Here we go again. Lee has another PSA on writing—or rather, Beta Reading. Maybe you’ve seen a few posts about what Beta Readers should do or how to provide a good critique (like posts about “describing and not prescribing” and the like). There are plenty of DON’Ts for ‘critiquers,’ but what about for Writers? I’ve compiled some of the top complaints I’ve heard and had as a Beta Reader. Buck up my pretties because I’m going to be describing some of you. But, don’t feel bad. I have been guilty of a few of these naughty behaviors myself in past years.
- The Writer sends her/his Beta Readers an incomplete Manuscript (MS) or the whole thing right after s/he’s finished writing it (first draft with no writer edits).
This makes the Beta Reader an Alpha Reader. It’s not the same thing. An Alpha Reader is the first person to read an MS and often even look at incomplete MSs. Generally speaking, this is someone close to the writer who will tell her honestly if the story is enjoyable in general or if s/he is on to something interesting. Strangers and online writing groups don’t usually make good Alpha Readers because they tend to focus on technical errors and don’t have a sense of what the writer is trying to do. On that note, sending Beta Readers an unedited, just-finished first draft usually results in a focus on technical errors rather than the more macro issues that draw readers out of the story. (Looking for issues that draw the Reader out of the story is the true purpose of a Beta Reader, by the way. They are NOT meant to be Alpha Readers OR copy editors.)
- The writer continues to work on his/her manuscript while the Beta Readers are reading/Sends additional different versions of the MS while the reading is going on.
There is no surer way to demonstrate your amateur status than by doing this—and it’s a really good way to discourage (read: annoy) your Beta Readers. It’s also disrespectful of their time and effort. What makes you think they want to go back and re-read something you’ve fiddled with or take on additional passages you’ve added? Do not send your MS draft out for Beta Reading until you are done fiddling with it. Period. Send the same version to every Beta Reader in a defined reading period. While it is out, work on something else. Not only do the Beta Readers need the time to read, contemplate, and reply; YOU need the time away from your MS so that you don’t burn yourself out on it or get too comfortable with it. So you’ve come up with this great idea you want to include—or you’ve found this huge mistake. What do you do? Open a blank document and make notes. You’ll be adding to those notes when you get your Beta Reader responses anyway. They may intertwine. Don’t make more work for yourself and for them by fiddling in the middle of things.
- The Writer sends her/his Beta Readers the MS in some file format other than the standard MS Word (e.g., Word Pad, Text file, Kindle format, handwritten, PDF, etc.).
Writers who truly want a good Beta Read, who care about their stories, should send it to their Beta Readers in a way that is fully accessible to them. If a Writer is worried that someone is going to “steal” his/her story (unlikely), then s/he should choose his/her Beta Readers with care and/or ask them to sign a formal non-disclosure and/or non-compete agreement (templates are online). Sending it in any other format often makes it unnecessarily difficult to relay specific issues Beta Readers may find. In short, it may cause more work for the Beta Reader. On another note, some Beta Readers may have special needs and request a special file format. It’s okay to accommodate them, but in general, provide the draft MS in the same file format you would use to submit for publishing.
- The Writer tells his/her Beta Readers that they probably won’t find much wrong with the MS.
This is a common flag that the Author may not be receptive to feedback. That’s putting it nicely. Therefore, some Beta Readers become reluctant to relate their honest perceptions or even actual errors or issues. On the other hand, some Beta Readers enjoy “poking” at people who say things like this, and they may list “offenses” that aren’t truly problems with your MS just to get a rise out of you—yes, these people do exist! Best thing for a writer to do: Just hand over your MS with only a “Thank you” and a reasonable deadline.
- The Writer tells his/her Beta Readers that s/he doesn’t care what they find, doesn’t care if they find anything, or doesn’t care if it “sucks” or some version of that.
The Writer tells the Beta Readers that s/he only writes for him/herself. Let me step out of formality here for a minute. If you as a writer tell your Beta Readers any of that, they should hand you back your MS and walk away. Please don’t waste their time. People who don’t care or who just write for themselves don’t need Beta Readers. Even if this is just your defense mechanism for dealing with an experience that makes you nervous, do your very best not to transfer that to your Beta Readers. If you don’t care about your story, why should they?
- The Writer reacts defensively and/or argues with the Beta Readers over their findings.
The writer seeks support from other Beta Readers or online Writing Groups to argue with a Beta Reader’s observations. This often goes hand-in-hand with #3 or #4 and that’s why those things often turn off Beta Readers. Writers need to learn to accept criticism graciously. The best thing to do is to read the critique and let it sit for a day or three. The Writer should not reply to it unless s/he has genuine questions that need to be asked for clarification. Just say thank you and move on. If, on the other hand, the Beta Reader is out of line (aggressive, bossy, pressing his/her so-called expertise), the Writer should “fire” that person and not work with him/her again. Either way, don’t get drawn into arguing or defending. Be professional at all times—even when others are not.
An important note: Beta Readers are there to “describe” their impressions or any perceived issues. Unless your beta reader is a professional editor, they are NOT there to “prescribe” fixes, edit, or to re-write any portion of your MS. In other words, their feedback is OPINION. It’s up to you to decide if the opinion is valid or helpful in context.
Note Two: It’s rude and contentious to seek to pit Beta Readers against each other or to seek public input on a Beta Reader’s specific opinion. Don’t do that; it’s petty and unprofessional.
- The Writer has failed to provide guidance to his/her Beta Readers. (Most Common Error)
Some people are “professional” Beta Readers. This doesn’t mean they get paid. (Writers, don’t pay for a Beta Reading except by professional freelance editors with references.) “Professional” Beta Readers have a set of questions they ask themselves regarding an MS that enable them to give constructive, actionable feedback. Most Beta Readers don’t do this. They are just regular people. Some are fellow writers (though they don’t need to be), but that doesn’t mean they know how to articulate MS issues in a meaningful and appropriate way. To help mitigate this issue, a Writer should provide some guidance to his/her Beta Readers. “Guidance” can be as simple as the basic directive to note any instances where the Reader was drawn out of the story, or a set of general questions about character, plot, setting, or confusing passages. (Suggested questions for Beta Readers can be found online.)Reader questions are very useful. They allow you to compare the responses of multiple Readers to uncover noticeable issues. If multiple people point out the same passage or issue, chances are it’s something you should consider revising.
- The Writer doesn’t provide a deadline and/or nags the Beta Readers.
Having a deadline for your Beta Readers (roughly 1 week for every 20 – 25,000 words) will not only keep you on track with any goals you may have, but it will also help to keep your Beta Readers on task. Writers should give Beta Readers a specific date to work towards and reminders only at the half-way mark, one week left, and the day before the due date. Try not to nag more than that. On the other hand, don’t just send an MS and disappear from their lives for a month either.
- The Writer monopolizes the time of a particular Beta Reader constantly looking for advice, editing, co-writing, etc.
Sometimes you run across people who are very good Beta Readers and/or writers themselves. They seem to have a lot of good insights and knowledge. This is wonderful—but they are not your personal resource. Sometimes professionals may even agree to Beta Read for you. Don’t try to take advantage of it by making a constant nuisance of yourself. Monopolizing people like this is disrespectful and obnoxious behavior and discourages them from helping you and other writers. Accept their Beta Reader responses, thank them, and move on.
These are just a few of the most common mistakes that Writers make when dealing with Beta Readers. Have you experienced some others? What’s the worst/best Beta Reading experience you’ve ever had? Share them below!