The Seven Degrees of Beta Readers

Manuscript critique is an integral part in a writer’s journey from rough draft to polished manuscript.  When we critique our own work, it’s called editing.  Each manuscript usually goes through any number of self-critiques by the author.  However, somewhere along the line, we need an extra set of eyes and a fresh perspective to help us really see the nuances of our writing: what works?  What doesn’t? 

I am a firm believer that Beta Readers of all ilk are desirable.  Even the least likely person to articulate their thoughts can make a tremendous impact on a manuscript’s direction–as long as we’re willing to listen.

And so I bring you The Seven Degrees of Beta Readers.

  1. White Belt: Those Who Love You.  Moms and grandmas make great White Belt readers because they boost your ego and encourage you to write more.  White Belts give great back pats and say things like, “Wonderful.  I loved it.”  What they really mean is “I’m proud of you for actually stringing all those words together.”  This is valuable feedback–not on the manuscript, but about you as a writer.  It is encouragement to reach for the stars.
  2. Orange Belt: Friends.  Find the ones who love you enough to read your work, but not enough to lie to you.  Orange Belts can be the first real feedback on your story as a whole.  However, be specific about what you want these Orange Belts to do.  In the past, I’ve handed mine a clean copy and said, “Jot down questions as you go, let me know where you’re confused and certainly please note the typos if they jump out at you.”  This is a great process for finding those niggling plot problems like “How long does it take for maggots to infest a dead fish?” 
  3. Yellow Belt: Expert in the Field.  If you’re writing a religious piece, hit up your clergy for a take on realism.  For a psychological thriller, find a willing psychologist to pinpoint what works and what doesn’t regarding mental health.  Kids make great Yellow Belt readers.  Have middle graders and teens stop reading when they get bored and mark the spot.  Watch the eyes and actions of younger kids when you read aloud.  When attention is lost, your manuscript needs work. 
  4. Blue Belt: Critique Partner.  These can be difficult to find, but they earn their belts by slogging through manuscrips of writing buddies and receiving critiques in return for their efforts.  The internet has made it possible to find like-minded writers anywhere in the world.  Face to face groups are a little more difficult to organize, but can be found by hitting the library and writing conferences.  Keep in mind that this arrangement is the only Beta Reader that is a partnership.  Balance is key.  Critique and be critiqued.  Respect and be respected.
  5. Green Belt: Mentor.  Writers come in varying degrees of experience.  Finding a mentor with experience, time and committment can be magical.  Having a Green Belt on your side makes your learning curve in the writing industry much shorter.  These relationships are more one sided, with the mentor doing the critiquing, guiding and cultivating.  Mentorships can be awarded at writer’s conferences.  That’s how Kate DiCamillo got her start.  They can also be found via social networking.  When something clicks, go with it.
  6. Purple Belt: Writing Instructor/Coach.  Colleges often offer creative writing classes, while some seminars or writing institutes offer correspondence courses.  Freelance coaches can also be found online or at conferences.  With Purple Belts come fees.  The coach is paid to read, critique and shape you as a writer.  Before signing up, make sure you know what you’re getting out of the course and who the instructor is.  You don’t want a bitter failed-writer-turned-teacher to coach you. 
  7. Brown Belt: Freelance Editor.  These Beta Readers should be skilled in the English language and the art of story telling.  Check them out before committing and forking over your hard earned cash.  In return for your money, you should receive professional advice on your manuscript.  Just remember, they don’t love you like a White Belt and they will not lie.  Make sure you are ready for the hard truth before sending out your baby.  If you’re unprepared, dreams can die in the hands of a Brown Belt.  The flip-side is that dreams can also be realized if you’re willing to gut out the process and take yourself seriously.  This degree of reader is not for the faint of heart.

And finally, when your manuscript has gone through various types for readers, each nitpicking their own thing, you are ready for the Master Ninja.  The Black Belts of the writing world.  The highest Beta Reader of them all. 

Your agent or editor. 

These Black Belts love your writing enough to take a gamble on your book.  They offer time, expertise and committment–as long as you are willing to work hard with them on rewrites, marketing and self-promotion.  It is a partnership, a mentorship and, if you’re lucky, a friendship. 

Like all things in writing, The Seven Degrees is not set in stone.  Beta Readers can be fluid.  They can put on different belts depending on the project and earn higher belts as they mature and grow.

The most important thing to remember about Beta Readers is this: every time someone reads your writing, they are doing you a favor–whether you like the outcome or not.  Getting back a less than stellar critique doesn’t negate the time and attention put into it. 

Be specific about what you want and realistic about what you’ll get.  Advice is yours to take or ditch.  Consider the critique carefully and learn what you can from the input, even if you don’t agree with it. 

And always, thank your Beta Reader with a smile, no matter which belt they wear. 

~cat

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16 responses to “The Seven Degrees of Beta Readers

  1. Nice analogy Cat. It’s difficult to find beta readers, but when you do it’s great. I wish I had more of them. 🙂

  2. I think green belt comes before blue…
    But anyways, that’s a good list.
    The thing you need to remember is that it’s your story, and it’s ultimately your decision on what stays/goes/is changed.

    Also I don’t think agents are the best editors…they’re more like salespeople, and they’re more concerned about saleability than the actual content of the story.

    • I copied the belts directly from a karate website on belt rankings. If it’s wrong, I am ingorantly not to blame!

      I may concede that once upon a time agents were only middle men. I think now they are doing more editing than ever before. So many houses have lost their editing dollars (or tightened their belts considerably) that good agents have taken over the role in a lot of ways.

      Of course, like all things, there are varying degrees in every category of beta readers. Some moms make outstanding critiquers, while some agents may not touch a manuscript with anything bordering on helpful commentary.

      Writer, know thy Beta Reader!

  3. I used an orange belt once. Not helpful. Well, for my self-esteem it was. 😉

    I can’t wait until I can unleash a black belt on my ms.

    Love the theme of the post, Cate.

    • Jean, if I find an out-of-work Black Belt, I’ll send him/her your way!

      It is always hard when a critique comes back with unanticipated results. I love critiques that give me the nitty gritty. I can talk myself into a raving critique of my own writing. I need honesty!

  4. I like this, Cat. I’ve used a variety of belts for mine, though I’ve yet to find a black belt.

    (PS: Thanks again for posting my blog in your list. I greatly appreciate it.)

    • Matt, I’m still looking for a black belt too! Hopefully this is the year of the AQ Ninjas.

      And no problem posting a link. I love reading your blog and hope others find their way there so they can enjoy your wit and charm as well!

  5. Great comparison. Is it bad if I simply skip to the blue belts? No one I know wants to read my stuff…

    • Elana, you can skip to the best seller list if you want.

      I’d prefer a Ninja Master with a triple black belt to pull me out of the slush pile, but alas, I have to settle for reading out loud to my dog. And she doesn’t even own a ghee!

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  6. A fun post! I belong to a critique group that has a great range of “belts” without having to go anywhere else. However, when I complete the first draft and have done one good round of revisions and self-editing, I call on my first reader — an educated reader who does not write fiction. She always catches something my critique group missed.

    • It’s nice to have so much variation in the eyes that see your writing. It gives it such a well-rounded critique. With only one reader, I think the tendency is to view their advice as gospel–if only because we have nothing to compare it to. Yet when there is varying input, it is easier to pinpoint truly troublsome passages.

      Your first reader sounds like the bomb. Keep her close to your vest!

  7. jmartinlibrarian

    There’s one more kind: Ninja Assassin Betas–These folks belong to my crit group. They slice and dice so skillfully, you hardly feel it.

    • Oooh, that sounds…fun!

      Where did you find such skilled Assassin Betas? Next to the ginsu knife that effortlessly glides through tin cans and tomatoes?

      : )

      The next time your crit group has a sale on these special ninjas, let me know. I’d like to pick one up!

  8. So a beta reader is nothing more than a critiquer? I’ve wondered about that term lately…..beta reader…. professing ignorance.
    Why beta reader?

    • According to Wiki “A beta reader (also spelled betareader, or shortened to beta) is a person who reads a written work, generally fiction, with what has been described[1] as “a critical eye, with the aim of improving grammar, spelling, characterization, and general style of a story prior to its release to the general public.”

      They are Beta’s because they come behind Alpha- or the author!

      To learn more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beta_reader

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