Finding Feedback: Your Customized MFA

Beta Readers and Writing Partners: Finding Feedback

So, you’ve implemented writing deadlines, and now, after meeting them for a while, you have a piece you’re (maybe a bit tremulously) ready to show to someone else.  But who?  Who should read these tender words you’ve labored so arduously to string together?

Beta Readers

Companies and their advertising agencies conduct market research.  Production houses hold test screenings for films.  And writers get feedback from beta readers.  A beta reader pores over your manuscript with a critical eye and lets you know what works and what doesn’t.  They’re detached, not enmeshed and tangled in the work like its creator, and can see things that you miss – sometimes exasperatingly obvious things.  Sure, your friends and family can be your beta readers, but they may not be a part of your target audience.  Perhaps you write fantasy novels.  If your friends don’t enjoy fantasy or they have no experience reading other fantasy books, they won’t be equipped to offer useful feedback on yours.  Loved ones might also hold back when critiquing the novel or screenplay they know you’ve been toiling over for months (or years) in the hopes of sparing your feelings.  Also, unless they’re writers, themselves, they probably won’t have the skills needed to pick apart your sentences, your narrative structure or line breaks, your dialogue or exposition.

Local Readers

So, how do you go about finding interested beta readers?  One of the best ways is to ask around at any writerly gathering you attend.  Are you working on your customized MFA collaboratively?  If so, you have a set of beta readers built-in.  Do you meet with a group of writers each week or month?  Are you planning to attend a writers’ workshop or writing conference in the near future?  These meetings give you immediate access to other writers who may be able to provide just the insights you need – especially if you offer to read over and offer feedback on their work, in exchange.

But, what if you don’t have easy access to a group of writers?  For Writing through the Fog, I posted announcements searching for writers with brain fog or writer’s block on local online message lists.  When someone responded, I emailed them a copy of the book and met with them individually over coffee to talk about what they felt worked, what didn’t, and what they wished had been included that wasn’t.  Then, I took those notes home and rewrote like mad.  If your book is nonfiction, this approach may work well for you.  For me, it was just the insight I was hoping for, and it transformed the structure and content of my book in ways I couldn’t have imagined on my own.  Depending on your subject matter, you can search out local beta readers through email lists, Craigslist, library postings, classified ads, etc.

If you write genre fiction, it will be easier to find beta readers who, if not writers, themselves, are well-versed in your style of writing.  They’ll be able to tell you whether your manuscript works for them, and why (or why not).  The input they offer will be just as useful – sometime even more useful – than the feedback you receive from any writers you search out.

Online Readers

For most writers, though, it will help to focus on finding other writers.  If you don’t already know any, and you aren’t attending a writerly gathering any time soon, the Internet may be your solution.  Jane Friedman has a wonderful article from Kristen Kieffer on searching out beta readers online.

Writing Partners

Writers need to talk to someone who understands, someone who knows just what it’s like to toil over a phrase for hours or rewrite the same paragraph again and again and again.  And again.  Someone who knows just how monstrous and gruesome a blank page can be.  We’ve all heard of writerly couples (Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Simone de Beauvior and Jean-Paul Sartre, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall…) but there are also writers who meet and correspond platonically over years: Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin….  How did these friends meet?

Sexton and Kumin met at a writing workshop.  Tolkien and Lewis, both young professors, first encountered one another at an Oxford College faculty meeting.  Bishop and Lowell met at a literary dinner party thrown by Randall Jarrell.  Gaiman was sent to interview Pratchett after his second Discworld novel was published.  Toni Morrison attempted to negotiate a book deal for James Baldwin while she was an editor at Random House.  Really, you might meet your writing partner anywhere, but this list shows that you’re much more likely to meet your literary soul mate if you surround yourself with other writers.

Writing is often a solitary (and sometimes a lonely) pursuit, but a good writing partner can alleviate some of that loneliness and provide fresh perspectives and indispensable advice on your work.  If you’re not running in literary circles (because you live rurally, you’re painfully shy, you have unwavering commitments such as small children, etc.), the Internet may be the place to start your search.  The web is teeming with groups dedicated to pairing up writers.  In writers’ forums, you can practice giving and receiving criticism, and you can learn what kinds of feedback are most helpful for you.  Eventually, though, you may want to meet potential writing partners in person.  Finding someone close to home allows you to indulge in lunch or coffee together while you critique each other’s new work.  You can search out local buddies through writing groups, flyers you post at libraries and bookstores, local online bulletin boards or message lists, or by placing a personal ad in the newspaper.  Just know that, however you discover them, you might have to work with many writers before you find your Prince (or Princess) Charming.  If you persist, though, you may discover a lifelong lifeline.

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