I remember being terrified of the red pen back in my school days.
Some teachers used it sparingly while others seemed to live with the thing glued to their hands, marking every little bitty mistake with great red marks of doom. An “A-” would sometimes be mistaken for a “D” because there were so many corrections on the page.
When I became a teacher, I made a vow to use the pen when necessary, and if able – draw smiley faces or write “Good Job!” in big bold letters. After all, I didn’t want my poor first graders to fear the red pen, too.
There’s something scary about being corrected on our work. We put our heart and joy into our project or writing and expect it to receive its well-earned praise. But when our work comes under observation and is looked at with a critical eye, the idea of our work being “fixed” is daunting. After all, we gave it our best. What else can we do to make it better?
When I gave my draft copy of “The Ripple Affair” to my first beta reader (a.k.a. Mom), I admit I was a little nervous. Not that she was the type of tyrant some of my teachers were with that dreaded red pen. Rather, I was afraid of seeing the manuscript I’d work ten years on go under the microscope. I hoped and prayed corrections and suggestions would be few and far between. That book was my baby, and I was as protective over it as Gollum was with the One Ring. (What can I say? It’s *insert Gollum voice here* my precioussssssss!) 🙂
I waited a few minutes, nervously watching her reaction as she read, until finally going back to finish some chores I had in the other room. I thought I was safe and that no corrections would be made and all would be well and ready to publish.
Boy, was I off.
I came back to find little corners folded in the book and marks and marks of pencil through various areas of my manuscript. My heart sunk and I felt a sick feeling to my stomach, thinking my book must be terrible indeed to have so many suggestions in it.
We sat down to go over her suggestions for improvement in the manuscript. I dreaded it, thinking my book was a disaster and I’d have to re-write the entire thing over a third time. But as we talked, I realized she really did like the book. Most of it – the plots, the characters, the ending – she enjoyed. Areas she marked, however, were questions she wanted more information about or needed clarification on.
Examples of her suggested improvements were:
- Antoinette is hardly in the story. I want to know more about her. If she’s only mentioned here or there, people may forget her and the romance between her and Edward (the main character) might not seem real.
- Edward’s emotions in his scene with Malina seem a bit strong. Would he really be acting this way?
- I think you need to re-word this sentence. I had trouble understanding your meaning.
- Why is everyone biting their lip when nervous? Do they all have this habit?
As I sat down and listened to her suggestions, I admit my pride wanted to get the best of me. This was “my” story. This was “my” work. This was “my” wording. I didn’t want to make changes to “my” book because it was already good enough for “me”. But as a writer, one of the hardest things I had to learn was swallowing my pride and listening to the advice of a beta reader. I had to admit to myself that I didn’t have everything right and that I still needed to improve on my story. I had to admit that the book wasn’t just for me but for everyone to read, and I needed to make sure that it could connect with an audience and not just myself.
So, after taking a big gulp on that pride, I forced myself to listen.
In the end, I’m glad I did. The questions I received during that beta read allowed me to see my story through a reader’s perspective and improve it so that I could reach a bigger audience. It allowed to me become a better writer by realizing I still had a lot to learn about the craft and that I can always improve, no matter how much I know. I also learned that feedback – specifically constructive criticism – is a difficult yet necessary pain the author must endure. No one likes to receive criticism in their work, but in the end I find that the suggestions that help build me instead of tear me down help more than anything. Without my beta reader, I wouldn’t be the author I am today and I certainly wouldn’t grow.
Though a beta reader isn’t necessary for all authors, I have found that it’s an essential part of the editing/draft process for me. I would caution, however, in the choosing of a beta reader, because not all beta readers may give you the feedback you need.
When looking for a beta reader, here are the guidelines I use (and please note, this is just for me – you may have different guidelines that would suit you just fine in your search for a beta reader.)
- A beta reader should be willing to take time out to read the book in it’s entirety and in a timely fashion. This is a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many “readers” will put your book on the shelf because they don’t have time to read it (or simply don’t want to) or they will read your book whenever they can, and you’ll get feedback half a year later.
- A beta reader should be impartial. I’m sure I get a few eye-rolls when I tell people my mother is my main beta-reader, but because I know she is impartial when she reads (seriously – she’s told me my work has stunk a few times, ha ha), I know she will not be bringing favoritism to the story. I want her to be a reader that must be won over by my story, not a fan because I’m her daughter.
- A beta reader should be trustworthy. This is huge. I don’t want to give my work to a potential reader that I think is going to take my ideas and write their own story with them. Thievery is a no-no.
- A beta reader should be supportive. A true beta reader will want you to succeed. They shouldn’t be out there to steal your royalties or ideas. They shouldn’t be out to ruin your career. They should have your back and encourage you, building you up instead of tearing you down. My mom, when beta reading, didn’t just mark suggestions. She put smiley faces and encouragements in the manuscript, too. If she loved a scene, she would write it in her comments or draw a smiley.
- A beta reader should be *completely* honest. I freely admit that I can be a terrible beta reader because of this very point. I’m a nice person and I like to be nice to other people. But in my being nice I have a tendency of not being truthful all the time because I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. (“No, of course you sing well! You should be on TV!” I may say even though I think said person would break a window if they belted out one more note.) As I’m beta reading more now, I’m working on being more
mean honest in my criticisms (ha ha). But when searching for a beta reader, I look for someone who will be like my mom and hold nothing back. If my work stinks, tell me. If my character is boring, tell me. If the plot makes no sense, tell me. A beta reader is there to tell me how to improve my work, not to tell me I did a good job.
Whether it’s getting feedback or having a grammar check done, a beta reader (or even an editor) can really be helpful if you choose to have one. Is it necessary for everyone? Not really. That’s up to the author on whether those services are used. But for me, it was a necessity and a help. Yeah, that red pen may cause nightmares of that third grade spelling test all over again, but if you really think about it, those corrections helped us improve. It helped make us better and showed us where our weaknesses were so we could learn from our mistakes and gain knowledge, making our work no longer “adequate”, but great.