Writing is Hard Part 8: On Beta Reading and Feedback

Here’s another excessively vulnerable post. Originally, it was supposed to be how querying ruined my relationship with storytelling and craft, leading to burnout, and to some extent, it will be. This post, however, will mostly be about giving and receiving feedback, the ever-evolving relationship with beta reading, feedback, and what kindness looks like between writers reading like readers and writers reading like writers.

Dear reader who may know me personally: If you think this is about you specifically, it is not. There is not much I can do to assure you of such, but I promise this comes as a result of several smaller burdens piling all at the same time from several sources over several years.

Beta Reading

To start with context, beta reading is a phase of creating a book in which the draft is done, has been through a revision or two (or none), gentle line edits, and is sent to people who have never seen the work. The request can come with specific questions to be answered or can be asking for overall impressions.

What it is not is line edits. God, I just had to say that.

The wall I hit came with the vagueness of feedback I’ve received at the macro level of a story. Does the story work as a story? Yes, the structure might be interesting, but if you don’t know why anything is happening, it might not work.

Taking off your writer hat when you’re beta reading is hard. Because we all come with our tools and perspectives. Yet, the more you can pretend you’re beta reading a book as if it’s a book for pleasure, the more both you and the author will get out of it. Don’t necessarily look for problems (unless something has been specifically requested, of course). Let the story happen before you. It’s amazing what you can discover.

Niceness vs. Kindness in the Context of Feedback

What kindness is also setting your ego aside as a storyteller and a crafter. Yes, someone might have sought you out for specific feedback because of your expertise. However, it is not your story. There are things that might bother you at a sentence level, and you have to trust that those things are choices made by the author. Typos can be corrected in post.

Unless you feel an element obfuscates the point, the plot, or whatever element the writers had tried to convey. If that’s the case: tell them.

I promise you, you’re not being a jerk. The writer will need to hear it from an agent/editor/publisher who has fiscal stakes in the project if they pursue traditional publishing. If you think you’re doing a kindness by being vague and only leaving compliments, you’re just being nice. It doesn’t help anyone.

And if you’re worried that someone might lash out at you for the feedback you leave and questions you raise, you might want to reconsider beta reading for that person. Get used to saying, “No, this isn’t for me.” It’s a complete sentence.

But if the other writer is a professional, then the most unfortunate part can be best described as “you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Just because you would do something differently, doesn’t mean that the writer will. This goes for everything. But the more specific you can be, the more you contextualize, the kinder you will be.

Being nice is useless.

What I Needed in Feedback

In terms of the quality of feedback, avoid making generalizations and get used to asking questions. One of the specific things I have struggled with personally is receiving “There is too much world-building” several times without being given much direction. This can mean so many things, and not knowing how to get specific on either my part or the feedback-giver’s part is what led to a bit of a snap recently where I needed to separate from my project for a little bit.

Here are some questions you can ask to get at specifics in the world-building example:

  • Is the world-building poorly implemented?
  • Does it seem like the puzzle pieces don’t fit together?
  • Are things not defined clearly?

Getting to the core of why something isn’t working for you empowers a writer to tackle their own revisions and the vision they have for that story. Because as mentioned above, it’s their story, their work, not yours. Maybe something isn’t working for you because it’s unclear. Or you can be honest with yourself that an element just doesn’t jive with your personal tastes. Which is fine, I promise, but it does no one any favors. For a public manifestation of this, read any movie review by “expert” critics who do not consume that specific type of movie.

The more questions you can ask the better. Often, they’re not yours to answer. It’s also okay to leave adjectives like “confusing” or “unclear.” Really make it so that it is on the writer to provide the necessary clarity. If you want to exchange ideas, that’s something that needs to be mutually agreed to. Because again: it’s not your story.

My Steps Moving Forward for Recovery

To refill my well and also direct my emotions elsewhere, I’m literally only going to be consuming content I enjoy.

Which sounds strange, but I have never taken a step back to consider who I, Jo, wants to be in the non-writing fabric of publishing. I suggest you do this as well. And I realized that I want to boost other writers in the context of only writers I’ve actually read. The reviews that go up on this blog are genuinely 4- or 5-star reads that I can recommend. And I want to keep it that way and keep my further reading that way. No obligations, only mood reads.

The other bit for projects is to keep the versions in my process closer to my heart. Spit-balling more ideas throughout, but not sharing the finished content until a bit further along. Revision Season was a boon to my process, and I deeply regret not actually following it in this latest revision of the querying project. I’m only going to seek out beta feedback when I’ve gone through that.

And the last is actually taking breaks. I’m starting off with two weeks away from any writing, a month off from the querying project, checking in with myself to see if it needs an extension. Just as honest with yourself as you would a writer who requested feedback. And if there are deadlines and contracts, the sooner you bring it up, the better for everyone.

TL;DR

Two years of vague feedback set me seriously behind in terms of edits. Part of it is my fault, part of it is a structure that discourages kindness in favor of not hurting anyone’s feelings. Do make sure to leave compliments on the work when you present your feedback. Seriously, don’t be a monster. But don’t skirt around specific changes because you think the recipients’ feelings might be hurt. Be honest, be specific. If feedback hurts the writer’s feelings, I have some very unfortunate news for them about gatekeeper-tier rejections.

Until next time,
Jo

I Didn’t Hate It #2

Hiatus ends on Friday, so I’m back to writing on Saturday. My deadline for my graduate school project got pushed to 4 days earlier. Moving is already giving me the anxieties. The next two weeks are going to be fascinating.

On the lighter side, the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers are running a Kickstarter for Kaleidocast’s second season. Support emerging voices in the broken Brooklyn storyscape.

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I Didn’t Hate It #1

Every week, I’m going to write briefly about any writing or otherwise updates. Figured after a week of not writing would be a great place to start. Jo’s been on hiatus for 7 days, y’all.

Why “I Didn’t Hate It”? Because I’m too hard on myself all the time and it felt like an appropriate update title.

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