Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Lies Writers Tell... To Other Writers (Part Four -- Betas Required)

I don't own a cell phone. I know; go ahead and gasp and ask how I'm able to survive and all of that stuff that everyone always asks me. No, seriously, go ahead and get it out of your system. I know you want to. I can give you answers to all of it, but it all boils down to one thing: I don't need a cell phone. Neither do you, actually.


You can stop with all the reasons about how you need it, right now, because it's all a bunch of excuses. Sure, I get that the cell phone may make some things easier, and they're certainly nice to have in case of an emergency, but you don't need it.

I know. I know! How can I say that? Right?

I can say it because humanity survived without cell phones for, well, thousands of years. In fact, we even survived the 80s without cell phones and, if we can do that, anyone can do that.

It's just the truth.

And do you want to know the real reason why I don't have a cell phone, the reason underneath all the other reasons? I don't want to become dependent on it. I don't want to rely on an electronic extension of my brain. Not in the way that it makes me think I can't live without it and, if something happens to it, I don't know what to do.

One of the big ideas in writing these days is the need for beta readers. The need. Like you don't have the ability to write a book without them. It's actually more pervasive than the one about needing to hire an editor. You have to have beta readers and you have to have critique partners and you have to have all of these other people to tell you how to write the book that you're writing.

Well, um, no.

This whole "beta reader" idea is pretty new, like the cell phone, so for hundreds of years authors got by just fine without them. In fact, the greatest works of literature were done without beta readers. Or critique partners. Or, actually, editors other than the authors themselves. Can you imagine anyone telling Dickens he needed an editor? What all this tells me is that beta readers are kind of like cell phones, something that we, as a writing culture, have come to depend on when, maybe, we shouldn't.

Let me put it another way:
Culturally, we have adopted this view that work done by groups is better than work done by individuals. The more heads the better and all of that. This idea is everywhere. It's in our businesses, it's in our government, it's in our schools. Gone is the day of the student sitting at his desk; now it's all table groups and teams. More and more businesses are switching away from individual space to group space. And, right now, I see some of you out there saying, "Yeah, that's how it should be." Except, well, it shouldn't.

All of the studies being done in relation to this new collaborative process and groupthink idea are showing that the more people you have involved in the process of creating something, the worse that creation is. Rarely is there a central idea guiding the process and, even if there is, there is a... pressure... to include ideas from everyone in the group. They've been done some studies about this relating to writing, and they show the same thing. The more people you have giving advice to the author, the more muddled the story becomes. The author loses the ability to evaluate what people are saying in relation to his original idea and starts trying to incorporate every idea.

And, right now, you're saying, "Yeah, but..."

Look, I hear it all the time, and I'm sure you have, too. People saying on their blogs, "I just got my manuscript back from my betas and, now, I have all these changes I have to make!" And they're excited about making them. And most of them are just grabbing every idea every beta reader had and trying to figure out how to make them all work.

And that doesn't even get to the part where we try to use betas and CPs (critique partners) as editors. Which, in one sense, is fine, because sometimes they catch mistakes. However, sometimes, they make mistakes out of things that are correct. Peer editing is becoming a big thing in schools, evidently. Both of my boys have been involved in peer editing groups. Of course, what has ended up happening is everyone in their classes trying to have them edit their papers, because my boys are better with the grammars than other kids their age. By a lot. The younger boy, when he's paying attention, can write with close to zero errors. My oldest boy was recognized in his senior AP Literature class this year for outstanding achievement; he was the only recipient of the award, and he was frequently the only one in the class to make an A on any given assignment. The point there is that for either of my boys to hand their papers to someone else to edit is, well, to invite disaster. And my point for you is that you shouldn't depend on someone who is no more well versed in grammar than you to catch your mistakes. Even if they say they are.

Look, I'm not trying to tell you to not use your beta readers. I am telling you that you need to learn that you don't need them. If you can't write a good story without them, you also can't write a good story with them. Learn how to do that story stuff on your own. It's kind of like how we used to get together with other people back in the 80s. "Hey, I'll meet you outside of the arcade at the mall at 8:00, okay?" And, then, you did that. Or you didn't, but, for me, mostly whatever plan was made was carried through. Why? Because you couldn't decide to be somewhere else without standing someone up, so you went where you were supposed to go. If, you know, you wanted to keep your friend. Writing needs to be kind of like that, with a plan, even if you're a pantser. Mostly, though, you just have to be confident enough in your story so that every suggestion that comes your way doesn't make you doubt yourself. It's your story!

I think the best way to use beta readers is to set firm ground rules about their function. My top three would be:
1. Do not make story suggestions.
2. Tell me if there is something that you don't understand. That includes asking the question "why?" as often as it happens while you're reading.
3. Let me know if you find my missing words and point out any homophones.

Basically, allow the beta reader to be a luxury, not a need. When you feel that you need a beta reader, there's somewhere that you're failing on your end.

[Note: I am out of town at the moment. I'll respond to comments as soon as I return. Okay, well, not as soon, but sometime after that.]


  1. Humanity survived without antibiotics for a long time, too, but nobody's arguing to go back to those days. I have a cell phone and have since 2004. A month ago, my phone stopped working and until I got a new one I felt like I was missing a sense. I use it for GPS (I drive all over the state for cases), to keep in contact with my office when I'm out, as a camera, to research stuff on the Internet, a daily reminder, note pad... sometimes I even make calls with it. (When I say my cell phone "stopped working" I mean "it only worked as a phone," which I found useless.)

    But that wasn't your point. I agree, they're not "necessary" like oxygen, but they really ARE helpful.

    Group ideas are generally terrible. I get complaints from my employees that we don't let people make policies in meetings. But when we DO, the policies are uniformly awful and the people whose policies didn't get accepted are mad. So what we do is one of the partners thinks up an idea, and then we talk about it amongst the four of us, and then we roll it out. Usually with a small test group and then the firm as a larger entity. That works pretty well.

    That idea can work for a story: write it, then try it on a few people and see how they like it. That's where I think 'beta readers' (something I've only used once) can be helpful. I did it with you guys on "Temporary Anne" and I think that's my best-edited work -- aside from time shifts you mentioned but that's hard for me to catch.

    So for editing, absolutely I think beta readers can be helpful because our eye skips over things after a while when we know the story.

    As for stories? I HATE when people suggest where my story should go. WRITE YOUR OWN DARN STORY. If I wanted my space vampire to fight the dragon instead of discovering the secret of time travel, I'd have written it that way! HMMM IDEA FOR A SEQUEL.

    Recently, I ARC-read a book for an author whose name rhymes with "MIGEL NITCHELL" and only found a few typos, and then he asked me about a comment made by another reader whose name rhymes with "BUMPY GRULLDOG," and BUMPY and I disagreed on one point int the story. That kind of stuff is fair, I think -- where you say beta readers should point out things that don't make sense, but you're right overall: don't let other people tell you how to write your story. That's nothing more than a focus group, and focus group stories are what gets us the movie "Blended."

    1. Well admittedly I'm probably a little gun shy about things like that considering of the stupid comments I've got on book "reviews"

  2. I wouldn't give up my critique partner for anything. Not all are equal, though. I've had plenty who were more of a detriment than a help. But if you do ever find one that clicks with you and what you're trying to write, it's the best.

  3. I don't think this is an across the board issue. There are a lot of dependent factors. When I was working on the road in the 80's a cell phone would have made my life so much easier and I would have avoided a lot of problematic situations that I encountered back then. I looked into having a car phone (I don't think they were called cell phones back then) and they were so expensive and had so many limitations that it wasn't practical for me to get one. Now I barely use my cell, but when I've needed it--especially when travelling--it has helped so much.

    Likewise the need for Beta readers depends on the author I think. I tend to agree with you about wanting one for myself, but there are some writers who write so poorly in certain ways that I think they benefit greatly by having readers or editors. This is what I've heard at least and judging from the writing on some author blogs I've seen I'd think those authors would probably need some help with their manuscripts.

    I do like the idea of independence and control.

    Tossing It Out

  4. Michael Offutt beta read the second Scarlet Knight book and someone else beta read Chance of a LIfetime and I think both ended up better books for it. But sometimes it can be a case of the blind leading the blind. You don't want to end up with someone like Tony Laplume beta reading your book, except maybe to do the opposite.

  5. You may not take away my cell phone. With my health, it's a necessity. Of course I use if for all the things Briane mentioned, as well as being able to keep track of my kids, send my grocery list to my son who is already at the story and I forgot...yes, a convenience, but one I'm willing to pay for.
    As to Beta readers, I'm not ready for one yet, but not sure I'd want one. My story is my story and it's unique, in my opinion, and I don't want someone taking my hard-thought out ideas and making them more mainstream because "that's what people expect." I don't want to be predictable - it's my whole point to write something no one has ever done before.
    Tina @ Life is Good
    On the Open Road! @ Join us for the 4th Annual Post-Challenge Road Trip!

  6. Your 1-3 nailed it. That's exactly why I prefer to let someone read though a story before I send it off. Not that I always feel a story needs it, but some of them do. Those that do, benefit most from those 'why' comments. Some of my favorite writing tidbits have been birthed in pondering those why questions others have posed.

    As to the cell phone, I can do without it when I'm at home or out with my family, but I like to have it with me when I'm on the road or at the store so if something happens or I have a question, I can get GPS help or an answer in minutes.

  7. Briane: I don't deny the usefulness of cell phones; my wife did let her company get one for her, and she finds it very useful. Personally, I just don't want to depend on something that, -when- it breaks, makes me feel like I left my arm at home.

    And, you know, most people don't actually have beta readers who can actually edit.

    L.G.: I'm sure having a writing buddy like that can be a wonderful thing but, even then, it can be dangerous. If you find that one person that just "gets" -you-, it can keep you from, I'll say, leveling out your writing.

    Lee: Those people you're talking about don't need beta readers; they need to continue working on the skill of writing. Sure, they need people who tell them, "You're still not there, yet," but that's, generally speaking, not what beta readers are for. That's what teachers or mentors are for.

    Being out on the road is one area where a cell can be a benefit. I get that. Again, though, that's not what most people are using them for.

    Pat: There are exceptions. If you find people who are able to really point out the holes, they can be a great benefit. That's not the norm, though, I don't think.

    Tony: Yeah, I don't know.

    Tina: I used to think that way about writing... a long time ago. There was that idea about writing something completely new and original. But I mostly don't t think that way anymore. I mean, coming up with something NEW is rare and, I think, usually accidental. You just make whatever it is you're doing yours and that makes it different even if it's the same.

    Jean: Those why things are so important. "Why did he do that?" "Why did the aliens attack the Earth?" "Why is...?" Um, never mind that last one.

  8. I don't like the term "beta readers," it sounds like a computer term. I never heard people talking about beta readers in the eighties or nineties. I think the idea of people reading your work before publication is a good thing, but not required. Some authors can edit and view their own work objectively, and some can't.

    Oh, and Dickens did have an editor. His editor. And he did show his work to other people and made changes based on their input, the most famous example being his original ending for "Great Expectations."

    Oh, and as for that idea they disagreed with, I agreed with PT, only because I was wondering if the point worked myself.

  9. Nigel: Dickens didn't actually "show" the original ending of Great Expectations for feedback; he published it that way during the serialization. And, yes, he did change it before it was published as a book, but the general agreement, today, is that the original ending was far superior to what he come up with from bowing to public opinion, which just reinforces my point.

  10. I'm not sure what you're referring to in regards to PT, right now.


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