Editing Tip #96 – Beta Reading for Others Pt.1: Style

turkey dog

Image by PINKE on flickr.

One of the best ways to improve our writing is by having someone beta read our book before doing any final self-edits. If you’ve ever had a chance to experience this, it’s uplifting to see a first-reader’s positive responses and sometimes a little harrowing when we see the problems they’ve pointed out.

But what about being a beta reader for someone else?

It’s a great way to hone your editing skills and help out a friend or indie author you may follow. As I’ve mentioned before, in these instances you are not required to act like a professional editor. Honest – you’re not. This is more of a helpful critique stage and you focus on those aspects of the book that ‘speak’ to you as a reader: both positive and negative.

But those are the broad strokes of being a beta reader.

What I’d like to focus on today is one of the most difficult aspects of critiquing or editing that I’ve observed in others…

Personal Style.

Yep, we all have it. The way we like to imbed imagery or linger a touch longer on setting than necessary or even our use of description to help set mood and atmosphere – there are tons of ways of putting our own little stamp on our narrative voice.

So how do you critique that?

If you’ve been taught that “literary fiction” looks like THIS and mystery fiction must be THAT and women’s fiction is always MEH… then you’re doing your author friend a disservice by pointing out that their style is wrong.

The key is to look at each story as a completely new entity. To learn how that style, that voice impacts the understanding of character or plot or tone and then give your impression of how well that worked for you – because every reader is different. By telling a writer that they’ve done something “wrong” you are risking a backlash and possibly a broken friendship.

This is not about being PC (politically correct) or sparing someone’s feelings, it’s about recognizing that not everyone writes the same way and not everyone reads the same way.

For example:

One of my clients writes in first person stream-of-consciousness. This is a very difficult style to achieve believability with – not only is stream-of-consciousness writing sometimes difficult to follow (because, hey – thoughts are all over the place naturally and we’re trying to emulate that here) but you don’t get the same kind of setting descriptions… this person knows where they are most of the time and as humans we don’t tend to take conscious notice of something unless it’s remarkably different or striking.

So, a comment from readers telling her that she needs to integrate more instances of “setting” really isn’t helpful.

A comment that suggests many readers might need a touch more grounding in some of her scenes might be a better way to communicate the same idea. Because, at the end of it all we are all trying to hone our craft and not alienate our target readers along the way.

One other comment that arises often with her work is the structure of her sentences. She writes the way people think and talk, not the clean prose the average writer uses. There is vernacular to her phrasing and a gritty reality to the thought pattern of her main character – all of which stem from this woman’s life experience. Someone unfamiliar with this aspect of ‘life’ sees her work riddled with sentence structure errors and grammar problems. She’s even had a number of other editors completely re-write her work into perfect American English – and then the work loses her voice, her style and ultimately no longer rings true with her experiences.

Don’t fall into that trap – just because someone’s grammar is poor doesn’t mean it’s ‘wrong’.

You need to be able to see the bigger story and find that connection with how they are telling it. Her story, written in perfect English, comes across as hypocritical. Imagine a white woman born in England to very British parents speaking with a heavy Jamaican accent as she walks around doing perfectly normal white English things. Now, there may be a fantastic story behind why this is the case, but in reality most people would do a double-take should they meet this woman. Her vernacular, the very cadence of her words and phraseology does not accurately represent who she is as an individual.

Make sure that when you’re looking at another author’s writing style and stylistic choices that you recognize there are times to “follow the rules” and times to “break” them. What you need to do is make sure that the style matches the character and the story, not your understanding of good or bad writing. Don’t try and dress a dog as turkey, we’ll still see the dog; and no amount of your style will fix someone else’s truth 😉

Happy Editing!

Creative PencilProfessional Editing for 1st time clients from $3.50/300 words for a “full edit” ~ query M.J. HERE.

Categories: Editing

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4 replies

  1. M.J., this was a great post! Thanks so much for sharing. Editing others’ work can be such a sensitive topic (As you know from working together, I have great difficulty with this, and am glad our friendship hasn’t burned as a result! Hahaha.)

    I think you tackled this from a very positive and objective perspective. It’s great that more authors are tackling the “stream-of-conscious” narrative when it comes to first-person-present-tense. Really, that’s how that style of writing should be written in any case. It’s tough to pull off effectively, but I honestly believe it’s one of the most rewarding of narrative challenges for any author to take on. I’d love to read your client’s work when it hits shelves and e-readers.


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