Other People’s Opinions Matter

Sorry, but they do. At least, they do when it comes to writing. We all have this image in our minds of the tortured writer pounding away at the keyboard, glass of scotch by their side, all alone in their attic, trapped in a world unto themselves of “I-don’t-care-what-other-people-think.” But that’s not reality. It’s not my reality, anyways. I write for enjoyment, of course I do. If I didn’t enjoy it, then what would be the point (not like I’m making bank on my fiction… yet)? But if you want to sell your writing, and you want to go the traditional publishing route, then you have to sell it to people. To a lot of people: readers, other writers, literary agents, publishers, the list goes on… With this in mind, it might be nice to have someone other than your Mom, husband, wife, Aunt Donna, cousin Fred, etcetera read the damn thing. Enter the writers’ group. And enter most of all, for the sake of this post, the beta reader. A beta reader is someone foolish enough to volunteer to read through your whole manuscript from start to finish and give you feedback. Stay with me as I wax poetic, at least as poetic as I get, about the beta reader.

So, you’ve done it. You’ve written your beast of a manuscript, shopped it out during writer’s group sessions and had your sentences picked to pieces, your characters argued over, your plot thickened and thinned. And writer’s groups are essential. But having been part of Write Free or Die for a little over a year now and having passed around chapter after chapter of my book, I realized I was missing something. Yes, my writing peers pointed out lots of mistakes that I didn’t see. Lots of typos, plot holes, award sentences, run-on super-long should-have-been-cut to shreds chapters, even. But what I needed was a person to just really sit down and read the whole thing through as a reader, to digest it in one piece. And one poor soul from the group, we’ll call him John for anonymity’s sake, volunteered to be my literary guinea pig.

I sent it off to him and the Internet trolls delivered it to John’s inbox. Twenty-five days later I got his feedback. I think I did a little clap when I got the email. Honestly, just knowing that someone read the entire the 102,00 words (which should probably be cut down to 90,000) was thrilling. His comments were insightful and infinitely valuable.

Change, “… poured over,” to “… pored over.”
You used, “… rallying against,’ but I think you meant, “… railing against.”
Do you need the ‘artificial’ in describing car lights?

He was brutally picky. It was beautiful. And then there were the notes at the end, his detailed response to how he felt about the plot, the pacing, and the inconsistencies, something that only someone whole reads the book in its entirety can provide. And my characters! He spoke of their motivations, their behavior, their essence. It is crucial to get someone’s else opinion about these characters that you birthed from your mind, like Athena springing from the head of Zeus. It is so important to get an outsider’s opinion. You see your characters one way. Your try to write them that way. But is that how it comes across to a reader? What you saw as sarcastic might appear combative. Calculating could really just be cruel. You don’t know until you get someone else to read it. You don’t know until you can actually tell your story.

Sitting in the attic with your scotch is great, an image for the ages. And yes, this qualifies as the portrait of a writer. But it’s not the finished portrait of the published writer. For that you need other people. Said it before and I’ll say it again. Other people’s opinions matter. My beta reader delivered the good and the bad. The “Why the hell would they do that?!” followed by the “You’ve got a keeper here.” And for that I am grateful.

I sign off with a bow to all you readers out there, beta and otherwise. Thanks for thinking us writers have stuff to say.


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