Once you polish some piece of writing, it’s not done yet: you need “beta readers” to help you find and fix problems. I’ve been lucky to have been on two Writing Excuses cruises, where I got to workshop the first couple of chapters of two different novels, and the beta reader rules we were taught are worth passing along. We were asked to watch Mary Robinette Kowall’s video; the scheme she teaches there has since evolved into the acronym “ABCD” which a few of us alumni have expanded in to ABCDE.
Herein, “you” means the writer.
First, what’s a beta reader? The term comes from software validation, where “alpha testers” are in-house quality assurance people that made sure the system was as good as possible before any users got to play with it, and “beta testers” are real customers willing to use a system that might not be quite ready for prime time. The equivalent process in writing is to put together as good a draft as you can, then find an “alpha reader”, an expert who can diagnose problems (as in Mary Robinette's video), who can tell you if you have the basis of a real story there, then cast a wider net of ordinary people who can be your first average everyday readers. Unfortunately few of us have access to people who are both good enough to provide the right kind of alpha feedback and free enough to spend the time to do it, so beta readers may be the first people besides you who see what you wrote.
The readers you can find probably aren’t skilled enough to figure out why some section isn’t working. But they can report their reactions:
- Awed! Don’t lose this bit when you’re making fixes to problems. Some clever turn of phrase, a big reveal, a twist, ... Originally A-for-awesome, but I preferred to have all adjectives about mental states.
- Bored! This section went on too long or I couldn’t see where it was going or why I should care. For example, you might have long descriptive packages, with no plot advancement or character development (my first story’s first chapter had some of that!)
- Confused! I couldn’t figure out what was going on here. Perhaps you contradicted yourself. Perhaps you used a word or phrase that meant something different to the reader than you intended. Perhaps you had a picture in mind of what was going on, but didn’t put enough on the page convey that to the reader – such as if a character moves from one point to another in your mind, but you forget the transition and the reader’s mental image is in the previous location.
- Disbelieving! I don’t think your character buildup justifies that action; I don’t believe this would happen given the rules you’ve established about how your world works; ...
That’s the part covered in Mary Robinette’s video. A few of us in my writing discussion group were talking about this early in 2019, and Austin Alander suggested adding:
- Expecting: At this point in the story you’ve built up enough elements that I’ve started to expect the following will happen later... Perhaps they anticipate some twist, think the character will eventually do some particular thing, expect a romance element given the chemistry between two characters...
Mary Robinette has a different writing process so this doesn’t fit her approach; she gets this information in other ways. But it works for some of the rest of us.
The key thing here is a beta reader is supposed to honestly report their reactions, which should always be unarguable: people feel the way they feel, regardless of whether they can articulate a reason you can accept. It takes some practice to just report reactions; many of us have a tendency to tell the writer what to do, such as “merge those two characters” or “delete that paragraph and it’ll read better.” Few of us beginning writers can diagnose what’s wrong, let alone prescribe solutions.
It’s up to you, the author, to diagnose why that happened. Mary Robinette’s video goes into more detail about how to receive and work with this kind of criticism (in the literary sense, not the common one of verbal attacks). Or perhaps, after they’ve recorded their feedback, your beta readers might be able to discuss with you what the problem was that caused their negative reaction. Sometimes it’s reasonably straightforward. “I thought your first-person PoV character was male.” “What if I put her name at the start of the chapter?” Sometimes it requires a lot of time for your subconscious to mull over the issue.
Workshopping on the cruise, plus a few weeks of working with an online group, are my only experiences with this method, but I and my fellow participants found it valuable.