutely nothing. How hard is it to simply thank me for my time, even if you don’t agree with my feedback?
Hey, I get it! It’s downright hard not to get defensive about your work-in-progress. After all, you slaved over it for hours, maybe into the wee hours of the morning, editing, perfecting…reworking it the next day, the day after that, for weeks, even months! The thought of handing over what you wrote for feedback is terrifying. Will they hate it? Will they think you can’t write your way out of a paper bag? However, there comes a point when you are going to have to let someone else see your work—unless you intend to be the only person that ever reads what you wrote. What fun is that?
My beta reading experiences have been varied. While many writers are open to comments and suggestions, inevitably one comes along that gets angry with me when I tell them they need to work on some serious issues. For example, a woman wrote about a traumatizing event in her life as though she was narrating a movie. When I explained (and offered examples) the idea of ‘show don’t tell’, she became defensive and told me that she ‘knew’ that, but wanted me to read all 75,000 words anyway. I had to pass. However, I kindly told her that if she reworked two chapters per my suggestions, I’d be happy to reread.
Her response was loud and clear: Crickets.
This hurt. After all, I was just trying to help. I reached out and apologized. She ignored me. It took me a few days to convince myself I’d done nothing wrong. This upset me enough that I stopped accepting drafts for a while.
A few weeks later, though, I offered to beta read a mystery. Only two pages in, the dialog was so horrendous, I just couldn’t continue.
This is how it went, more or less:
“I never told you that,” Frank said.
“Yes you did,” Doris said.
“No, I did not,” Frank said.
“Well that’s what I remember,” Doris said.
“You have a bad memory,” Frank said.
“I do not,” Doris said.
I edited a page, giving him examples of how I learned to write effective dialog. His response?
A lengthy and irritated explanation about how a previous reader had told him they couldn’t tell who said what, therefore he’d fixed the problem by adding lots of “saids.” When I explained he overdid the ‘fix,’ he shot back: “Well, fine. Nobody else wants to read the whole thing. Why can’t you read it anyway?”
Again, I suggested he revise two chapters and resend so I could see if he was getting the hang of it. He refused, complaining that all he wanted was someone to read to the end.
Let me share some tips on how new writers can gracefully accept critiques, whether you choose to use the advice or not:
1. Stay objective. It is unlikely that someone reading your work to provide feedback is out to make you feel incompetent. We do enough of that on our own.
2. Resist the urge after reading the comments to have a fit and scream: “Never!” (Unless you are alone. Then you can scream all you want. Get it out of your system. Make the neighbors wonder.)
3. Let the feedback sit for a day or two to calm down. Is the comment valid? Only you can be the judge. If it is valid, make the change. If your gut is screaming ‘No!’ then don’t.
4. If feedback is simply “I love your story!”—That’s not particularly helpful. Even though it feels great, what you need to know is why they loved your story, something you can learn from and expand upon.
5. It can be hard to separate criticism of your work from criticism of you as a person. You need to remember you are not your writing.
My experience has been that most fellow writers want you to succeed and want to help you. That’s why I am willing to share what I’ve learned with new writers. However, don’t be the defensive stubborn mule and chastise the reviewer for feedback you didn’t want to hear. Please keep in mind that beta readers have feelings, too.