Crowd-Sourced Creation: Beta Reading and the Feedback Loop

Going to admit it right up front: I used to hate having others read my work before I had finished it. I told myself that each work had to reach a certain stage of completeness in order for a reader to appreciate it; I didn’t want to put my work out there when it couldn’t fully be understood.

The reality? Sheer terror. I was in no way ready to share my work with others. My fragile ego couldn’t take it. I couldn’t admit that to myself, but reality is reality. The thing is, I’m almost glad I couldn’t accept that. It may well have been for the best, given how long I had to go. This was the mid to late 90s, during the infancy of the Internet, so I didn’t know much about the concept of critique groups or beta readers or any of that stuff. I had never so much as met another fiction writer in real life, outside of creative writing classes, and even those had mostly been dabblers. My work underwent something of a review process through those classes, but I never got to share my longer work (what I considered to be my “real” work), so I never felt that I got the full benefit of the classes.

Cue a hermetic form of writing for many, many years. I completed several novels, but never felt any were good enough to show to others. I grew in my craft, true, but that happened in a bubble. A bubble that wouldn’t burst for many, many years.

As I said, it may all have been for the best. But if I would change anything about my writing development, that period would be it. I would love to have been able to consult other authors during the writing of such “classics” as Tidal, Mirror Untrue, Jazshael, and Wind Won’t Wait for Midnight (this one may come back one day). Those books may well be available today had I known more about this process. Alas, the future of nations, or something like that.

Many years later, I’ve come to understand that any good book is the result of a collaborative effort. Sure, the author does the heavy lifting of writing the initial draft and incorporating revisions and edits, but most books remain forever mediocre without the input of multiple viewpoints to feed and mold the work in progress.

I speak about this because I’m undergoing the beta reading process from both ends at the moment. My own book, Room 3, just went out to my dedicated beta readers yesterday afternoon (and thanks to those folks for enduring my prose), and I’m beta reading a work for Emlyn Chand, author of Farsighted.

I sometimes get this question, so I’m going to share for those folks who don’t know. While beta reading seems to mean different things to different people, in general, the process involves sending out some form of draft to readers with different specialties and viewpoints, asking for their feedback on either specific matters or more general issues about the story. This is not to be confused with editing; betas shouldn’t get too deep into grammar issues, aside from those that might affect the story, and style may or may not be addressed.

Some send these out one or two chapters at a time. I prefer to bring the pain all in one large chunk. Both have distinct advantages and disadvantages. Emlyn uses a hybrid approach. She describes it thus:

I work a little differently than most, I think. I have two tiers of readers–those that give me feedback as I go, and those that review a full draft. I usually go through 4 drafts on my own and then employ a professional editor (and I use the term “draft” loosely, since I’m incorporating tier-1 beta feedback in  “draft #1”).

Seeing the segmented portion of Emlyn’s process has shown me that the ongoing version can have some benefit: she can take the suggestions given early on and use them to shape characters and find ideas that may build on to what comes later in the novel. There’s something really cool about that approach. I have two problems with it that would prevent me from ever using it, though. One is that, in these early stages, I guard my idea like a jealous lover. It might be a bit odd, but I feel like any outside influence might wreck my initial vision. There will be a time for others to add to that vision, but early on just doesn’t work for me. The second, of course, is that right now the approach is not realistic when it comes to my own stable of beta readers.

The disadvantage of that approach also lies in the reader not being able to see what’s going on for more than a few chapters at a time. For instance, I had some questions in my first chunk that will likely be resolved a few chapters down the line. For right now, I have to wait for those answers to be resolved, and my perspective may be different by the time I reach them.

I use the approach of sending the whole thing to avoid that disadvantage, and also because I recruit from many walks of life, and some of those folks have very packed schedules. Two are teaching full-time classes this semester, so they need some flexibility. I respect and value their input, so I try to accommodate their needs. The best thing about this phase is that I can forget about the story awhile – it “belongs” to them now, and I can move on to other works.

And that gets to what I’m really talking about, after all. A story only briefly belongs to you, and at release, it’s passed to your readers. The beta reading process gets you into that mode early on, and gives readers buy-in almost right from the beginning. While the vision may remain your own, and you retain final say on what goes and what stays, the soul and vision of others begin to creep in, making the work into more than it could be with only a single vision feeding it. Think of like a fire: it may burn well enough with one piece of kindling, but add more, and the fire burns brighter and hotter. The vision and feedback from your betas forms the extra kindling to help your story shine. That’s incredibly valuable (and gets us right back around to setting the couch on fire).

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  1. As a reader, I can tell the difference between a story that has come “straight from the author’s head” and one that has reaped the benefits of feedback. I equate this somewhat to parenting advice. I don’t have children, I’m not around children all the time, and I’m not responsible for their future development, so maybe I can see things their parents don’t see. On the other hand, because I don’t have that same pool of knowledge the parents have, I may get some advice points flat-out wrong.

    I feel the same way about beta-reading, or content editing, or whatever one wants to call it. The story belongs to the author, and s/he decides what to do with it. But maybe, just maybe, someone who (1) hasn’t lived and breathed the story and (2) doesn’t know (in the deepest part of oneself) exact who those characters are can offer insight that makes the story even stronger.

    Because I have an academic background, I’m very used to the peer-review process. The reviewer’s goal is to find the holes and point out the inconsistencies so that the author can craft a stronger and better supported argument. Fiction can really benefit from a similar approach.

    Interesting post!

    • Very well put! I really like the comparison to the peer-review process. To me, that’s essentially what this is all about. And I’m looking forward to your feedback!

  2. Not only do I enjoy your thoughtful and thought-provoking blogs, I love your pictorial humor. This is what I’d call a very professional blog, info worth considering yet down-to-earth delivery. Thank you!

    • Thank you very much, Christina. That means a lot coming from you – I’ve enjoyed your blog for quite some time!

  3. When creating that one definitive work of art that I hope will leave a mark upon the world, I realize that the words I write are not so important as the thoughts I create in the reader’s heads. In the end, the art may be recorded on the paper, but the true art is the complete picture that materializes in their minds and their feelings after they have read the novel. A truly deep novel will alter different readers in different ways. To be truly deep the novel has to be a big room, one that can be explored repeatedly and yield new treasure on every trip. Without early readers of the manuscript, I cannot know whether all the clues have been discovered. Without the proper clues, ones that are understood, the treasure just rots in the ground.

    • Absolutely! Huge lesson to be learned right here. My biggest breakthrough came when I embraced the two-way nature of novels, rather than just the one-way idea of putting stories out there.

      • Jonathan, I hadn’t thought of the process that way, but you are right. Reading is the flip side of writing. I’m going to share this point with my grad students!

  4. Great thoughts! I, too, don’t do the chapter-by-chapter critiquing. I did (once upon a time) have a group that did that, but moved on from it, mostly because I needed feedback quicker on the whole draft. I’m getting ready to send my WiP out to crit partners at the end of the week, because after two drafts, I’m finally ready to share (at least with these trusted advisers). But you are very right that the work isn’t complete until others are part of the process!

    Best of luck!

    • Interesting! I think your process speaks for itself with the results 🙂

      I’ve weighed the pros and cons and decided to stay with my current process, though I am going to show a few things to trusted friends here and there to get their take.

  5. I’ve never believed it to be a wise idea to edit as you go, let alone have other people critique it that way. That was one of my difficulties with the writer’s retreats I attended in Maui (and other classes I’ve had over the years). Very often the critiques come with questions or observations that the reader just isn’t privy to yet.

    “You just gotta keep reading” is often the response.

    Or they want to try and direct the story where they think it should go.

    No, I think it should be in its entirety. And I also believe even after beta readers, a professional, paid content editor is worth his/her weight in gold. (We might’ve already talked about this). Anyway, God speed, my friend.

    Paul D. Dail A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

    • Oh yeah, I’m all aboard the pro editor express. My current goal is getting the book to her by 3/1 so we can hit release sometime in the second week of April. No date until I see her changes, though 🙂

      But yeah I’ve started noticing that whole thing already with the few beta readers that have already shared some thoughts. The answer, invariably, is “you just gotta keep reading”. Hehe

  6. I had three beta readers for Stolen Climates, but I did not give the book to them until I felt it was complete. Not set in stone finished, just complete. I made some significant changes based upon feedback, some stylistic and some content/plot changes. I cannot imagine sharing the book with beta readers chapter by chapter, or even before I’ve done a couple of revisions on my own. Of course, I also don’t even talk about my work in progress until after a full draft is complete and revised, so I’m already not the paragon of early collaboration!

    Absolutely true : “A story only briefly belongs to you, and at release, it’s passed to your readers.” Reminds me of this bit from Wilco’s White Light:

    “…and if the whole world is singing your songs,
    and all your paintings have been hung,
    remember what was yours is now everyone’s from now on…”

    • Hah, yeah, early collaboration is definitely not my thing.

      Oh and LOVE that Wilco quote and that song – I was lucky enough to see them live when that album came out and they played it for the encore. Great little memory.

  7. Thanks for the shout-out in this post and for being an invaluable beta reader. I understand why many authors prefer to send the full draft at once, but I really do enjoy my hybrid approach. If a mistake is to be made early on, I’d rather catch it and correct it than allow it to continue to unfurl and wreak havoc on my manuscript. I generally know the entire story arc before I write the first page, so I can enlighten beta readers on future plot points when necessary. I have some betas who read it chapter-by-chapter and then again when it’s complete (that’s what my best friend is for). After going through the rounds with my two sets of betas, I always hire a content/line-editor. I’m incredibly thorough with the review process. I love my ideas, but I also know I’m not infallible. I want to tell MY story in the best way possible, and for that, I need lots of listening ears who are willing to tell me what they really think. Listening ears like you Jonathan 😀

    • Ahhh so you’re a full-on plotter. I can respect that. I use something of a hybrid approach so I’m a little cautious of external comments messing with what I feel is an organic growth process. But I also agree – lots of eyes/ears make for a much better story. Those of us who commit to quality, I hope, will eventually get to shine. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  8. I attend a weekly writers’ group, and we all benefit from the critique. Our stories and poems often end up much better than they were when we first brought them to the round table. However, I think it’s important for writers to be able to edit and revise their own work without help. How can a writer improve if she or he can’t see the problems in their own stories? Getting feedback definitely helps, but writers should be wary of using it as a crutch all of the time. If you’re always relying on beta readers, how would you revise a piece in time for a tight deadline when no one is available to read?

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