Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me … (Part 2)

Earlier this week we were discussing ways to get help with your writing with minimal financial investment. (That is, without hiring a writing coach or professional editor.) Low-cost options for getting help with your writing include:

• Participate in a writers’ group.
• Connect with a critique group and/or partner.
• Look for a mentor.
• Cultivate beta readers.

In the last post we talked about the first three. Now let’s talk about beta readers.

Once your manuscript has been critiqued by other writers and is as finished as you can make it, you are ready for beta readers. Maybe three to five of them. These should be readers, incidentally, who are not related to or in an emotional relationship with you. Honest. Your mother, your spouse, your best friend—not good beta readers for you. Trust me.

A beta reader is someone who reads a lot and is willing to read your story and offer feedback. This won’t necessarily be professional-grade feedback, but that’s OK. You want gut feelings, initial reactions; you want to know what doesn’t make sense. Sometimes a beta reader will be someone with particular knowledge about your novel’s milieu. A friend of mine who writes Amish fiction, for example, has Amish beta readers, just to be sure she hasn’t written anything inaccurate about the community or its theology.

You should offer an honorarium to a beta reader (say, fifty dollars—or you can offer to be a beta reader when his novel is done), and if you’re wise, you’ll have some specific questions for him or her. You may have some particular plot point that’s bothering you, but don’t draw attention to it in your questionnaire. (One of my authors directed me to this blog post, which, although longish, makes some excellent points about what you should hope to get from your beta readers.)

Choose people who are 1) in your reader demographic, and/or 2) who have, perhaps, some knowledge for which you want their imprimatur, and/or at the very least 3) who are experienced, sophisticated readers.

Definitely seek out a writer’s group and/or critique partners; every author I’ve edited has been involved with a group of some sort, and I think it’s an important part of writing, this interaction with others. Your group can give you lots of editorial advice—and it’s free, aside from the investment of time. Note that while in-person fellowship is nice, your group could just as easily be an e-mail group.

“But,” you ask, “how do I find a group?” It shouldn’t be too hard. Many communities have amateur writers’ groups. You might find something more intense through MeetUp, the local library or bookstore, or college English department. Ask around in your book group. Your librarian is an ideal person to ask about beta readers; ask your writer friends too. And don’t overlook a professional organization you may already belong to—like SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), the Authors Guild, SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers), and on and on, both regional and national.

There’s strength—and wisdom—in numbers, kids. Find a group and get started.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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6 Comments

  1. […] Back to Jamie Chavez Read>Play>Edit Your sometimes cranky editor writes about books, writing, & editing, words & language, and the publishing industry. Skip to content About « Short Saturday: Gaming the System Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me … (Part 2) » […]

  2. Michelle Ule says:

    My beta reader just left! She’s also my housekeeper but a senior in English literature at a local university in the proper demographic group. She’s encouraging, but knows my weaknesses and understands what I’m looking for. My house didn’t get very clean today, but my manuscript appears to be on the right track!

    • jamiechavez says:

      Hahaha! Love this! And it brings up a good point: it’s helpful to establish an ongoing relationship with beta readers who know your writing, your weaknesses (and strengths!). At the same time, I think it’s good to rotate in other readers who will come at it from an unknown angle.

  3. Great advice, Jamie.

    I am the first reader for a friend who is a novelist. We break the rule about being friends, but she is a professional—the first manuscript I read was not her first published work.

    I was excited to do it until right before I began when it occurred to me, “What if I don’t like it!” but my friend made it easy. She attached a cover letter asking me to tell her what I liked, what worked, etc. and she said, “Here’s what may be hard, I need you to tell me what you don’t like, what doesn’t work, etc.” I sighed with relief and got to it.

    It takes a lot of courage to solicit true feedback and it may not always be comfortable but it can make all the difference in your manuscript.

    The feedback I give hinges on what I believe/disbelieve. When I am distracted from the story by the writing—for whatever reason—I make a note. I force myself to stop and record what I LOVE, but the mark of a strong manuscript is I just want to keep reading it.

    • jamiechavez says:

      Your situation may be slightly different in that you are both writers; you GET it. I just think you can never get the best feedback from people who gave birth to you or with whom you are, you know, sleeping. :) I know many authors who have become, over time, great friends with their critique partners, and the relationship still works.

      Believe/disbelieve are huge for me too.

  4. […] lately we’ve been talking about where to get writing help—from editors, from writing groups, and so on—and also the need to take it all on board cautiously. And then I stumble on this fantastic […]

  5. Adam says:

    Jamie,
    On more than one occasion, people in the biz have given me the advice not to get involved in a writers group because I’m already published. The thinking here, as near as I can tell, is other members of the group will just try to get me to set them up with my publisher. Any thoughts in this viewpoint?

    • jamiechavez says:

      If you’re using the same definition of writers’ group as I am (see part 1), then maaaaaybe not, though there are certainly very well-run, professional-grade groups (one I can think of in Nashville, for example) in which I don’t think that’d be a problem. (OTOH, it’s always good to “give back” to the writing community if and as possible.) But in a professional-grade group, you are probably going to encounter other traditionally published writers. Similarly, in a critique group, you’d seek critique partners whose experience level was on par with your own. Also, of course, I’m sure you’ve already figured out you don’t need to be in a writers’ group to encounter folks who want you to set you up with your publisher! Ha. It’s inexperience; they don’t understand. I have to tell folks all the time that I am *only* an editor, that it’s better for me spiritually, emotionally, and even physically if I promise *only* to do a really good job of what I’m good at. Most get it. :)

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me … (Part 1) on 8 November, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    […] Back to Jamie Chavez Read>Play>Edit Your sometimes cranky editor writes about books, writing, & editing, words & language, and the publishing industry. Skip to content About « Short Saturday: Gaming the System Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me … (Part 2) » […]

  2. By Short Saturday: Bad Writing Advice! on 17 November, 2012 at 8:49 am

    […] lately we’ve been talking about where to get writing help—from editors, from writing groups, and so on—and also the need to take it all on board cautiously. And then I stumble on this fantastic […]

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