Why Writers need Best Readers

You’ve drafted your latest piece of writing, edited it, polished it, re-edited it and, several drafts and sleepless nights later, arrived at your final draft (for now).  It’s your latest masterpiece and it’s brilliant, best thing you’ve ever written.  You’ve got a market in mind for it that’s a dead cert for an acceptance… Now stop.  Don’t send it anywhere.

Before you submit it to an editor, you need your best reader, sometimes called trusted reader or beta reader, to read it and not just for proofing either.

What’s a Best Reader?

You may have more than one.  Essentially a best reader loves your work but isn’t blind to your faults and isn’t hesitant about pointing them out either.  A best reader will point out the flaws in your masterpiece and constructively make suggestions for improvements.  A best reader may also proof-read, but their primary job is to constructively comment on anything you write with the aim of making genuine improvements to it.  That is improvements the writing actually needs rather than improvements that pander to their own individual prejudices or tame your piece so it’s exactly the same as the last piece you wrote.  A best reader gives your work the final polish before an editor sees it and prevents you rushing off your latest magnum opus to certain rejection because you inadvertently overlooked the fatal flaw in the second stanza.  Sometimes you don’t get a second chance with an editor so the best reader’s comments are necessary. 

“The best reader is crazy about your work but doesn’t love all of it,” W H Auden

How to pick a Best Reader

A best reader is someone who:-

  • can constructively criticise without making you feel an inch high,
  • can tell you what they love about your work as well,
  • you respect and trust,
  • knows when to back off because you’re too tired, too involved, too caught up in the initial “hey, I’ve done it!” enthusiasm to listen,
  • is supportive of your writing and wants you to succeed.

A best reader is not someone who:-

  • unconditionally loves all your work, even pieces you know are flawed, and can only tell you what they love,
  • can only tell you what’s wrong with your work and doesn’t care how you feel about what they’re saying,
  • is a competitor and could be raising doubts to sabotage your submissions in favour of theirs,
  • isn’t supportive of your writing,
  • always finds the same flaws – either you’re not improving or the reader is looking for their own prejudices and not closely reading your writing.

Why you may need more than one Best Reader:-

  • even Best Readers have prejudices – I have one who thinks my best poems are free verse therefore whenever I write a poem using a rhyming scheme, he dismisses it not because it’s a poor poem but because it rhymes,
  • you may write in more than one genre so need a best reader who is specialist in the relevant genre,
  • not all Best Readers can proof-read or correct grammar – and some writers are so keen on getting the story or poem on paper, the technical stuff can get in the way,
  • your writing’s developed and your best reader hasn’t moved on with you,
  • you know what your best reader is going to say about your writing before they’ve read it.

Having more than one Best Reader is an advantage: it enables you to grow and develop your writing, allows you to break free of genre straitjackets and challenges you to keep producing your best work instead of churning in the same old rut.

What if Best Readers are in Conflict?

You’ve shown your new piece to your partner, your favourite writers’ group, your on-line writing forum and a good friend.  Your partner’s usually good at homing in on the weaker parts, your writers’ group is good at constructively suggesting ways of making weaker parts stronger, your on-line writing forum good at listing your strengths and a good friend is a brilliant proof-reader.  But on this new piece, they’ve all got an opinion and all want you to re-write it differently.

  • Make a list of their comments and group by elements, eg all comments on stanza one or all comments on character A,
  • Look at each element and list the common themes, eg your writers’ group want to reorder line two so it rhymes with line four and your on-line writing forum want to rewrite it to rhyme with line one and your partner thinks it shouldn’t rhyme at all, then the common theme is that line two needs a rewrite,
  • Ignore solo comments on one aspect unless it’s a grammar/typo, in which case, correct it.
  • Re-read your piece and remember what you were aiming to achieve when writing it, eg “I wrote this poem to highlight this theme.”  Treat this as if it were a mission statement,
  • Take the comments on each element in turn and circle the ones that comply with your mission statement, eg if comment 1 wants you to drop your main theme and promote a subtheme, ignore it.  If comment 2 wants you to promote your main theme and drop a subtheme, circle it.
  • Now you have a clear plan of action for your rewrite (I’m afraid you can’t escape the rewrite; writing isn’t about getting ideas down on paper, it’s about getting the best words for those ideas in the best order and the real writing is in the rewrite).
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