Recently, a good friend of mine asked for my help in identifying the issues with her story. She’d struggled with it on and off for years and was wondering if she should just chuck the whole thing.
I offered to take a look at it, even though her story’s genre isn’t one I know well. I’ll admit it ended up being the hardest beta read I’ve ever done. Worse for me (as far as giving feedback) was that the story’s structure might have fit a couple of other genres I’m even less familiar with. All that made it near impossible for me to know whether any issue I saw was truly “broken” or not.
It was the sort of beta read that I would have given up on after the first so-many pages if I hadn’t already promised to read the whole thing. In the end though, I’m glad I stuck with it. Not only did I provide feedback the author found extremely helpful, but I also learned a great deal about how to beta read in unfamiliar genres.
Tip #1: Be Humble
When we’re reading outside our usual genres, our expectations of pacing, expression of emotion, character development, point of view, plot events, story arc, etc. might all be “off” from what’s normal for the story’s genre. A story that would be considered slow in our genre might be perfectly normal in its genre.
As a romance author, I see this even among subgenres. A plot that would feel “light” in a paranormal romance—where readers might expect a battle against a supernatural bad guy or life and death stakes—can be typical in a contemporary romance.
We might be experts in some genres, but we’re probably not experts in every genre. So we can’t approach the story with an attitude that we know all, or even that we know best. Our opinions about the pacing being “too slow” or other similar issues are just that: opinions.
Tip #2: Disclaimers, Disclaimers, Disclaimers
When we provide our feedback, we should make it very clear to the author that they should take everything we say with a boulder-sized grain of salt. *smile* We didn’t connect with their protagonist? Hated the first person point of view? Didn’t like the ending? Maybe that’s because we’re not the target audience.
In my email to this author, I included several paragraphs pointing out all the ways I wasn’t an expert on this genre. I specified what my personal filters were, as far as storytelling styles and story, plot, and character arcs. (“Keep in mind that I’m reading this story through such-and-such lens.”) Then I repeated my disclaimers as appropriate with the specific comments. (“From my perspective, there wasn’t enough xyz, but again, Grain. Of. Salt.”)
Being outside the target audience, we might not enjoy the story as much as the author’s other beta readers, so our feedback might be harsher than what the author hears from others. We can soften that effect with these reminders that they have permission to ignore any feedback that doesn’t work for them.
Tip #3: Give Reasons
I shared this tip in my last post about beta reading and it’s even more important here. Our disclaimers let the author know why we might be wrong, but the reasons we give along with our feedback let the author know why we might be right.
As I pointed out before, “The plot felt weak” doesn’t tell the author anything they can use to judge that impression. More helpful feedback would say something like, “I didn’t find the plot strong enough because…”
This goes doubly for all the elements that don’t meet our expectations. Maybe our usual genres end on a happy note, and this story’s less-than-happy ending left us with the impression that the protagonist “failed” in their goals.
So it’s important to point out how we came away with the impression we did. “Because of abc, I expected xyz to happen, and when that didn’t happen, I was disappointed.” The author can then judge whether the issue was that our expectations were off because of genre (which they can ignore) or if we’d come away with the wrong impression due to the writing (which they’d probably need to fix).
Tip #4: Focus on What We Do Know
For all our unfamiliarity, we might feel like we have nothing of value to share. But no matter our background and experience, we still know some things that don’t change.
Deep point-of-view is still deep point-of-view. A turning point is still a turning point. Foreshadowing is still foreshadowing.
So while we should keep our disclaimers in mind when sharing our impressions about character development, pacing, storytelling ability, etc., we can give straight feedback when we evaluate the story for non-genre-specific elements:
- correct usage of point-of-view
- confusing aspects
- logic and flow of plot and character arcs
- whether story questions are answered
- implied theme
- natural vs. forced conflicts, etc.
Should We Beta Read Outside Our Genre?
With all this talk of disclaimers and recognizing that we don’t know everything, it can be easy to think that non-genre feedback is “second-best.” So why would an author from another genre want us to read for them? And why would we want to spend our time writing a bunch of suggestions that might be ignored?
Think back to self-editing and the difficulties we have editing our own work. We’re too close to our writing to see its problems. The standard advice is to wait several weeks between drafting and editing to gain distance.
A similar problem can exist with in-genre readers. They’ve seen the tropes so many times they don’t need explanations of how or why something works the way it does. That’s not necessarily a good thing if the author hopes to appeal to newer genre readers or to broaden their target audience.
Who’s better for gaining distance on a story than someone way outside the norm? Sure, as other-genre readers, we might not get caught up in the story, but that distance means we’ll be better able to analyze the big picture. We might even identify problems that everyone else skips over.
Or as I pointed out in a post from long ago on this in-genre-versus-other-genre-readers question from the author’s perspective, we can point out what we like about the story, which gives the author great insight into their biggest strengths. Sometimes knowing what they are good at can be the most valuable feedback for when they’re having a bad day. *smile*
Have you beta read stories outside your usual genres before? What was the hardest part of giving feedback? How did you make your feedback valuable to the author? Have you used any other-genre readers for feedback on your stories? Do you have any other tips or thoughts to share on reading outside our genre?Pin It