Four Tips for Beta Reading in Other Genres

by Jami Gold on May 21, 2013

in Writing Stuff

Close up of knothole in a fence with text: Beta Reading Outside Your Genre? 4 Tips to Breach the Genre Borders

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:

  • grammar
  • 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?

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24 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Melinda S. Collins May 21, 2013 at 6:13 am

Hi Jami!

GREAT post! I personally feel that beta reading outside your genre not only offers a different perspective on our own story (one that we may not have thought of before), but it also helps us sharpen our own beta reading/critiquing skills. The “grain of salt” disclaimer? My Margie-class editing partner and I use that so much that it’s simply become “GOS! GOS!” 🙂

I’ve definitely found it difficult to edit/critique outside my genre, but it’s gotten easier as I’ve continued to exchange pages. She writes historical romance (westerns), and so the plot sometimes moves a little slower for me. But that’s okay because the plot and characters don’t call for the story to be wam-bam-fast-paced. The plot still moves with each and every scene, there’s tension, but it’s not *my* kind of tension or movement. So instead, I focus specifically on the big picture, the characters, worldbuilding, opportunities to empower emotions and add fresh body language and dialogue descriptions, and all those other little facets of story craft. I think that’s a good tip/trick right there. Stick with including those streams-of-thought comments, look for opportunities for the author to add a bit more description, ask questions about characters’ motivations/goals, add notes on choreography glitches you may find.

As for seeking feedback from a non-genre beta reader or EP, I’ve found it be absolutely fantastic and helpful. As authors, we sometimes dream of having a reader approach and say, “I used to never read these kinds of stories, but I found your book and I’m glad I did. I’m now a fan of the genre.” Having a non-genre beta reader or EP is what can help us find those small opportunities that might one day help expand our readership–such as finding areas for us to sneak in an explanation of something a regular genre reader might automatically know.

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Jami Gold May 21, 2013 at 9:01 am

Hi Melinda,

“As authors, we sometimes dream of having a reader approach and say, “I used to never read these kinds of stories, but I found your book and I’m glad I did. I’m now a fan of the genre.””

Absolutely! That’s a great reason to use other-genre readers. As you said, a comment like that from a new reader would be the best kind of feedback. 🙂

Those are great additions of what we can look for in other genres too! Worldbuilding, adding emotions, motivations/goals, and glitches all go back to that “confusing” aspect, and we can give “Wait, why…” questions. Actually, asking questions in general is a great way to provide feedback. (Why are they doing abc? How does this make them feel? Why couldn’t they just…?) Thanks for the fantastic comment! 🙂

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Suzanne Johnson May 21, 2013 at 8:26 am

Great post, Jami! Of my three crit partners, only one writes paranormals–the others write contemporaries and historicals. And my alpha reader (the only one who sees the first draft) not only doesn’t read paranormals, she dislikes them. So my goal is always to hook her in. They’re great at catching plot inconsistencies and character goofs because they’re less invested in the worldbuilding. And I hope I’m able to do the same for them. I think having someone outside the genre really helps us look at the things all good novels have in common: depth of character, sound plot, clear writing.

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Jami Gold May 21, 2013 at 9:10 am

Hi Suzanne,

LOL! about your alpha reader. My alpha reader is male–not the typical romance reader–but he doesn’t hate them by any means. Winning over a non-fan is a great bar to set for yourself! 🙂

“They’re great at catching plot inconsistencies and character goofs because they’re less invested in the worldbuilding.”

Exactly! By not being as deep in the story, they’re not going to skim over problems like that. Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung May 21, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Good point about how a reader outside your genre can give more novel feedback, because they don’t take certain tropes for granted. The downside of that is, this reader might also be more easily impressed because they’ve never seen a certain trope before, and this often done trope doesn’t strike them as unoriginal. So there are certain types of “clever plots” in sci-fi or mysteries, and readers unfamiliar with these kinds of plots would go, oh my gosh that is so amazing! That was so smart!! Whilst a reader familiar with these would say, bah. Not again. I’ve seen that a million times before.

I also agree with you that different genres have different expectations, and I sometimes need to remind myself of that. So for some books that focus a lot on plot, action, and setting, like LotR, I might feel dissatisfied because it seems like there’s not enough character development. But I didn’t realize that character dev isn’t that important in this kind of fantasy—I was judging LotR from the perspective of the typical literary classic where character d. is more crucial. (But to make things more complicated, some literary classics have flatter characters, whilst some have rounder ones. So maybe these are what you called “sub-genres”?)

Another example would be flowery and elevated language. In more contemporary stories, this type of language might be called pretentious and be frowned upon. Yet this would be perfectly normal, even expected, for literary classics and some fantasy genres.

It’s always fun to see a book break the stereotypes/ defy the expectations of their genre though, lol.

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Jami Gold May 21, 2013 at 1:14 pm

Hi Serena,

Good point about genre-specific cliches! That’s why I think it’s ideal if we have several beta readers, some in-genre and some out-genre. And you’re also right about how use of language changes in different genres. Some use more flowery language, some use more telling, some have more introspection or description or any other of a million variances. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Donna Hole May 21, 2013 at 1:50 pm

I was scared of reading outside my genre at first, but after the first couple reads it became no big deal. I always let the author know when I don’t know the genre specifics on certain passages; but as you say, there is always character, story flow, pov shifts, descriptions, grammer, spelling, all kinds of general story criteria to assist with. The author is sure to have others reading that do know the genre specifics.

I do think authors should beta read outside their usual genre. You can always learn something about the writing craft, and also learn how to attract readers outside your target audience. Not that an author should sacrifice their personal preference for a popular trend, but as you say here, if the genre are close enough, a little revision could make the difference between a shelved book, and published one.

Always keep options open.

………dhole

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Jami Gold May 21, 2013 at 2:06 pm

Hi Donna,

I agree with you about how we can always learn something with every beta read we do. If nothing else, we learn more about what we like and don’t like as far as genres, tropes, characters, plot events, humor, etc. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Maryanne Fantalis May 21, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Great post Jami! I often find that readers in my genre can get nit-picky about all the wrong things — or at least wrong for me at that moment — quibbling over technicalities and minutiae when what I really want is big-picture feedback. That’s when folks from outside the genre or even casual readers are the best, because they may say that one thing that sparks something big.

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Jami Gold May 21, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Hi Maryanne,

Great point! Yes, non-genre readers might be more likely to look at things from the big picture perspective because they don’t know enough to get bogged down by nitpicky things. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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renée a. schuls-jacobson May 21, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Well, I’m just going to bust out and thank Jami for reading my WIP. It has been in my hands for too long — with only my eyes looking at it. Over and over and over again. For years.

I’m not going to lie.

I cried when I first received her feedback.

But it was because I knew that every single word she said was true. And part of my tears were out of relief. Finally I had someone to ask questions. How sucky is it? Should I just kill it completely? Her feedback was sooooooo thorough, and sooooo appreciated, and so kind.

I don’t rightly know what I’m doing with my WIP right now.

In truth, I’m still processing everything. It needs a lot of work, so I’m taking a little breather from it to decide if I really want to continue down this path.

But.

Jami’s feedback was beyond helpful and so very concrete. She is truly one of the most talented editors out there. I’m truly grateful that she gave my WIP so much attention.

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Jami Gold May 21, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Hi Renee,

Aww, thank you! But I wasn’t trying to out you here because I know how hard the situation was for you. *hugs*

As far as your story, you know I think you can do it. 🙂 Take care and thanks for the comment!

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Linda Adams May 21, 2013 at 5:07 pm

One of the things I’ve done is to give my impressions of the characters and the story — how it’s coming across to me. I had one critique I did where the main character came across to me as someone who was going to get taken advantage of by the character with her. The author had actually intended something different, which obviously did not come across.

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Jami Gold May 21, 2013 at 6:47 pm

Hi Linda,

Yes, in addition to my big picture feedback, I also give stream-of-consciousness impressions in the manuscript itself. That way the author can see what exactly in the writing led to my impression. I think this issue of giving the wrong impression is one every author struggles with. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Kassandra Lamb May 21, 2013 at 7:02 pm

I write mysteries. The person who usually reads my manuscripts first is my toughest and best beta reader, and she normally reads women’s fiction and literary fiction. I definitely can tell sometimes that she’s coming more from those genres’ perspectives but she can spot a plot hole like nobody else can.

She’s also great at questioning characters’ motivations for doing things. Again sometimes the motivation will be perfectly clear to mystery readers, but her questioning it makes me stop and make darn sure that motivation is valid.

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Jami Gold May 21, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Hi Kassandra,

Great examples! Yes, in-genre readers might be so familiar with the tropes that they go along with weak motivations because the story is flowing as they’d expect. Non-genre readers are more likely to push for more clarity. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Cindy Dwyer May 22, 2013 at 5:50 pm

Great advice, Jami! I think people definitely take your feedback more seriously if you are more humble about it than if you are adamant about something that might be subjective.

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Jami Gold May 22, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Hi Cindy,

Oh gosh yes! Just recently, one of my contest judges was adamant that you could never have one sentence paragraphs. Ever, ever, ever.

Wow, and do they think that you can never have sentence fragments either? Both of those are voice techniques–they can be annoying and/or become ineffective if overused, but “never” is an awfully strong word. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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KariAnn May 28, 2013 at 3:10 am

Hi Jami, this is such a useful article! I read and receive feedback from outside my genre regularly. It helps me keep a fresh perspective on what a reader might think. May I make an addition to the list? Research the genre, even briefly through Google, to see what’s normal. My scifi’s come back as “really long” to paranormal young adult reader, but fall in the middle of their own genre guidelines. At the same time, I’m more strict on character motivation and more strict on voice than my YA friends were expecting. In the end, it comes down to getting many opinions from many areas. Thank you so much for the reminders. Tonight I’m reading Christian Romance, and loving the plot differences, voice change and perspective.

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Jami Gold May 28, 2013 at 9:15 am

Hi KariAnn,

I agree that sometimes a quick researching session might be able to let us know some of the genre’s norms. As you said, story length might be easy to find information about.

In many cases, the answers might not be so obvious though. Those are situations in which a combination of the reader being humble and less strident in their opinions and the author being more comfortable in knowing the norms of their genre (and thus, that it’s safe to ignore conflicting suggestions) would help too. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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