I can point to a few specific moments that had a major impact on my trajectory as a writer. Deciding to spend more time reading outside of my preferred genre was an early one. Forcing myself to write in a variety of styles and formats was another that came later.
The most recent game-changer was the discovery of professional beta readers. No other single moment has had a more positive influence on progressing my fiction writing aspirations.
Of course, the most important overall investment I’ve made in my writing career is simply time. I’ve written millions of words over the last decade and a half, and there are some things that can only be improved through experience.
But feedback is necessary, especially during the years when a writer is first developing their skills. Early on, it helps us from allowing mistakes to become habits. Later, it shows us our strengths so that we can leverage them and allow a personal style to emerge.
Like many writers, I thought for years that writing groups had those feedback needs covered. You know the drill. Bring in a chapter every week, read it, and everyone at the table gives notes. This approach served as my “beta read” for a long time — as it has for countless others.
But there are some pitfalls that come along with that approach, and those pitfalls are the reason I took a long break from writing groups altogether. I don’t want to get into those reasons here, but I’ll likely post another article specific to that topic in the future.
Instead, I want to focus on the power of the true beta read, and I’ve asked a few of my favorite professional readers to chime in on important questions that should help you make the most out of their skills.
My first guest contributor is Nauze, who freelances as a beta reader and editor. Nauze has been instrumental in getting my debut novel, Jack: Into the Beanstalk, published, and he’s currently working on proofreading and line editing a related short story.
How long have you been beta reading? What do you enjoy about it? What are the biggest challenges?
A bit over four years now, but only three professionally. There’s nothing more satisfying than having an author come with an issue and you helping them solve that issue in their book, and seeing that suggestion not only being used but being successful.
The biggest challenges are clients who take criticism as though I’m attacking them personally when pointing out issues in their book. This invariably leads to bad ratings and sometimes lost clients. But par for the course, as they say.
I have a confession to make. Many years ago, I tried setting up a Fiverr gig where I was essentially beta reading. (I didn’t know it was called that at the time.) Someone bought the gig and sent me their first chapter…and I was far too liberal with suggestions and criticisms. I drowned that poor document in red ink.
As you would imagine, the buyer tore me a new one in the review. I walked away feeling pretty bad about being so aggressive with my notes. That experience taught me that beta reading is absolutely a skill that needs to be independently developed.
Needless to say, Nauze is far, far better at delivering constructive feedback than I was.
What are you being asked to beta read most these days? Any specific genres or word counts? Notice any trends?
Fantasy novels, and some romance books. The biggest trend I can see is that most authors seem to be adding a lot of diversity, as though now they aren’t afraid of mixing things up, because they’ll have an audience.
As for word count, that varies too much. I am much more on the longer word count (>100k) person, but I found a massive appreciation for short stories(<10k).
I don’t claim to know a lot about the indie book market, but I definitely see things now that I’m making an attempt to get back into it. What I’ve seen — especially through collaborative marketing platforms like StoryOrigin — is that romance novels and urban fantasy are still in heavy supply (I can’t speak to the demand).
You’ve probably learned how to spot a novice writer pretty quickly. What are the first clues that tell you the skill level of the writer?
Well, first and foremost, the poor use of show/don’t tell. Novice writers often tell everything the characters are doing to the reader instead of showing them through body language or dialogue. It looks and feels clunky, and it’s quite easy to spot. But it’s also not that easy to learn, so that’s where most fail at the start.
I struggled to word this question correctly for fear of it sounding condescending. At the same time, I didn’t want to leave it out because it’s pretty important — especially for writers who are looking for an agent or traditional publisher.
It’s a competitive industry, and there’s just no way to get ahead if your writing shouts “I’m new at this” from the rooftops. We all have to know what red flags to work on.
That said, I find it interesting that “telling rather than showing” makes it to the top of the list because it’s one of those things every writer hears over and over again from day naught.
If anything, the fact that you see it regularly is a testament to how hard it actually is to adhere to the “show, don’t tell” rule.
What are the most common mistakes you see authors making?
The most common mistakes would be embellishing and using too much purple prose in their descriptions, shoving info-dumps down the reader’s throats. After that, I’d say that the most common mistake is making their characters too perfect and not allowing for the story to change and develop them.
As you know, I don’t dip into the purple prose that often. That was not always the case. I look at some of my older work and it’s dripping with the stuff to the point of being pretentious.
I feel like it’s one of those things that happens because we as writers often think we’re supposed to do it. Like we’re these wordsmiths that are held to a higher standard.
We can’t just say, “He had blue eyes”, right? We have to say, “His blinking orbs glistened, deep azure like the pools of rainwater that collect on the foothills in spring.”
Maybe I’m old and jaded, but I would rather just be told the dude’s eyes are blue than labor over that imagery. Yeah, that breaks the “show, don’t tell” rule, but the whole “blinking orbs” thing breaks a rule that’s a lot harder to suffer through as a reader.
Just my opinion!
How do you provide constructive feedback without stepping on a writer’s personal style?
That’s a tough one. But my approach tends to be structured in a way that compliments the good parts of the book first, so I ‘warm up to them’. Then, when I need to criticize something, I always provide my reasoning and suggestions. Of course, that doesn’t ALWAYS work. Still, in most cases, authors are happy to discuss our differing points of view amicably. They often figure out other things about the book without either of us realizing it.
Getting positive feedback during the first half of the book really kept me motivated to finish it. At first, I wasn’t sure if sending you the first 20k words of my manuscript made sense while I was still working on the rest of the book, but at that point I wasn’t fully aware of how to make the best use of a beta reader.
I’m glad I did, though, because your feedback not only helped me avoid the same mistakes throughout the rest of the book, but it told me what was good and worth spending more time on. One thing that often surprises me is what beta readers think of the characters. It’s often not what I’m seeing as I create them, and that new perspective is extremely useful as I’m continuing to write their stories.
Do you ever run into problems where a writer thinks mistakes/issues are part of their style? If so, how do you try to help them see the difference?
I’ve encountered things like this, but it has never been a problem beyond wording issues. I’ve never had an author have issues with part of the criticism, such as using irritating expressions or colloquial terms when you really shouldn’t.
I asked this because in writing groups and classes, I’d occasionally see someone using “style” as a defense against every bit of feedback they’d get.
What I’ve learned since then is that there’s a learning process that has to take place before style should be a consideration. You have to learn the rules. Then you have to understand the rules. Only then can you break the rules, because you can do so deliberately in service of delivering the story.
If you could give one piece of advice to authors, what would it be?
Don’t stop writing; if you think something you’re working on sucks, finish it before you abandon it. And then start anew. Each word you add to paper or screen means you’re practicing and honing your craft, so every word is valuable. And what might look like a bad story or idea, can turn out to be great if mixed with something only your future self can think of. So no ideas are bad, they just need refining or rethinking.
I can’t (and wouldn’t) argue that. Write a lot. That makes you better.
Any advice for getting the most benefit from a beta reader?
The best usage for beta readers is by handing them a questionnaire with ALL the questions you could have about your book. Even questions you don’t think are important. This makes the reader think of things that even you couldn’t fathom, and it might make them connect dots neither had foreseen. You can’t go wrong with asking questions; the more, the merrier.
I’m glad I asked you this before I sent over the most recent manuscript! I included a list of questions with that one, and will continue to do so in the future.
Have you published anything you’d like to share?
Well, besides my Fiverr and my Upwork, here, I have over 70 gaming articles written, with 10 more to come in the next week or so, for Gamers Decide and I hosted a podcast (hopefully will get back to it eventually) where I interviewed a few of the authors I’ve worked with from before going professional (fanfiction). It’s on Spotify, here.
Thanks to Nauze for helping out with this interview! If you’re a fellow writer, I hope the insight helps you out in some small way.
The key takeaway, of course, is that if you haven’t tried hiring a beta reader, I highly recommend doing so. Even having someone like Nauze look over a short sample of your writing can be illuminating beyond belief.
If you’d like to get in contact with Nauze, you can do so through his Fiverr account by clicking here: nauze18 on Fiverr
Until next time!