When you first start out writing, it’s incredibly difficult to let go of your pages and let someone else read them. Even a trusted friend or mate, the idea of someone else reading your work is so terrifying, it is probably the main reason so many people never pursue publishing. And it’s a sad thing.
When I first started out, I held back my work as well, never wanting people to read it until it was totally polished and perfect. Yeah, I know, impossible. That’s why writers always tell people, don’t read your old work because you’ll want to fix it. There comes a point where you have to accept that something is done or just never finish.
But I have to say, it is having trusted beta readers and Critique partners, that has given me the courage and confidence to put my work out into the world for mass consumption – even though it is still terrifying! When people tell me they’re writing, or they’ve finished a project and don’t know what to do next, I ask, “Have you let someone else read it and give you feedback?” Often that answer is either met with complete shock and terror or a common answer of, “Yes, my spouse/mom/girlfriend/boyfriend/bff read it and they loved it!”
I mean, that’s great, but is your spouse/mom/girlfriend/boyfriend/bff a writer? Or an editor? Or anything to do with the writing world? Oftentimes, not. And oftentimes that spouse/mom/girlfriend/boyfriend/bff wants to love it to support you, or can’t see the errors because they love you, or don’t want to hurt your feelings so there is a tiny chance they’re lying to you.
Don’t get me wrong, if your spouse/mom/girlfriend/boyfriend/bff is in the creative world, or if they have a skill set that is imperative to your work so you need their insights, then yeah, let them read and critique. But they have to critique. They have to be honest with you. And you have to take that honesty.
My husband reads all my work. Mostly just to support me as my spouse and so that, when people ask him about my work, he can answer intelligently and I really appreciate that. But he is my Alpha Reader for the ASH AND RUIN TRILOGY. Why? Because he has many skill sets that are essential to the plot of the book, the fight scenes, the survival aspects, and the weaponry used in the books, that gives him the qualifications to critique the book for me and give me feedback, constructive criticism, and help to make it correct and better before I send it off to my beta readers to critique the book as a whole. For my other books, he helps me with fight scenes, but that doesn’t make him an alpha or beta reader for those.
What do my betas/CPs do for me? They help me make the book stronger. They tell me what works in the book, what they loved, what made them laugh or cry. Then they tell me what didn’t work for them, and why. Where my story might’ve gone off the rails and didn’t make sense. They tell me when I left a plot thread hanging, so what the hell happened with character x? They ask questions so I know that other readers will have those same questions and I won’t have the luxury to answer them so I need to fix it.
Having readers look at your work, give you honest feedback, and opinions on what to do to make it better, is not a slight against your genius. It is an opportunity to make your work shine, if you’re willing to take it. Now, believe me, if you have a reader who just tears you down, without giving you any praise, even tiny things to hold on to, it’ll break your spirit. So you have to find the right balance in your team of readers. Yes, team. One ain’t gonna cut it. I like to have three betas, and I like for all three to be different kinds of people. It really helps you weed out personal taste responses and know when things are really working or not in a general sense.
But the way you make that happen is by being open and honest with your readers as well. Ask them what kind of Beta/CP are they. Do they like to do reader reaction with in-text notes as they go? Or do they like to read the whole thing and then type up a critique letter with generalized reaction but comments on core things that stuck out to them? Or maybe they like to do a bit of both? I, myself, like to put reader reaction notes in the document itself so that I can make sure I don’t forget something I wanted to bring up later. And I like to put little “lols!” and “Good line!” comments when something gets me. But then I like to give the writer a short letter at the end, recapping and maybe making broader comments on issues I found, or illustrating things they did particularly well.
So let go of that baby. There is no way to know your book is ready for the masses or an agent to see if you don’t let someone who isn’t emotionally connected to it read it and tell you what they think. Even if they hate it, it’s okay. It’s not the end of the world. The best thing about writing, is that you can always rewrite, but you gotta do it before you hit “publish” or burn bridges with agents because you sent pages prematurely. Have faith! Have courage! Build your team!
And, if you want to be someone’s beta, keep these things in mind. Constructive criticism doesn’t mean ripping someone to shreds. People need to know they did do some things well. We are not in the business of crushing dreams. The pie is big enough for everyone to have a slice.