Diplomat: a person who can deal with people in a sensitive and effective way (Google)
Your mission is to bring a message to the strange and possibly hostile country of Them. These negotiations are, of course, made in the hopes of bringing a profitable turnout for the both of you, but things could easily turn sour.
Ask What “They” Want in a Beta Reader:
When you visit a country or encounter a person not from your area, they might have beliefs and customs you find strange. If you plan to have further exchanges with this foreign country, you can research their traditions. It’s recommended to engage in some of their customs as a courtesy to them. It will make Them, and in the long run, You, more at ease with negotiations.
To “research” Their country, ask your writer’s opinions on what he or she would like to receive feedback on concerning their writing. Be conscientious of their needs and try to be obliging as possible. I always ask what they want first: Do they want details on character? Clear dialogue? Would they prefer I focus on realistic emotions? Or maybe all they want to know is “Do I like it or is it the most terrible thing I’ve ever read?”
Remember: You are a country too with just as many rights. You don’t have to bow over to their every whim. For example if they ask you to critique a 700 word chapter “and could you please have it done by tomorrow” it’s ok to explain that you simply can’t. You have a country to run also. There are affairs to take care of like: Family, Work, or Your own career that’s been neglected due to too many obligations (maybe it’s that Spanish homework you’ve been neglecting. Shhhh).
If your reason for not doing it is that you had planned to relax and surf YouTube or watch Doctor Who on Netflix all night, then youdo need to try to get that chapter back to them. Agreeing to be someone’s beta reader is the first binding treaty between the country of You and the country of Them. You agreed to this, you need to follow up and prove that you will do your job and uphold your end of the treaty. Even if things don’t work out you will know that you did your best.
There have been times I’ve spent hours on people’s stories or chapters. Sometimes they take it in stride and ditch all of my suggestions (which is ok, it’s essential to keep in mind that it is their writing and they have the right to do with it as they please). But I’ve also had some people thrilled and genuinely concerned over most anything I say (which is also ok!).
Sometimes it won’t be a case of You doing a poor job or Them being disagreeable. Sometimes what They want in a beta reader are things You can’t provide. People are unbelievably varied creatures, and some people won’t get along as well as they’d like. When this happens, it’s ok. Be polite and kind, and don’t feel discouraged. Often I suggest to people that they look into having more than one beta reader for different opinions.
I know my personal likes and dislikes will colour everything in shades of “Me.” This is a blessing and a curse for them. While they will get a genuine reaction to their writing, they will only get My reaction. I tend to like strong, deeper emotions and shrink away from romance. I had difficulties with somebody’s story until I realized that what they were trying to write was more or less, a romance. Suddenly all of this advice I’d been giving had to be re-evaluated because I had been trying to shape their writing to mimic mine. I can’t overstate how important it is to remember that this is Their writing. You wouldn’t expect a different country to agree with all of your traditions just because you said so. They have habits and customs that are important to them in their writing, some of which they might not be aware of.
Being a diplomat requires no small amount of tact and consideration when expressing your opinions or wishes. This is a skill that is developed with practice and age. In most cases I open and close by stating that: “These are only suggestions.” Or, depending on the subject, “These are only my opinions.” There is no right way to write. There are easier or clearer ways to write, but there is no one set path to follow to success.
Your purpose as a beta reader is to help. Writing is different to each individual. Be prepared to deal with a variety of people in different parts of their career as writers.
When I “pitch” myself to writers I give them a run-down/list of what they can expect from me as a beta. My message goes along the lines of “I look for these things; I might come down hard on this area – but if that’s not what you’re looking for say the word; or I will smooth out these things.” I sometimes follow with: “I am not as skilled in this area, but if you like, I’d be happy to do my best with it.” ALWAYS be conscious of what They want in a beta writer. It can save you and them a lot of work and frustration.
If they say they don’t mess with their adverbs, don’t mess with their adverbs.
Sometimes I’ll work with them for one chapter or a short story. Sometimes I’ve gone through one chapter at a time with them as they shape their story, which can be a very rewarding experience. There have been a couple times where I’ll be more than a beta reader and instead be a listening ear and partner to bounce ideas back and forth. The times when I get to help with character development and plot direction are my favorites because you can start to build a relationship with the writer. You get to talk with somebody else about writing, characters, or things that make the world go round. When you’re more comfortable with each other, I’ve found it makes giving feedback easier. You’ll be able to gauge when an opinion you have won’t help them, or when it might be ok to send a mini novella on human interactions and how humans will go through the stages of grief. (True story.)
The process of learning to become a good beta reader is a never ending one. You will always be making changes to how you do things, some bigger than others. As you grow as your person, you’ll be able to view things with a deeper understanding and give suggestions in a kinder way. You’ll be able to give the suggestions that they need to hear, rather than what you want them to hear. Editing is like any hobby you wish to excel at, it takes practice.
Being a beta reader is one of the loveliest experiences related to writing. I hope that this little rundown on being a good diplomat will help you with your travels as an editor, writer, or just someone who likes to be helpful.
If you’d like to read more on beta readers, this site has a fantastic series all about it!
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