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Seven "Karate Belts" of Beta Readers


*originally posted on 1/7/2010 at Words from the Woods)

Manuscript critique is an integral part of 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.


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.

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?"

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. Where ever attention is lost, your manuscript needs work.

Blue Belt: Critique Partner. These can be difficult to find, but they earn their belts by slogging through manuscripts 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 this arrangement is the only Beta Reader that is a partnership. Balance is key. Critique and be critiqued. Respect and be respected.

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.

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.

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.


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