Every writer knows the value of feedback. It’s one of the reasons why they join writing groups. Some groups are more helpful than others. Giving constructive feedback is a skill and, just like writing, needs practice, but so too does receiving it. Egos can get in the way.
Without strong chairmanship, group meetings can easily turn into social occasions and wander off into an exchange of personal anecdotes that have nothing to do with writing. I’ve belonged to several groups over the years. The most valuable was highly structured and business-like. If I remember rightly, we were a group of a dozen or so people – some experienced and some new to writing. Social chit-chat was firmly restricted to the ten-minute break half way through. In order to give time for an in-depth appraisal, two writers presented their work. This was in the days before email and so two members received copies at the previous meeting in order to prepare a more considered opinion. After the piece was read and the two ‘critics’ had given their feedback, the rest of the group would add their comments. In order that every member had a chance to present a piece of writing, we all had to prepare a piece on a set topic which was no longer than a 150 words. This exercise taught me the value of words – surplus adverbs and adjectives were cut, unnecessary description, tautology and repartition thrown out. An essential skill for the short story writer and one that novelists do well to observe.
For feedback on the whole novel, authors must seek out good beta readers. Beta reading is a time consuming task and involves far more than picking out the odd spelling mistake and typo. Many readers take the trouble to read the novel first to get an overall impression of whether the story works and if the characters come alive, but then they re-read to analyse in more depth and write a report. It takes great skill.
The Benefits of Being a Beta Reader
Many beta readers are writers themselves. One of the benefits that writers receive in give up their valuable writing time to such a lengthy undertaking is that it helps them to recognise the areas in their own work that need attention. It is so much easier to see mistakes and when things aren’t working in other people’s work than in your own. Not only that, it’s as well to remember that – as in life – the things people criticise most are the very often the same failings that they possess.
Building a mutual trust and rapport is crucial. Perhaps it is no surprise that many writers act as beta readers for each other – what used to be known as a writing buddy.
My Beta Readers
Each of my beta readers brings something a little different to the mix – some are fellow writers but others are readers who love crime. Like most writers I have a group of beta readers and, because I value them, I take care not to take advantage. Because of the considerable amount of time it takes, I don’t like to ask the same readers every time. Circumstances, such as moving house or ill health, make that impossible. If I don’t ask them to look at the latest novel, that is not because they did a poor job previously.
I tend to have a half dozen or so readers for each book but I don’t send out the manuscript at the same time. First it goes to my ‘editor’ – a reader not a writer – and my long-term writing buddy. They give me feedback on those essential overarching questions – does it hold together and where is it lacking? Neither of them pull their punches and, in some respects, I dread them getting back to me. Though a non-writer, Joanne can pinpoint exactly where things aren’t working and though it takes me several days to accept Anne’s comments, I always accept the points she’s made in the end even if I don’t always accept her suggestions for solving the problem. Both sets of feedback will result in a major rewrite but I know the book is far, far better for them.
Every novel will involve a ‘specialist’ beta reader. For ‘Blood and Chocolate’ which involved working with various government departments plus meetings between MI5 and MI6 officers in Brussels, I had feedback from someone who was able to give me a few pointers and confirm that what I’d written was credible in those areas. My latest mystery will take Fiona and her coach party to Belfast – a political hot bed if ever there was one. Luckily I have a friend who lives in Belfast and she has agreed to beta read ‘Blood Across the Divide’
Last but not least comes the copy-editing and proofing. Without Carrie and Veronika the book would be a disaster!
I depend on every one of my beta readers. They each bring something very special and I’d like them to know they are highly valued and I could not do without them. My grateful thanks to you all.