You did it. You wrote something. Now, you want to improve it. So you’ve heard about having your WIP beta read.
Maybe you’re about to send your WIP out to be read and critiqued.
Maybe you’re waiting for beta readers to get back to you.
Maybe you have a pile of alpha/beta reader feedback you’re sifting through right now.
Cue, the panic.
I’m right here with you, friend. Before we dig into what to do with this feedback, I want to be clear, this post is not about what beta readers do or should do. There’s some links at the bottom, if you’re interested in that.
This post is (mostly) about you, the writer, receiving this feedback and using it.
It seems simple on the surface. Why, of course, you edit your WIP using the comments, suggestions, or critiques your alphas or betas gave you! Right?
Well, yes, but you may want to grab some tissue and take some deep breaths. If you’re anything like me, this can get emotional.
You’ve spent numerous hours, days, weeks, months, maybe even years on your story. You love these characters, you have numerous scenes you adore like fond memories—I mean why would you have written it, if you didn’t love it? And now you’re handing it over to be measured and weighed . . . and while you know it isn’t perfect, there can’t be that much wrong with it, can there?
I’ve been revising and editing my adult Fantasy WIP OATHBREAKER for close to three years. It’s been read and re-read by many. And my poor critique partner is STILL reading it. (She’s a champ!)
In between editing it, I finished the first draft of a sci-fi WIP at the end of June 2019, and after a quick read through to tidy what I could, I sent it out to alpha readers, all 100k of it.
This blog post comes out of looking back at my experiences and my reactions to feedback, and trying to learn from it and how to move forward. I hope you find it helpful, though sometimes experience is the best teacher.
Writing and editing OATHBREAKER has been a phenomenal learning process for me. It was the first novel length WIP, I’d finished since some rather short ones in high school (which was a long time ago). I didn’t know what critique partners or alpha readers were at the time. I only just learned what beta readers were.
Briefly, a beta reader reads a finished and polished novel (or other piece of written work) and offers their comments or critique of it AS A READER. What parts did they like? What parts didn’t they like and why? Did they lose interest anywhere? Were they confused anywhere? Etc. There’s some great beta reader questions floating out there on the web and Pinterest. Beta readers do not need to be writers themselves. Some might argue it’s better if they are only readers.
An alpha reader reads a less polished version of a WIP, sometimes a first draft or second draft. Alpha readers should be looking for plot holes, pacing issues, the characters’ arcs. Beta readers can still point these issues out. It’s possible there are still issues with your WIP after a round or two or three of alpha reading.
Alpha readers can be a critique partner, too, who you use as a sounding board for the decisions you make as you write that first draft. Alpha readers are often your writing and/or editor friends. People who know something about story structure, character arcs, plot, and pacing. You trust them with your unfinished work because you know that they trust that you can pull it all together in the end. They aren’t going to judge you for misplaced commas; they, like you, are looking first and foremost, at the bigger picture. (Though they may help you with your grammar and typos, too, if that’s what you want.
I’ve done some beta reading and a whole lot of alpha reading, in my opinion. Generally, as a trade off. That can work for some people and not for others.
But you’re here because alpha or beta, you’ve got an email in your inbox with your returned WIP—and you simultaneously hope it has a lot of comments and no comments at all.
1. Know your comfort level: Short or Long Critiques
A whole 100K (or more) WIP with comments throughout and answers to those questions you asked your reader can be very daunting, especially if you don’t know if said reader has enjoyed your novel or not.
If getting all that feedback at once is too much for you to handle, try to find readers that would be willing to read chapter by chapter or in sections. I’ve found that I have no trouble facing the music for short chapter critiques—in fact, I’m very much invigorated to dig in and make changes to improve my writing this way.
Until this past year, I solely asked others to critique my writing by chapter by chapter. Usually, it was a trade. This helped scheduled my time as well.
However, with chapter by chapter critiques you do risk your reader forgetting a lot of the details since it’s a drawn out process. 40 chapters at 1 chapter a week = nearly a whole year to read through your WIP.
Another option is sending the critique onto a close friend you trust. (I’ve done this.) Have them skim through the email or comments and let you know how good or bad it is. Then take some time, and when you’re ready, take a look.
Don’t let your trepidation make you feel like you don’t belong in the industry. People can say you need a thick skin all they want. But your writing is part of you – your very soul – it’s okay to have emotions about it. If you didn’t experience emotions, you’d probably write a very dry and boring book.
2. Make sure your reader is a good fit for your book.
Yes, this happens before you get your feedback. But it’s important. Even if they’ve read snippets online and have asked to read your work, send them a blurb about it. Or devise a set of questions to ask them so you can filter out who likes the tropes in your book (all books have them) and who doesn’t. Some authors use google forms and have possible betas apply to read their WIP. When I first started out, I thought this was rather pretentious, but it makes sense to me now. As the writer, you want to make sure the reader is a good fit. Not just anyone off the street.
If they aren’t a good fit, they’re advice won’t be helpful.
So if you’ve received a lot of comments about how they don’t like this trope and that idea and these settings, etc., which are the things you love about your WIP, then they aren’t the right readers for your book.
A non-fantasy/sci-fi reader may not understand how abeyance is used in this genre. Not everything will be explained to them right away, and this will have them asking you info dump from the first page. Take this into account when you’re weighing their comments. Ask them if they read a lot of books like yours. The answers may be telling.
3. Realize you won’t agree with everything they say.
And you don’t have to. But you need to listen. You asked them to read it after all. So after your shocked outrage that they didn’t understand this character or plot point or whatever, think about what could be going wrong here. Why didn’t they get it?
And please, do not argue with them. They read what you wrote and their thoughts on it are valid. You might not use their comments to change what you wrote – that’s valid, too, because they are different ways of interpreting text.
But do ask for clarification, if needed. There was a huge issue in my sci-fi WIP that I knew readers would have trouble with. And that’s exactly what all the alpha feedback was saying. But when I talked it over with one of the readers (also a writer), I was able to come up with a solution that worked for me and seemed to work for her, too.
This leads into . . .
4. Take Neil Gaiman’s advice.
“Remember, when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”–Neil Gaiman
I’ve been learning this one a lot. Often my readers have fantastic ideas on how to improve things, though. And I’ve used many of them. So it’s not 100% that they won’t have great ideas. In fact, this can be a great sign of who would make a good critique partner for you (in my opinion).
Other times, when a reader points out something they don’t ‘get’ or that isn’t working for them, that doesn’t mean you need to delete that whole subplot or romance or scene necessarily. But it means you need to think about what the issue really is – what you will fight for to keep, but what you’re willing to change. Sometimes if you tweak a paragraph above or below or add in details earlier in the book, then this issue the reader had might be solved (to your satisfaction, not theirs).
For example, in the last two years I’ve received different feedback on one particular chapter. Some loved it, some had issues with it. I loved it! So clearly I was keeping it.
It wasn’t until the last round of reading, when again issues came up, that I understood it was a pacing issue. There were important parts in this chapter that I wanted to keep, but it wasn’t the right time for it. Readers had brought up other issues that they felt were wrong with it—but their reasons had never resonated with me, so I ignored it.
But once a reader pointed out that if this chapter was deleted, the book could continue without a blip in the plot, I realized that it was because this chapter didn’t fit in this spot. In fact, it was an interruption to the flow of the plot.
I have deleted whole chapters. I’ve rewritten whole chapters. But in this case, I’m cutting the chapter, but keeping the necessary conversations that take place and a confrontation and moving them to different points in the story. Yes, it took me three years to realize this.
5. It’s only one person’s opinion.
In the past, I haven’t always sent out my writing to multiple people at the same time. This means I’ve sometimes seen critiques in isolation. Often it’s said, if more than one person or a few have the same issue with your WIP, then you need to fix it. This is why writing is so difficult. It’s very subjective. But, in general, this is a good rule of thumb. However, it’s your book, your heart, your vision. You need to still love your story at the end. Because if you don’t, why should anyone else?
6. You may need to vent. Do it in private
Again, this is your heart and soul on paper – sometimes even nicely worded critiques can hurt. It can help to talk it out with a trusted friend, especially a trusted writer friend whose been through the same trenches you have. Often after you get that emotive response out, you can start to consider the comment and see what it truly means. *At least it works for me!*
So vent away. But please vent in private. It’s not professional, nor polite, to vent in public on Twitter or other social media. Readers took their time to give you their feedback, so please respect that.
Sometimes, a reader will point things out to you that instantly make sense. And you’ll love them forever. And you’ll probably do everything in your power to keep them as a reader.
7. Realize you can’t make every reader happy
If you’re like me, this advice is easy to give and harder to take, because you want very badly for everyone to love your story. But it’s not realistic. And changing everything in your novel according to readers’ comments won’t necessarily make them love it; and it may make you come to hate your story.
When considering reader feedback, ask yourself if the changes domake your novel better, or if they just make your novel different.
Readers are people. They bring all their own experiences, cultural knowledge, likes and dislikes to the table. Some will try hard not to let their preferences colour their reading, others may not. In the end, the stories we like or dislike and the reasons why can be very subjective.
Neil Gaiman advised one writer on Tumblr that instead of trying to make all your (beta or alpha) readers happy, focus on the ones who ‘get’ what your story is about. Those people will be your target audience.
“Don’t try to make everybody happy. Try to make the people who like what you are doing even happier, instead.”–Neil Gaiman
8. Decide when you’re done with critiques.
Get rid of the idea right now that you will be able to edit your WIP into it’s “perfect” form. If maybe you send it out enough times for feedback, you’ll eventually get it back with the comment: “There’s absolutely nothing to improve here!”
Now, I didn’t consciously have this thought all these years ago. But I’ve come to realize that maybe it’s what I’ve been striving for in my edits. To get it PERFECT. Everyone wants their WIP to be the best it can be. But remind yourself that perfection may not exist and it may be holding you back from publishing or querying or the next step for you.
How do you know when you’re done with a WIP? Well, I’m here to tell you, you just know. Pretty much you can hardly read it anymore even though you love it to bits.
So yes, this will be the last edits I’m doing with OATHBREAKER before moving it on to its next phase. I’m not saying it will never be revised again, but I am moving forward. No more alpha or beta reading.
I hope by sharing this, you’ll feel a little better about tackling all that reader feedback in your inboxes.
Hang in, there. I know what you’re going through. And I know you * can * do this.
If you have any advice to share, please leave a comment! I’d love to read it!
Other blog posts on alpha and beta reading I’ve found helpful:
- Kellie M Parker ~ The Hows and Whys of Critique Partners and Beta Reader
- Christi Martin ~ Navigating the Beta Reader Trenches
- Anne Wheeler ~ Why I Don’t Do Beta Swaps Anymore
All gifs from Giphy.