For big, audience-targeted projects, beta readers can offer helpful feedback: With the right guidance, they can spot strengths, take note of weaknesses, and offer valuable information about a message's viability (or at least its viability with a member of its target audience).
But beta rounds often go bad. From providing too much information, to taking too much time, to providing too little insight, to acting as too enthusiastic an editor, a beta reader can unwittingly throw good work off track.
It’s not too surprising; after all, a beta reader is really just a (very good) reader, and good readers have lots of opinions. To avoid beta-driven detours and take advantage of the best routes to completion, decide when (and to what) readers should respond.
The question of when can be tricky. Writers working on big projects can experience a long and dramatic cycle of productivity. The highs are high, pushing them to efficient productivity. But the lows are low, burying them in inert doubt.
Writers sometimes navigate the low moments with outside readers. This is premature! Although feedback can act as a prod, too-early feedback can lead writers backward, revising and revisioning a project’s focus and message before either has been fully worked out.
The question of to what readers should respond is more straightforward. Create a Google Form and ask questions that will solicit practical answers. A question like, “What’s weak and needs to be strengthened?” can provoke long, impressionistic responses. A question like, “I want to close chapter 5 with a powerful testimonial. What would make the current example stronger?” encourages more actionable answers.
Reader response works best when readers are acting less as contributors and more as quality control, the last step of affirmation and/or gentle remonstrance before submission. Use readers to make your writing better, but use them at the right time and ask them the right questions.
Productivity trackers are like a mirror on a workday morning after a particularly convivial night: What you see is terrible, but it’s helpful to know what you’re working with. The best tracker is a passive tool that aids your efforts but that doesn’t require much more than a look.
RescueTime, for example, has a “forever-free” version offers tracking and reporting and thus fosters online accountability on par with iPhone’s hate-loved screen-time summary. But it also enables users to set goals. If you spend a lot of time on email, you can find out how much is too much, and you can set a goal to stop.
Related to RescueTime: a Chrome extension. The bare-bones web time-tracker is good for people (not me/me) who like having a tiny clock ticking dictatorially away in their browser. The counting may provoke complicated emotions—anxiety, annoyance, rage—but some people like the fight-or-flight mindset it triggers
Followup is a high-maintenance-to-be-low-maintenance app, but, alas, it doesn’t have a forever-free version. What it does have (for a steep $18.00/month), is email tracking capability. You’ll spend more time “processing” emails, but less time remembering when to respond to and then actually responding to them. If your work depends on networking, on bids and proposals, or on project-managed teams, Followup is a more powerful, more comprehensive, and far more active and participatory Gmail-nudge.
While I frequently wonder why productivity apps are even necessary—why do I sabotage my productivity when I definitely don’t want to (and when my time is so short)—until I answer that question in a way that permanently changes my behavior, I’m relying on apps like these.
There are so, so, so many takes—all the time—about the soul-sucking, mind-melting, brain-breaking perils of online distraction: You don’t use the internet, the internet uses you. Vertical reading is a way to pass the time, not to live in it. The internet is a zero-sum game where online relationships take the place of real-life ones.
And, look, you won’t find a counterargument here. Some nights I only realize it’s time to force my eyeballs from the screen because I sense the return of my old friend, existential emptiness.
The antidote—for everyone, it seems—is easy. Open a damn book already! Lately, I’ve opened a few, and I’m here to suggest a few of those few to you.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. The book, now a movie, is a Coen Brothers-esque reverse Bildungsroman, in which protagonist Eli Sister seeks to unlearn his trade as a hired gun, escape from the Wild West, and, ultimately, return to his childhood home. Although Eli is a guileless dreamer, he is also inconsistently and violently rageful, a quality his sharpshooting, drink-swilling brother, Charlie, is only too happy to provoke. The book is shaped by the brothers’ journey, undertaken at the behest of their boss, Commodore, to dispatch a gold digger whose alchemical secrets promise unimagined riches. The book is a magnetic mix of soul-searching and eye-gouging, insecure self-talk and blind misogynistic fury (in an awful aside, Eli remembers that his mother always told him to masturbate to calm his fits of anger). It’s much worse—and thus much better—than Twitter.
The Perfect Nanny by Leila Smilani. I may have purposefully missed this chart-busting curdler when it first made the rounds. To be honest, it’s hard to recommend even now. Part of me wishes I could cleanse my brain of the book and the abject facts on which its plot is based. But another part of me acknowledges that the book’s reliance on two austere and incomplete portraits of mothers, and not on a sensationalist plot, offers a funhouse mirror for the reader’s soul. Once you see yourself anywhere in the book’s isolating, immolating, passionate-and-alienating version of motherhood, you can never unsee the image. Reviewers sometimes interpret this book as a rebuke to the working mom, but this working mom found a relatable ambivalence that left a lasting and unsettling impression.
Those Who Knew by Idra Novey is the best book I’ve read so far this year and an excellent antidote to whatever glowing screen ails you. The action is set on an unnamed island ten years after the fall of a brutal regime (aided and exploited by the United States). Like the US, the island is shaped by political power begotten through dictatorial violence and the strife of ragged class disparities. It is also marked by women’s negative relationship to power. In fact, the book’s action is driven by women. When the novel opens, the protagonist Lena is haunted by the specter of a dead woman she suspects was murdered by Victor, a beloved politician. Lena suspects Victor because ten years earlier she was a student-activist and Victor was a student-activist hero. She, too, had been in Victor’s thrall, but the spell broke after he coldly seduced her and then choked her into unconsciousness. I paint a depressing picture, I know, but Novey’s book is a translucent and lively thing. Spare but evocative, enraging but funny, the book complicates easy depictions of ruthless politicians and pure-hearted radicals, viciously angry men and disposable women. It also gives women the slanted power they’ve already earned. Read it.
Big projects need big backers. These aren't the kind of backers that make giant contributions to your Kickstarter (although those are great, too); these are the backers who will not only contribute to your Kickstarter, but who will also provide enthusiastic support when your project needs it most.
The role of cheerleader is frequently derided (everywhere, but also in business management circles). A cheerleader denotes a sideline position—someone who isn’t actually playing the game and whose input is therefore superficial. But a cheerleader doesn’t have to be a mouthpiece for empty and purposeless praise, and cheerleading doesn't need to come at the cost of the real-talk that gets things done.
The best cheerleader is an empathic listener who supports a project by considering possible throughways through challenges. A cheerleader responds to a crisis not by ignoring it and hoping it can be rah-rah-ed away. A cheerleader responds to a crisis by listening and offering positive feedback and a few tactical suggestions for a way forward.
When undertaking a big (or team-based or many-stepped or project-managed) project, a cheerleader is indispensable.
But big projects also benefit from eyerollers. Austin Kleon, responding (sort of) to Jon Lovett and George Lucas, recently wrote about that critiquing voice that helps keep projects in check. Although Kleon writes more specifically about artists and the undermining efforts of outsized egos, eyerollers also play an important role in making sure projects fulfill their goals. An eyeroller does not naysay for the joy of expressing cynical skepticism; an eyeroller (a good, useful eyeroller, that is) acts as an editor and a critic, deploying skepticism to ensure that a project reaches its stated goals.
Cheerleaders and eyerollers can benefit any project. When assembling your team—whether formally or informally—decide who will cheer you on and who will keep you in check.
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, mom to three troublemakers.