Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Dear New Novelist: How to be a Better Beta Writer

This is, unfortunately, a topic that many eager new writers need to be sat down and told. Settle in, newbies, cause this is a long one.

Just to get some definitions out there before we start:

Beta reader - A person who has agreed to read and give detailed commentary on a draft that is as clean as the writer can get it. Often solo.

Alpha reader - A person who has agreed to read and give detailed commentary on a rough draft. Often solo.

Critic/critter - A person who volunteers their time to comment, as detailed or vague as they like, on an excerpt. Often a member of a group.

Dear New Novelist, a good beta reader and trove of critics is something to treasure. They're people you can trust to be honest with you about what needs fixing in your novel, people who are willing to dedicate their time to helping you improve it. A good critter can become a good beta. A good beta can become a good friend. The thing is, a beta reader is a business relationship. A good one will not be gentle. They will be honest, and honest can hurt. And just as they can hurt you, you can hurt them. The thing is, you asked for the pain. They didn't, and if you keep it up, you risk losing their good will, their experience, and worst, their friendship.

So, how do you avoid this?

1. Don't send more than one draft without prior agreement

This one's more for beta readers than critics and critique groups. Critique groups have an understanding that you bring what you bring and you crit what there is to crit. Beta readers, though, are different than a critique group and shouldn't be treated like one.

When people volunteer to be your beta readers, unless discussed otherwise in advance, they're only expecting to do one draft. Even if you're best friends, there is no assumed "I will beta every version" or "I'll read the next draft." There's not even an "I'll reread chapter 1." It is "I will read and help with this draft." Once they've done that, the metaphorical beta contract is done. If you want them to have another go, you have to ask first. If you don't ask...

Let's flip places. You're going about your day. You have work to do for, well, life. Your job, homework, cleaning the house, whatever. You know what's on your to-do list and you know what to expect coming down the line: an essay for English class, that project your boss talked about, the kitchen needs a good scrub and laundry needs attention, you have edits for your own novel, and you finally received that novel you offered to beta to Writer B. You finished Writer A's beta last week and are glad to have it off your ever-growing plate. You got the wonderful feeling from marking something off your to-do list. And then your email chimes. It's from Writer A.

Thanks for your help! it says. Here's the next draft!

This was not on your plate. You DID this already. You put your work in, whether it was hours or minutes, and it was done. But now, Writer A has dropped it back on top of your plate without asking if you would take it. They just assumed you would. Maybe they say what they want from you in more detail late in the email ("Can you get it back to me within a month?") or maybe there's nothing more, no explanation of what they expect from you. Whatever the case, you suddenly have more work that you never agreed to on top of everything else you did. That thing you felt so good getting off your plate is back on it. How do you feel?



Taken advantage of?

Yeah, probably all of those. They're not asking if you'll volunteer your time; they're expecting it, and putting it on your shoulders to either accept it and do it or say "no" and come off like a jerk. You know they don't mean to be rude. They're just eager. They trust you. But all the same, they've done it, and there's no taking it back now.

For this reason, some beta readers outright say, "I will only do one draft," but that's not everybody. Some of us enjoy seeing stories progress and improve with our input. The ONLY thing you have to do first is say one little sentence before dropping the manuscript in our inbox.

Would you mind taking another look? 

A please helps too. Just show us that you remember your beta has limited disposable time, just like you. Asking first is just a sign of respect.

2. Don't send rough drafts

Let's trade places again, now as a critter. Someone posted a chapter on a forum that's attracted your attention. It has a good title and it's your favorite genre. Let's give it a look.

First paragraph: they used their instead of they're. As you go, there are too many commas, the dialogue tags are off, a lot of saidisms, a few more homophones, a character changes names halfway through, and there's a plothole at the end of the excerpt.

Okay, you go ahead and point out all the issues. It takes you time to write it all up. Fifteen minutes to half an hour for one excerpt's line-by-line.

You go back a little later to see a response from the author.

"Yeah, I knew about the homophones and the grammar. I didn't read it over yet so thanks for catching the name change, and thank you pointing out the plot hole!"

They posted it without looking it over themselves, without trying to find basic issues. They gave you a rough draft that they couldn't even read first because they were so eager for feedback. And what does that mean?

It means you just wasted your time telling them things they already knew and could have fixed themselves.

It means that deeper problems with the manuscript were missed because your focus was on the obvious ones that should have been fixed already.

You wasted your time, and the author didn't get as good feedback as they could have because they didn't fix the problems they were capable of fixing.

Now imagine if it had been the entire manuscript and a beta reader.

"Well, they're just an alpha reader then, right?" Except being an alpha reader, like betaing more than one draft, is something that needs to be agreed upon beforehand. Unless stated otherwise, the expectation is that the reader is going to be a beta, reading something you've done your best on. That's hours and hours of work telling the author to fix things they already know how to fix. When a beta reader receives a manuscript, the unspoken expectation is, "This is as good as the author is capable of doing on their own and now they need the beta reader's help." As the author, you're doing yourself a disservice by not sending your best, making a bad impression regarding your own abilities, and you're doing your beta reader a disservice by making them spend those hours fixing basic problems. If you're using beta readers, you need to have cleaned every issue you can find yourself. Then and only then should it be up to the beta to help you the rest of the way. Otherwise, arrange for an alpha.

3. Don't make too many changes too fast

As a beta writer, it is not your job to make the changes your betas and critters tell you to.

"But Maxwell, isn't that what we're supposed to do?"

Nah. Even when you get a publishing deal and an editor tears into your novel, it's not your job to make all the changes they say. Your job, beta writer, is to assess the RECOMMENDED changes, understand WHY the changes are recommended, decide which to apply and which to ignore, and apply changes as needed. Not every beta is a good match for your work. Everyone who's been betaed or edited has received comments that don't work for their image of their novel.

"You need to make your MC a man. Women don't act like that," someone will say of your MC who acts very much like your female best friend.

"No one knows what a five-and-dime is. Change it," someone will say of your 40s historical.

"You'll never sell this with a POC MC," is a sadly common complaint from editors, evidently.

All of those comments? They are not good comments. Your 1940s black woman does not need to be a 2017 white man, and you do not need to change her because a few people said so, no matter how much you trust them. If you just take every comment at face value and rush through, you're going to make changes your manuscript doesn't need.

You're also going to miss making the changes it does need because you're rushing. Say someone recommends you remove a week where nothing happens. It's a good idea. You apply it. But do you realize that the part you cut will affect the timeline after? You need to go through and remove references to "last week," changing them to "yesterday." If all you do is make the changes the beta tells you to, you won't catch these sort of things. You need to take time after a beta comes back to think about the beta's comments, apply them, and reread the entire thing, making sure the changes flow smoothly and are applied through the entire manuscript.

How does this apply to beta readers? Well, beta fatigue is a thing. The reason you as a writer need a beta reader is because you get too close to your story. It gets hard to find the problems because something you may not have explained to the reader is obvious to you the writer. The stuff in your head doesn't always make its way to the page. If your beta reader has agreed to look at multiple drafts and you send them two or three in a week's time, they're going to get worn on your story and start to become too familiar to see the problems.

A common issue we see in the critique section of Absolute Write, especially for query letters, is people popping up edits after an hour or two and only one or two critiques, to the tune of three to four versions in 24 hours. Usually, these don't actually fix the issues because the writer isn't taking the time to slow down and consider what's actually being explained by the critters. The same core issues will be in the query or excerpt from draft to draft, just with slightly different words. This isn't a race and you're not on a time limit (well, unless you have a deadline that you've put off until the last minute. Don't do that.) Slow down, absorb what betas and critters have to tell you, and don't overload them with drafts until you're certain you've fixed the real problems.

And finally, this one may feel obvious, but you'd be surprised how many beta readers have reported encountering this:

4. Don't be ungrateful.

So many beta readers and critters have the same story. "I did all the work, gave so much advice, and they never even said thank you." Yes, as a beta writer, your beta reader has probably hurt you, but like I said earlier, that's something to be expected when you ask for a beta. You've put a full-time job's worth of effort into your novel, a final exam's worth into your query or synopsis, and now people are telling you, "Not good enough yet. Fix it." Ouch. But you know it was coming. You know it needed work. You don't get beta readers or critics expecting them to tell you, "This is perfect." Or you shouldn't. That's not their job. If that's what you want, tell them at the start and save everyone involved the time.

It doesn't matter if they've put in five minutes or five weeks of work. It doesn't matter if they've read a page or a thousand pages. It doesn't matter if every single word of the commentary is golden or useless. You say, "Thank you so much." It's okay to wait a few days while the sting goes down. It's okay to do it immediately, before even opening the file. It's okay to do it in private for every individual critter or publicly as a group. Just say it. Because I guarantee, if you don't, that person will never read for you again, and they'll make sure all their beta friends know not to help you either. This is the fastest, easiest way to sever a beta relationship... well, next to complaining about their comments online. If they go to your blog or a thread and find you shittalking their hard work behind their back, no matter how bad or good it really was, well, that's over and done. If you have to complain to someone, do it in text messages or a private chat or even face-to-face. If you go public with it, just know that if they find it, whatever relationship you had with them is over. The only thing your beta should see from you is gratitude, even if you don't feel it.


These are the stories that every beta reader and critic has. These are the stories that set their boundaries and wear them down. These are the war stories they tell their friends who are in the beta trenches with them. I have them. All my beta friends have them. All my own betas probably have them. Don't become someone else's war story. Be a good beta writer.

And readers, if you have any of your own beta war stories, feel free to share them in the comments!


  1. Good piece. It really should be required reading for anyone who's considering asking for crit - even the most casual kind.

  2. Really good post! A good reminder of writing/editing/critiquing etiquette which will keep the process going with the least amount of strain and stress as possible. We all know writing's a job. But it doesn't have to be torture, especially when others become involved.