“You wrote here she’s brown-haired, but I thought she was a blonde?”

It being an “ordinary” Monday and with Saturday’s British royal wedding behind us…

…it’s time to get back to “normal.”

I know I have written about this before. However, that was a year ago now. Having gotten lots of new followers since then (Hello!), I believe this subject is worth an updated post.

I never share a manuscript with anyone until it is nearly a complete draft. At that point I foist it upon my wife and a few select others. One of the latter takes her role so seriously she once told me she even password-protects her emailed copy so no one else can read it.

They note typos and narrative sloppiness I missed and give me a sense of how it reads. I have a retired author “edit” it as well. It’s all done informally, but seriously, and it’s not “rocket science.” Thus why I cringe whenever I see an author use the expression “beta-readers”:

[Screen capture by me, 2018. Author’s name deleted.]

When I saw that posted to social media recently by someone I respect, I felt myself groan yet once more. “Beta readers” was evidently plagiarized at some point from the tech/software world by some author seeking to sound “scientific” or something. Unfortunately, it has caught fire among some fiction writers.

I push back against use of that expression because I believe some writers appear to seek out too many people for pre-publication feedback. I detect “beta readers” is the attempted gloss being thrown over that reality. They pass their writing – sometimes full rough-drafts – around as widely as they can primarily hoping to elicit reassurances about their writing.

“Beta readers” seems also to overlap to a degree with sharing with other writers. It is similar to what is done in a creative writing course. I took a creative writing class in university many years ago, and although I did well in it I recall also thinking I couldn’t wait to get to history class…

[Excerpt from Passports. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

It is one thing being critiqued by someone with a post-graduate degree in literature who teaches a university creative writing class. It’s decidedly another to put too much stock into “this and that” which other writers assert about aspects of your work, because they may well-meaningly simply give out bad advice. Far worse is if – because they feel you write better – any run you down or attempt a cagey bit of misdirection masked as “support”:

Yep, it’s got great potential. But I wouldn’t have written it exactly that way if I’m honest…

The term “passive-aggressive” may well have been coined by someone observing a jealous author reviewing another’s work. Having years ago encountered some of my uncle’s “fellow” writers, I never forgot what pompous and self-important individuals some were. I recall overhearing more than a few chats that went a lot like this:

Mike: “I read Lynn’s new story after she asked for input. I don’t know where to start. I’ll be nice, though. But God…”

Uncle: “She’s alright. She’s better than me in lots of ways. I can’t spell for s-it. Sylvia always tells me that.”

[Later, after Mike had gone home.]

Uncle [to me]: “Known him years. He’s an okay guy, but can be such an a-shole. She writes fine, better than him. I think he’s always just pissed off she’d never sleep with him.”

So I remain wary of creative writing “buddies'” support groups.

My biggest complaint is the term “beta readers” denotes an outsized influence from those far too numerous pre-publication readers, and also even insinuates that NOT having “beta readers” means you are “doing it wrong” because that’s, you know, a “scientific” term. Writing a novel is a personal endeavor. It is not to me “a group effort” meant to be impacted heavily by the suggestions of a small crowd.

If you try to satisfy “everyone,” it will cause a creative shambles. Any two readers on the planet will read the same page and come away with different takes about the goings on they see. I’ve had readers interpret my text in ways I NEVER intended to suggest – yet I also love it when that happens because it means the book is “speaking” to them in a personal way: reading is after all about our imaginations.

Conventions: The Garden At Paris. The manuscript. It is no longer just an abstraction sitting in a PC. [Photo by me, 2017.]
[Conventions: The Garden At Paris. The manuscript. Photo by me, January 2017.]
I prefer to use the “old-fashioned” (perhaps “unscientific”) term “proofreaders.” That properly denotes their task. Naturally, though, they can even miss things, too…

“You wrote here she’s brown-haired, but I thought she was a blonde?”

“Uh, no, early on I described her as brown-haired.” [Points out that description on page 36.]

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t see that!”

[Photo by me, 2017.]

Sharing snippets on the net is valuable. Unlike seeking suggestions from some hand-picked “beta” crowd, it is risking putting your work in progress – faults and all – out there for all to see. It is something writers before us were never able to do. It can also reach potential readers all over the world:

[Sneak peek from the rough draft to the sequel to Conventions: The Garden At Paris. Click to expand.]

Seeking a few trustworthy opinions is fine and useful, but my advice is not to overdo it. Particularly be cautious with electronic versions: don’t email your full manuscript to just anyone. Ideas do get swiped and it would be heartbreaking to see any aspect of your book – ideas that YOU had FIRST – stolen.

In the end, any novel or short-story collection is entirely your creation, your responsibility, and bears only your name – for good or bad. There is no hiding from that fact by giving it to “dozens” of “beta readers.” Ultimately you write not for any others, and definitely not for other writers who may see you as competition and resent you even while smiling at you, but for readers whom you cannot pre-screen.

Have a good day, wherever you are in the world. 🙂

One comment

Comments are closed.