7 Questions About Earning an MFA and Beta Readers

Amanda Young

Meet Amanda. MFA of Creative Writing student nearing the end, talented writer, major Stephen King fan, huge lover of cats (She has a Bengal, people. She is serious!), and most importantly, one of my best friends. I asked her to share a bit about her experiences in the MFA program at Carlow University (seemed fitting since I am typing this from my room on day 5 of my residency in said program), and also about beta reading, which is, believe it or not, directly related to the program since so much of what we do involves reading each other’s pieces and giving feedback as a way to better critique our own pieces. Here are her wonderful words of wisdom:

  1. What surprises were there in the process of earning your MFA?
    The biggest surprise was the community. I was overwhelmed with a congregation of believers in words. The first day I walked in to class, I immediately made friends with a fellow fiction student, who became of the most trustworthy writers I know of today. MFA students have the ability to become a family because of the shared struggle of finding out who you are as a writer together. I think it is most surprising that I’ve come to depend on these friends and colleagues to help me see my true potential. Without them, I know I couldn’t have realized how confident I should be in my own writing.
  2. What has been the best part?
    The curriculum. Each and every seminar and speaker is the course description from heaven. One of my favorite seminars was from the first residency of my MFA program where prolific author John Kessel uncovered the secrets of sci-fi/fantasy stories. Since the program doesn’t have many science fiction or fantasy speakers, it was a real treat to see someone from that genre in action.
  3. What has been the worst part?
    The critical reviews. You know, as enjoyable as all writing is to me, it is more daunting to peel apart a book or story than simply reading it. Of course, it’s always important to refine all types of writing, no matter what form of assignment, but I feel like I miss out on the story (especially if it’s the first read) if I’m dissecting and analyzing the creation of it.
  4. Would you recommend writers get a writing degree? Why or why not?
    It is probably one of the most profound choices I have ever made for myself. In my undergrad, our English class was visited by Bill Deasy, author of the literary novel Ransom Seaborn, in a wonderful day of show and tell. Deasy brought with him the screenplay version of his book (which I got a chance to read through—eek, so exciting). At the end of the Q &A, Deasy asked if anyone wrote fiction (sadly, I was the only one to raise my hand), and he insisted that I follow through with my plans of graduate school. Deasy is the author of three traditionally published books, and the best advice he gave me was to continue with schooling because the best gadget you can have in your weapon’s belt is more knowledge and a better understanding of the craft. Sure, my first degree was in literature, and I can’t learn everything there is to know about writing through my master’s. However, there is no downside to making valuable connections in the publishing world in addition to find a group of supportive colleagues who can help you to grow into your work. Plus, you will find that the more you learn, the more palatable your writing becomes to a potential audience.
  5. What have your experiences being a beta reader been like?
    On the whole, my experience as a beta reader has been enlightening and enriching. I don’t want to be pretentious about any of the WIPs (work in progress) that I have read, but the mistakes that you find in other writer’s work help you to become a better writer. More importantly, you help the writer you’re reading for become a better one as well. There is a special relationship with a beta reader. It’s not like regular readers, who can hold judgment and even put a book down if they don’t like it. A beta reader has a duty to give the writer as unbiased and fully inclusive of a read through as possible. That may seem contradictory, but it’s not. As a reader, you will always have opinions, prejudices, and preferences; what makes a truly effective beta reader is the ability to put your preferences on the backburner and suggest only what will help the story within the writer’s style and capabilities. The role of beta reader is like dress rehearsal to theater production; the beta reader is your fail-safe before you go ahead and reveal your characters to the publishing world.
  6. What have your experiences having beta readers for your work been like?
    Since most of my work is largely unfinished, I haven’t had much opportunity to ask for help from beta readers. I have received some assistance from beta readers on short stories and parts of my novels, which have been astronomically beneficial to each piece. Thus far, beta readers have asked pertinent questions that my intelligent, potential readers would also ask, and they’ve helped me to refine the story to its best possible quality. I am a sucker for positive and negative criticism, so beta readers are the fois gras of writing experiences.
  7. Why do you think beta reading is important?
    I think the most important aspect of beta reading is the relationship building. There is a huge difference between your friends and family as readers and super passionate book lovers. The writers that I have read for have connected with me online, so I have never met any of them in person. Yet, I feel like I have made a deep, intimate connection with them because they shared with me an unfinished piece, and asked for help. Not only that, but in return for my services there is a mutual agreement (most, not all times) for the other party to read my work. This symbiosis becomes a foundation from which you can build a network of readers and eventually followers of your work (if you’re really good). Beta reading is one of the essential stepping-stones of becoming an author of good quality work, in my opinion. The process forces you to become a representative of the work you want to present to the world, in addition to building a network of colleagues that will respect and know you through your writing.

As a final note, I don’t claim that higher education or beta readers are the fool-proof method for becoming the best writer ever. People have their own way of learning and developing their style/voice. At the same time, there is invaluable knowledge down both of these paths. The contacts and talented writers you will meet will inspire you to reach farther than you ever thought possible, and help you achieve those goals. Although most writers have a basic understanding of what makes a story or their native written language, the more knowledge you have (especially coming from insightful, experienced authors) the better you can apply it to your writing. Because in the end, isn’t writing your story the best way possible the entire purpose for a writer? I know it is to me, and I am grateful for every moment I can spend in my graduate program, being a beta reader, reading from an established series, or writing my masterpiece. Every bit of knowledge you can get from the world should be worth trying.

About Amanda:

Amanda Young is currently a writing student at Carlow University. She has been writing for over 8 years and has several works in progress, including a YA novel titled Dollhouse Daughter. In addition to writing, Amanda spends her time blogging, reading, and enjoying time with her 1-year-old Bengal cat, Nyla. Amanda plans to pursue publication of Dollhouse Daughter upon receiving her MFA. The biggest influence for Amanda’s writing is Stephen King, and she plans to read in her lifetime every novel he’s written. Amanda is 24 years old and living in the beautiful city of Pittsburgh, PA, while she finishes school.

Check out her blog, Storyteller in the Digital Age.

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