Monday, April 2, 2012

You Gotta Represent

If you're like me, you probably didn't learn much about data and statistics when you were in school. There were bits and pieces sprinkled throughout my math textbooks, usually at the end of a chapter, and usually sections that teachers deemed skippable.

Not so anymore. Since just before my teaching career began, data and statistics have been getting a lot more attention in math curricula. One of the last courses I took for my bachelors degree was a stats class where I learned about box-and-whisker plots for the first time. When I started my internship a few months later, I discovered kids were learning about those plots in Pre-Algebra.

It makes sense when you think about it. We have data flying at us every day in the form of survey results, charts, and infographics. It's important to be able to interpret all that information with a critical eye.

Something getting particular emphasis is the idea of sampling methods and using a representative sample. Say you're doing a survey on career goals among the student body at your school. You're not just going to ask the kids in the advanced art class and call it good. Likewise, if you want to know the average height of teenagers, you're not just going to measure the basketball team.

I got to thinking about this in reference to writing. Specifically, getting critique and feedback. It kind of follows the examples above, plus the reverse. You want to be a little bit narrow (if you're looking for information relating to teenagers, including grandparents in your sample doesn't make sense), but also not too narrow.

What determines "narrowness" in this case? There are certain things any reader can point out for you—typos, grammatical errors, things that truly don't make sense. But for the more subjective "Does this work or not?" questions, you probably don't want to seek the opinion of someone who doesn't read or even like your genre. If such a person comes along and gives their opinion anyway, you should see if anything's valid, but don't get too carried away with it.

At the same time, you don't necessarily want all your feedback to come from people who only read exactly the kind of thing you write, who may even write very similarly to you. Like I've said before, my critique partners are great because even though we all write YA, their strengths and preferences vary enough from mine to push me out of my comfort zone and make me stretch.

Have you had a representative sample in your beta readers and critique partners? How did you get that perfect selection?


E.B. Black said...

I would enjoy having this very much, but I tend to have a hard time finding Beta readers. Luckily, I have found one online recently and that's the first Beta reader I've ever had who I wasn't related to. If I ever have the luxury, then I'd like to get advice from several different kinds of people.

Rick Pieters said...

Because my novel involved some speculative aspects that might be seen as spiritual or new agey (oh, no!), I thought it important to have betas who were far removed from that mindset. I had two European online friends, one Danish and one French, both very non-spiritual, beta and point out anything that pulled them out of the "world" by sounding too far-out, too pedantic, whatever. Sure, I also had a good friend and great reader, but I valued those whose culture was so far outside mine to show me what wouldn't work for a non-like-minded audience.

I've also read some YA, not at all my genre to read, and think that the eye/ear of someone not regularly attuned to YA might have been helpful. Wouldn't a YA writer want the non-YA-reading parents to love it, too? (Hunger Games, anyone?)

We should always go outside our comfort zones to hear what other readers find that our "compatriots" would just accept and pass over.

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R.C. Lewis said...

EB, it can be really tricky to find good betas (or critique partners). Once I find good ones—who can tell me what is and isn't working—I tend to dig my claws in and never let them go. ;)

Rick, definitely, you want to have some variety in your readers. The main thing I think you have to be aware of is that people who don't read the genre might not like things that fans of the genre expect/want. It's good to make your work accessible to as broad an audience as possible, but you also don't want to turn off your core audience by over-explaining, diluting, or otherwise de-genre-fying your novel.

Tyson, mwah! :-)