When I recently interviewed Myke Cole (Part One, Part Two), he stressed the importance of good beta readers. He said he has been lucky to have a handful of people he can rely on, and he lives in fear of the day when they get sick or hurt or angry with him. I have a similar need for a fresh set of eyes (usually several sets) to look over my writing. Even more, I appreciate their feedback when it’s good.
Now, I don’t mean that I’m looking for readers to kiss my ass and praise my writing to the heavens. I’m looking for useful, productive comments, comments that will help me improve. So I think it’s pretty important to talk to readers about what you do and do not want from them. I think groups like Clarion and Critters have developed really helpful rules. Things like, “Give your subjective opinion.” “Don’t just say this is good/bad. Explain why you think so.” “Don’t lecture or teach.” “Speak just for yourself, not all readers.” “Don’t use the word ‘should.'” Similarly, the writer who is putting his or her work up for comment is expected to remain silent–no responding, no defending, no explaining or justifying (clarification questions are okay though).
Writers, though, being creative, independent, strong-willed people, sometimes like to flaunt or ignore the rules. And sometimes such acts are great–like when you’re blowing up conventions or subverting tropes. But this can also be dangerous for a writer’s group. People can get angry, feelings can get hurt, and the writing will not be helped.
Look, I’m still a beginner. I know I have a lot to learn. I’m not saying the rules I’ve outlined here are the end-all, be-all. They’re just the rules that I have found to be the best for me. There may be better ones out there.
This is just on my mind because I recently left one writers’ group and joined another after having an issue with the former group. Because I felt that rules were bring broken, I started to ignore the comments. And that made me realize–what’s the point of being in a group, if I was ignoring the critiques?
I’m not going to go into details about my “writers’ group breakup” here, but I’d love to hear stories about what sort of rules people use in groups, how they find good beta readers, and when/how they decide to jump ship. And if you want to post about your writers’ group disaster stories, feel free.