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.]