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March 17, 2016

Four Tips for Beta Reading Outside Our Genre

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

Last time, I mentioned that I was going in for minor surgery. I’m mostly recovered from that experience (no thanks to the medication, which made me sick). But the doctor wasn’t able to finish all the steps necessary to rebuild my jaw and infected tooth in one go, so I get to go through it all again in about a month. Joy.

Anyway, thank you all for the good wishes and for understanding me falling behind on blog comment replies and email. I’m still behind because my body can’t handle the pain medication they gave me, so I’m healing the old-fashioned way—slowly and painfully.

While I’m stuck trying to be a good patient, I’m updating and rerunning a post from a few years ago. *smile*

I have quite a few posts here about beta reading:

Today’s post expands on that last bullet. I wasn’t always a good (much less great) beta reader, but one activity that really helped me grow as a beta reader (and now an editor) was beta reading outside my genre.

Beta reading outside my genre forced me to really consider things from the author’s point of view—what they were trying to accomplish—and not make assumptions based on my genre expectations or biases.

My epiphany came when 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 wasn’t one I know well. I’ll admit it ended up being the hardest beta read I’d done up to that point. Worse for me (as far as giving feedback) was that the story’s structure might have fit a couple of other genres I was 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 was 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 one of my other posts 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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13 Comments on "Four Tips for Beta Reading Outside Our Genre"

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Denise Yoko Berndt

Thank you for these super helpful tips!

Killion Slade

Lovely post Jami and I have shared it with some writers who are in this boat right now. Great information for no matter what you are reading! 🙂

Thanks!
~Killion

Christina Hawthorne

When you said you were behind on responding I didn’t think you meant me! 😉 Seriously…just kidding. Reactions to meds? I feel for ya with all my heart. Get better soon.

Fantastic tips here. Thank you.

Stephanie

Hope you’re feeling better soon! I’m codeine sensitive so I’m familiar with painkiller problems. 🙁

I’m a member of a fantastic critique group, and we have two middle-grade writers, two science fiction writers, two fantasy writers, a YA science fiction writer, and a historical mystery/thriller writer. It’s been quite a challenge learning how to interpret everyone’s feedback! But after a while I started getting a feel for what parts don’t work for the middle-grade writers because they haven’t read fantasy, as opposed to what doesn’t work for them because it’s just plain not working.

My opinion is that it’s still entirely worth it to have critiques from outside the genre, because sometimes it takes that different perspective to spot characterization issues and things like that.

It does take some practice, though! 🙂

Tracy Campbell

Hi Jami, I know you had jaw surgery and that you have to endure it again. So sorry to read this. Get well soon. Great reminders on being beta readers. Always treat others as we would want to be treated. Sounds like the golden rule. ❤️

Glynis Jolly

I’m a beta reader for an author who’s genre is Science Fiction/Fantasy for Middle School children. This is definitely not my expertise. I write drama and/or mystery, and add paranormal in to the mix sometimes. All for adults, although some young adults may like what I write too.

I only give my opinion on what I know with this author. I don’t know how she comes up with her non-human characters or what is reasonable to assume with them. I do not comment on them. Because she puts in a touch of reality in all that she writes, I can and do comment on scenes. Her plots are relatively simple because of her audience so I can say something about that too. I go light on the grammar aspect because I’m American and she’s Australian. Although there isn’t many differences, I just don’t feel qualified to speak about this aspect.

Deborah Makarios

Yeowch! I had three of my wisdom teeth out a while back – they were impacted, so the dentist had to carve into the jaw to get them out – and that was bad enough WITH painkillers! Hope your recovery is swift and the next op is more successful!

Debbie

Great advice, Jami. Recently I’ve been thinking of giving my writing to beta readers outside my genre. Some of my writing has romantic elements in them, and as I don’t write romance, giving them to beta readers who do, could help me strengthen that weakness (at least I hope so). 😉

I’m sorry to hear you’re not well. Some years ago I had day surgery to remove all four wisdom teeth and it was not at all a pleasant experience. It’s a shame you have to go through it all again, so I hope it goes better for you. Get well soon and take care!

Carradee

If you’re prone to writing too concise or dropping transitions, I think it’s actually better to have at least one beta reader outside your own demographic and ideally unfamiliar with your genre (though you don’t want someone who’ll be bored or something). People from your same worldview and/or comprehension of genre won’t notice your dropped transitions because they’ll naturally fill ’em in.

Raylene Wall
Raylene Wall
Hi Jami, this is great advice…thank you for bringing this up. I belong to a writer’s group and recently had to read and critique portions of books and screenplays that were not in my genre. However, I jumped in without expectations and I found myself reviewing the work in just the manner you describe. Focusing on issues with logic, POV, perhaps a word choice here and there, or maybe highlighting a part that I had to read several times to understand. In doing this, I was instructed to use Change Tracker in Word so each writer could see my inputs (it was electronic copy) after the verbal critique and everything was stated up front that these are just suggestions from those of us who read and provided these critiques. I also used comments in the margins to ask questions or to explain my reasoning for any input. As a writer myself, I was careful not to suggest changes to their writing style or to harp on the grammar or spelling issues during the verbal critique…but, even those technical things were welcomed. I also tried to give positive feedback in certain areas, so that people knew what they got right, too. Keeping all of this in mind because I know how hard it can be to take criticism of our creative expression, and I tried to be tactful and thankful to them for allowing me to read their work. I had a great time reading other people’s work, meeting with them,… Read more »
Kassandra Lamb

My daughter-in-law is one of my best beta readers, and she writes romantic comedy. Often she catches things about characters that my mystery beta readers miss, because they’re caught up in the suspense. I, in turn, beta read her stories, and can sometimes give her perspectives on pacing that her romance readers might miss. I think having at least one beta reader outside your genre is a great idea!

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[…] After the writing comes the editing. K.M. Weiland share 5 (more) ways to trim your book’s word count, and Victoria Strauss shows us how freelance editors get paid, so we can avoid getting scammed. To help us edit other writers’ work, Jami Gold has 4 tips for beta reading outside our genre. […]

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