Monday, October 17, 2011

HOW BETA READING MAKES YOU A BETTER WRITER

We all tend to fall in love with our words when we write. C'mon, admit it. You've done it too - refused to cut that one line because it was just so snarky and clever, or waxed poetic about the character's surroundings even though they in no way truly furthered the story by the end but . . . but . . . it was so perfectly written!!! In short, editing is like butchering babies, and although butchering babies is never an easy task, it's even harder when it's your own. When we are so close to our work, the best thing we can do to see what's REALLY working (and what's totally not), along with catching all those pesky punctuation errors we've flown by a million times and the repetition of words and phrases, is to have a few trusty beta readers.

Beta readers are other fellow writers (your Mom and best friend and the 10th grader down the street who loves all things paranormal don't count) who can read your work for you and objectively give you such feedback. But where to find them? By networking. Go to local writing events and conferences and get to know fellow writers in your area. If you are a member of SCBWI, there is usually a regional coordinator who can hook you into other writers looking for beta readers and critique partners. You can also go online to various writing websites and often there will be forums for people looking for other writers to do just this.

Granted, it seems hard to build that trust with another writer you don't really know. Will they know what they're talking about? Does it matter if they are published or unpublished? How often do we need to send material back and forth? The best thing to do is to exchange the first ten pages of what you're working on. Just like agents who want to read those critical first ten pages, it will give you a feel for the writer's style. If it seems like quality writing, and something you could connect with, fantastic! Hopefully, the feeling is mutual! Published or unpublished is truly no matter. Writers that today are unpublished may one day be published, and writers that are now published were once in the trenches waiting for their big break. Both are fully capable of providing different levels of insight based on their knowledge of writing and their place on the journey.

When I read other writers' work-in-progress, it is a fantastic opportunity for me to really break apart the mechanics of the story and see what works, what doesn't and why. In turn, I can apply that to similar sections of my own writing. I pay special attention to dialogue transitions, because I tend to write dialogue-heavy stories. Dialogue, while engaging, is boring if every other sentence just ends in "she said" or "he told me." I learn to eliminate that sometimes entirely to put in a small descriptive action that helps keep the action moving on the page. I am also able to discern much easier in someone else's work when there are huge passages where nothing is happening. Again, when we are in love with our words, it's much harder to do that with our own work. I learn about style and voice, description and how to convey action and emotion effectively. The insight and detailed feedback my critique partners and beta readers have offered me has been absolutely invaluable.

Just as our stories are never truly "done," we are also never "done" learning from others. The writing community is incredibly supportive in that way. It is such a welcoming group, eager to pay-it-forward. So if you're not connecting with other writers to help make your work stronger, start now!

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