I haven’t been published, and I’m talking about craft, so read on at your own peril. All the following opinions are best taken with a grain of salt.
Writing is a team sport. Even though we spend most of our time working alone, we learn the most by listening to other people and seeing what kind of impact our writing has on them. There are people so gifted, creative, and educated that they can write publishable prose on their first try, but there’s no way to know if you’re one of them. New writers aren’t capable of reading their own material and telling if it’s any good.
I’ve finished two novels, and I still can’t tell. Brandon Sanderson said in a YouTube lecture (hopefully I’m not misquoting him) that most people can’t tell until they’ve written four or five. From personal experience, that seems to be the case.
That doesn’t mean what you write won’t be good. It means you won’t know if it’s any good, even if you think you know.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect illustrates this point well. I’ve been taking writing seriously for maybe three years, and I keep sliding lower and lower on the curve:
And like the chart shows, I was never more confident about my writing than when I finished the first draft of my first book.
Blows to my unearned confidence came in two major waves.
The first was the burning of friendly acquaintances. Even though emotionally, I was very confident, rationally I knew not to trust myself. Writing isn’t the first art that I’ve been interested in, and having already traveled the Dunning-Kruger slope once before, I knew what was happening. So, I hid my writing from people I was close to and only shared it with people I liked and trusted but didn’t know well. They were incredibly helpful and taught me a ton about writing, but after a few rounds of reading my crap and realizing that it wasn’t going to stop, they quit talking to me altogether.
I sort of knew that was going to happen, and I didn’t feel good about it, but it was a sacrifice I was willing to make (if that makes me a good or bad person, you decide). Thankfully, they (one or two special people) taught me enough to get the ball rolling and helped me learn to write readable prose.
The second instance was while I was editing my first book. I had been reading V.E. Schwab’s “A Darker Shade of Magic,” when the “Writing Excuses” podcast advocated copy-work as the fast track to getting good.
I sat down with her book and thought to myself (and I still remember thinking this while standing in line at Starbucks) that I was pretty much on her level. Rationally, I knew that couldn’t be true, which is why I was bothering with the copy-work in the first place, but emotionally, I felt like I was there.
I copied a couple pages, read them back, and had my mind blown. I couldn’t believe how much better her writing was than what I was doing. It was like seeing art for the first time.
Finally, I understood why I was having a hard time getting people to read my work. The prose I was handing them was hot trash, and they couldn’t even get far enough in to find the story.
There was no way around the fact that I needed to study prose. Good prose doesn’t mean someone will like the story. It doesn’t mean the plot is solid, or the characters are three dimensional. But, you won’t ever know that your characters are coming off flat if readers can’t slog through the book.
The mistake I was making was spending too much time focusing on big picture story elements and writing 20-80k word books without going back and learning about prose. I spent a dreadful amount of time editing and revising my first completed book without really knowing what I was doing. In hindsight, I should have been writing shorter pieces, revising them, and sending them out for critique.
I improved my writing the most when I was working on short stories, because they allowed me many more opportunities to revise my prose and hear what other people thought of it. It also made it easier for me to retain beta readers, because if I hand someone a seven-page story and they don’t like it, they can tell me why without feeling that bad. Hand them a 300-page story they don’t like, and they will be afraid that their opinion will be crushing.
And with good reason. Most people can’t handle it.
So how does this all tie in to beta reading?
I based this pyramid on Frank Conroy’s “Pyramid of Writing” but changed it to reflect my feelings on peer critique:
1 – Reading Experience: Tense, Sentence / Paragraph Flow, Grammar, Punctuation, Eliminating Info-dumps
2 – Dialog / POV: Avoiding Head Hopping. Did you select the right POV character? Is the dialog believable? Can you eliminate “as you know” and “on the nose” dialog? Are the physical descriptions of the world presented through the eyes of the POV character, even in third person?
3 – Pacing / Subtext: Is there a pleasing mix of action and reflection? Does the dialog and action convey the idea that there’s more going on under the surface? Are the characters acting in accordance with their motivations?
4 – Internal / External Story Arcs: Are the characters changing as they progress through the story? Does the rise and fall of the internal drama match with the external drama?
5 – Fancy Shit: What’s the theme of the story? Does the language of the story provide a consistent mood? Is the writing invisible? Is it beautiful? Is that what you want?
Levels one and two, for most readers, aren’t up for debate. Some readers can’t tolerate the third level being weak, but everyone has a limit to the amount of friction they can handle before they have to quit. If your sentences are all the same length. If all your paragraphs start with the same word. If you’re head hopping on accident and it gets confusing (sometimes it doesn’t, see Nora Roberts). If you’re dropping the whole history of the seven kingdoms on them for four pages before getting to the orphan farm boy fighting orcs or whatever. You’re going to lose them.
People will stop reading, and you really can’t blame them. Getting those first two levels down cold is vital. Harsh truth: a beta reader doesn’t have to read more than a few paragraphs to figure out if you have levels one and two down.
Levels 3-5 are more subjective. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but writing for everyone is writing for no one. Beta readers can let you know if they think you are hitting or missing the mark. If you get enough feedback from enough people, you can paint a picture of what you need to do next.
If you’re lucky, your beta readers will be competent, kind, and articulate, and they will be able to give you concrete suggestions on what you can do to improve your prose. You don’t need them to read 100k words to make suggestions about the first two levels of the pyramid. If they critique even a couple of pages, you can take what they tell you, pair it with some study / copy-work, and go back through your manuscript improving everything.
This sort of study will eventually allow you to write first drafts of higher quality than your previous attempts at revised and edited work, and you’ll be able to keep improving from there.
Concrete suggestion: early in your writing career, write short pieces, 1-3k words, a chapter maybe, but not more. Revise it. Do some copy work. Revise it again. Find writers or readers willing to give you feedback. When strangers start telling you they like your prose and stop giving you much in the way of sentence level corrections, try your hand at something longer. If you do write something long and your readers don’t make it past the first four pages, be thankful to them for the advice they give you, because you need it.
Even after you get all this down, not everyone will like your writing. Most people won’t even read a Stephen King or John Grisham novel, let alone your no-name early draft. It’s nothing to be mad about.
Because giving people bad news about their writing can be painful, I have largely stopped offering to beta read whole novels by people I don’t know. I don’t want to commit to 80k words before I know what the reading experience will be like. If I have time, and their writing turns out to be on point, then I can always offer to read more.
By that same token, when I give my writing to people to beta read, I think of it being cast out into the void. It’s a blessing if it comes back with critique I can use or word that they liked it. However, I’m not going to get worked up if they didn’t do the hours of assigned reading I gave them, all while worrying about my feelings.
When you’re giving feedback on someone’s writing, be gentle, but be honest about how far you got, and if you stopped early, tell them what caused the friction. If someone is using monotonous sentences, starting every line with the same pronoun, mixing up past / present tense, or using too many filler words (just, very, really, in as much, for that reason…) tell them so. You don’t need to travel up the pyramid and complain about their dialog’s subtext, what you thought of their theme, or if the internal character arc is engaging. If they need help with prose, they aren’t going to be able to utilize higher level advice anyway, and will find it discouraging.
I’m in the fortunate position now of having the best beta readers in the world, including my wife and two Twitter buds who suffered through my first complete book, “Race to Exodus,” and were still willing to read “Wayfaring Princess.” I recently added a couple more writers to my beta reading team and have learned a ton from them.
I hope that was helpful. If you disagree with anything I said or want to drop some advice of your own, please don’t be shy in the comments.