Sunday, January 8, 2017

How to be a Better Beta-Reader (And a Better Writer)

My short story Making Hay begins like this:

Her brothers called me Blindy because of the patch over where my left eye used to be…

One of the people I’d asked to beta read this story commented that they weren’t sure how ‘Blindy’ was supposed to be pronounced, suggesting that readers might assume it rhymed with ‘Mindy’. My colleague—in so many respects an absolutely brilliant person—had apparently overlooked the rest of the sentence, which surely indicates the proper pronunciation of the word by placing it in context.

Another beta reader cited this sentence in Making Hay:

… she could do better’n some old one-eyed rambler.

This reader insisted—emphatically—that my syntax was wrong, and that I ought to have written ‘one-eyed old rambler’ instead. Yet, were I inclined to engage in debate with my beta readers over trivial issues, my question would be: Which word do you suppose bears the rhetorical weight of that sentence? Is the emphasis, as you would have it, on ‘old’ or is it on ‘one-eyed’?  In fact, ‘old’ is nothing more than a cadential placeholder here, thus, transposing it to the end of the sentence would, in effect, deplete the phrase of rhythmic momentum and rhetorical efficacy.

The point of this is that, though I certainly make my share of mistakes, in the end, I know what I’m doing; otherwise I wouldn’t be in this line of work. Like a good ship’s captain knows the minutest details of their vessel down to the last bolt and rivet, a competent author knows where they're going, why and how. As Ursula K. Le Guinn tells us in Steering the Craft:

Ultimately, you write alone. And ultimately you and you alone can judge your work. The judgment that a work is complete—this is what I meant to do and I stand by it—can come only from the writer, and it can only be made rightly by a writer who’s learned to read her own work…

Yet, there are some things—typos, misspellings, the occasional grammatical faux pas—that even the most fastidious author might miss, and this is why beta readers—that second and third and fourth set of eyes on a text—are so important to the editorial process. (I note with a certain smug irony that everyone who beta-read Making Hay for me missed a fairly conspicuous spelling error (“desperate straights” where it ought to have read “desperate straits”), which I eventually caught on my own—thankfully before sending the story to the editor.

Now, I’ve done a fair amount of beta-reading for others myself, and, admittedly, have not always been the sort of help I’d hoped I could be. It’s difficult for me not to be snarky when confronting writers who use phrases like “tussled hair” or “the table groaned under the weight of its nuptials”. My comments to these authors were, respectively, “Gosh! Did his hair get in a fight? Surely you mean tousled hair? and “I didn’t know tables could get married now! Did you, perhaps, mean to say victuals?”

I’m a stickler for accuracy in my own areas of expertise, and tend to become mildly annoyed with authors who try to write stories set in worlds they clearly know little about. I get downright pissed off with writers who show no inclination to do proper research into their topic or setting: it is not my job as a beta reader to do that research for them, even though I may strongly desire to help them make their work better. My sense is that if they come off looking like an amateur, their failure reflects on me.  

Then again, I’ve had a few beta readers who seemed more interested in taking passive-aggressive swipes at me personally than in helping me improve my work. One beta reader who KNEW that I had subsequently changed the title of the story they were reading, wasted my time and theirs typing out several long-ish paragraphs about how the abandoned title was completely wrong, and how I was imperceptive and basically incompetent. I do hope said beta reader felt better after venting, even as this outburst of impuissant bile clearly demonstrates that they’re not nearly as clever as they think they are.

Now, let us consider ways in which the author/beta-reader relationship might be more professional, and consistently fruitful. As in any healthy relationship, both parties have responsibilities and an ethical obligation to be respectful and fair at all times.

What the author needs to know:

(1) It’s important to have several people reading your work. If one beta reader complains about an issue in the text, it may or may not be something the writer should concern themselves with. On the other hand, if two or three readers cite the same problem, the author should, at the very least, sit up and pay attention.

What is the ideal number of readers to employ? I would say three at a minimum for a short story, probably no more than five. You may want more for a longer piece of work like a novel, as there’s considerably more to be ‘caught’.  Note that these are odd numbers: in case one of those “issues” arises, an odd number may be helpful in discerning a clear consensus. On the other hand, it's not wise or helpful to have too many beta readers with too many conflicting opinions: "too many cooks spoil the soup" as they say, potentially causing all kinds of  heartache and creative inertia in the process.

(2) Tell your beta readers precisely what you want them to do for you. If all you’re after is a simple scan for obvious grammatical or typographical problems, say so up front. If you want a more elaborate critique, be specific about what that means.

(3) Give your beta readers a definite time frame in which to complete their work, say “I need this within a week…” Stick to this time frame; don’t pester the readers before the stated deadline. Give the readers sufficient time to do their work. Don’t throw something at a reader a few hours before your deadline—not if you expect a thorough and genuinely helpful response. (This is rude and unprofessional in any case.)

(4) Never argue with your beta readers. Don’t waste your time getting into debates over small details—or even big issues. If you think they’re full of shit, simply thank them for taking a look and say something diplomatic to the effect that you “will take their suggestions under advisement”. If you think they have a point, ask them to clarify and discuss the issue.

(5) Never confuse criticism of your work with criticism of yourself. Don’t take criticism—even if it’s deeply misguided—personally. A true professional takes praise and criticism in equal stride.

What the beta-reader needs to know:

(1) Be prompt in responding. Ask the author for a deadline before agreeing to read and stick to that deadline. Do your work as quickly, thoroughly and thoughtfully as possible within the stated time-frame. If, for whatever reason, you are unable to finish on time, let the author know.  Don’t try to do more than you’ve been asked—but never do less.

(2) Read carefully. It’s wise, where possible, to read the text once over before making any comments. This will help avoid misinterpreting words or phrases that make sense in a larger context. Go back and read a second time, making points as necessary.

(3) Be as diplomatic as possible. Don’t be dogmatic: offer critique in the form of questions or suggestions. (e.g. Did you mean “desperate straits” here? or Suggest “desperate straits” here) It’s OK to be tough, but it’s important also to be fair. It’s one thing to tear into an author’s work—it’s quite another to tear into the author. There’s a word for beta readers who make it their mission to crush a writer’s ego or put them down personally; that word is asshole, and nobody likes an asshole.  

(4) Your job is to help the author make their writing as effective as possible. This means suggesting ways that a text can be clearer, structure more streamlined, and language more concise, expressive and powerful.  Understand, that for all the flaws you may find, the author knows more about the story they’re trying to tell than you do. Your job is to help them realize THEIR vision—not yours.

(5) Conversely, it’s not your job to impress the author with your own cleverness. This is a waste of your time and theirs, and, frankly, leads to some pretty ridiculous exchanges (see the comment on syntax above for example). If you have facts that you think might help improve the writing, by all means, present them—but don’t go beyond the scope of the mission, and don’t be overly disappointed if the author ignores your suggestions.  


  1. As usual; insightful, thorough, and as blunt as a sledge hammer.

  2. You're absolutely right, TAS. Unfortunately I probably haven't done the sensible thing and used beta readers in the ten books I have published so far. In fact, I had never heard of beta readers until about book seven, and I'm a little reluctant to change things now. Because I have published all my books so far through a publishing company, they edit all my work, and do a good job, although my editor very kindly says that she has few corrections to make, because I am fortunately quite good at spelling and grammar. This is perhaps because I made the right choice of parentage, and went to school when these things were considered important (as I am sure you did too). So, back to beta readers, should I or shouldn't I use them? I might try it once and see if I am happy with the result. But I'm quite territorial as far as my work is concerned, and (my nearest and dearest might say) don't accept advice easily. So the jury is still out on that question. Do you think I'm being unnecessarily stubborn?

    1. If you have a good professional working relationship with a reliable and perceptive editor, you are fortunate, indeed! Beta readers can be helpful in spotting certain issues before a MS is sent off to the editor, but, assuming said editor still fulfills their traditional role, it's not essential to employ beta readers at all.

      It's always hard to hear criticism--even thoughtful, constructive criticism--and some beta readers are much better at delivering it than others. There are several people I absolutely love to work with--people who have a way of couching their critique in the form of a caress! There are others I hope never to work with again--probably to our mutual relief.