A Beta-Reader’s Manifesto

28 10 2007

betaLet’s cut right to the chase, shall we? I beta-read the work of other writers for one very specific reason: I am hoping that in some grand karmic what-goes-around-comes-around scheme of things, there will be one or two people who will beta-read my manuscript when I have hammered it into what I believe to be its final form. It is a somewhat speculative proposition; there are no guarantees. But I hesitate to say that I beta-read for free. I do it in the hopes that someone will return the favor later on down the line, which is certainly a form of payment.

That said, there are certain preconditions that must be met if I am going to allocate some portion of my time toward reading and commenting on your story. I came up with a list that I posted on the Absolute Write message board, and a few recent experiences have prompted me to review and expand upon that list.

  • I don’t do line-editing. Grammar, spelling, and punctuation is are no, isare? your job should be checked by the author. I’ve got enough of my own to do.

There are people who get paid to line-edit manuscripts…in real dollars! Lots of them! I do not have the time to correct all the grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors in your manuscript. I’m just a lowly beta-reader, not an editor.

  • Don’t send me your manuscript until you are certain that it is written to the best of your abilities, and ready to be presented to an agent or publisher. I don’t want to help you write it, I just want to help you make it better.

It is understandable that, minutes after you have typed THE END, you are excited and want some reaction to the story that you have slaved over and sweat blood over for so long. Resist that temptation. You should beta-read your own manuscript first, after a long “cooling off” period. Otherwise, my review of your story will amount to little more than me telling you what you could have figured out on your own–a waste of time on both ends. I have beta-read enough manuscripts now that I am beginning to suspect most writers already have a good idea where the problem areas are in their manuscripts. I think these writers are hoping to get out of a little (or a lot, as the case may be) of rewriting by sending their story off to a beta-reader before they’ve done their own story editing, the theory being that if the beta doesn’t say anything about it then it’s probably not a problem. It probably is, and now I have to be the one bearing the bad news. It’s almost axiomatic; if you suspect that some aspect of your story is not working, it’s not working. Fix it before you send it to me.

  • I prefer to read the entire manuscript, rather than batches of chapters or scenes.

Pretty self-explanatory. I work on these projects when I have the time, and it is frustrating to find myself with a bit of time to beta-read only to learn that I am through the chapters or scenes that you sent me, and I need to email these back to you and wait for you to email me the next batch before I can continue (by which time I have undoubtedly moved on to another project).

  • I may respond via a steady flow of email messages as I read each chapter or section of your story, or, I may read the entire thing and send one big email at the end. The latter usually occurs with manuscripts that are very highly polished, and about which I have very little useful advice to offer.

I beta-read a psychological thriller recently that read as if I might have pulled it off the shelf at some book store. There were some problem areas, one very serious one, but I was able to bring these issues to the writer’s attention in less than a page of commentary. Another manuscript that I read–a middle grade story–required in-line comments and a few paragraphs of critique at the end of every chapter. Every manuscript is different, with different issues that need to be addressed. Sometimes I feel that writers expect a steady flow of comment and discourse regarding a manuscript that they have offered for review. Uh uh. I’m doing well to get my own writing done every day without having to chair a discussion group about somebody else’s work-in-progress.

  • When I read, I am primarily concerned with all the major story elements: plot consistency and plausibility, pace and rising tension, POV shifts, character development, etc. blahblahblah, and so on. If you have some specific issues that you want me to pay particular attention to (head-hopping, for example) be sure and let me know.

This ties in with the “do your own line-editing” provision above. As a beta-reader, my job is to look at the “big picture” items, such as the ones that I have listed. My main goal is to tell you whether or not the story works, and if not, what I think are some contributing factors. Maybe this character doesn’t engage my empathy. Maybe your hero machine-guns his way through a herd of Wogbaffles and I need to remind you that he used up all his ammo when he fought the Bogwaffles to save the princess in chapter three. Maybe we’re up to chapter five and I still haven’t the faintest idea what the conflict involves (although I’ve become an expert on the lore, history, and geography of the kingdom of Wherethehellever). Look! An info-dump!

  • If something about your story really impresses me, I’ll mention it. Otherwise, I’m not one to hand out a lot of compliments and praise. I’m more of a “just the facts, ma’am” sort of beta reader.

Hey, I like that warm, fuzzy feeling I get when somebody compliments my work just as much as the next writer. The problem with a lot of “atta boys” is that the cumulative effect is usually negative. Well, if you liked that part, how come you didn’t say anything about this part? This part is a lot better than that part. Does that mean that you didn’t like this part? And you didn’t even mention the title I came up with, which is awesome. How come you don’t think my title is awesome? If something is just jaw-dropping amazing, I’ll mention it. For the most part, though, I’m looking for what’s wrong with the story, not what’s right with it.

  • I cannot, at this point, legitimately call myself a professional writer. I have been writing, and studying the craft of writing, for nearly twenty years, and of course, I am an avid reader. I believe that I am qualified to help fellow writers improve their stories–else I wouldn’t offer to do it–but of course, all I really have to offer are somewhat biased, largely subjective opinions. If something that I point out or suggest clicks with you, well, alright then. On the other hand, if it sounds like I am talking out of my ass, I may well be. No harm done. Light a match, and let’s move on.

Which brings me to the crux of the issue; the real reason that I decided to write this article. My most recent beta-reading experiences have not been exactly pleasant. In one instance, I was given a novel that I was simply unable to read beyond the first chapter. For one thing, I felt that most of the character was left inside of the writer’s head…there was nothing in the text that engaged my sympathy or interest. Worse, the story began with a series of implausible circumstances, and there was a general air of “well, let’s just get past this part and then it’ll get really good!” No, I’m afraid not. It is not a requirement that I like your story, or your genre, or your whatever, for me to beta-read your manuscript. I’m not a fan of psychological thrillers, but I managed to read through one, as noted above. You should, however, at a minimum, be in the possession of some basic story-telling abilities. I need at least that much, going forward. The writer in this case at least took the time to thank me for my efforts, albeit in a somewhat frosty tone. In another instance, I beta-read a relatively well-written short story that failed, in my opinion, from a lack of conflict and an overabundance of description. Apparently that critique was not well received because I never heard from the writer again.

It’s difficult. I know. I was shattered when my first novel, The Tronovich Ghost, collapsed in a heap under the scrutiny of a beta-reader. I worked my ass off on that story, and I didn’t particularly enjoy having it pointed out to me that it was riddled with POV shifts, that the sub-plots overshadowed the (supposed) main conflict, that the main conflict was contrived and, frankly, boring, oh and did I mention that the story bounced back and forth between MG and YA (MG when they were ghost-hunting, YA when they were fucking and cussing) and that the only thing funnier than the fact that the whole story read like a really bad Scooby Doo cartoon was the fact that in the very last paragraph of the last scene I actually had the main characters drive off, singing the Scooby Doo theme song? It was as if I was trying to justify the flaw by winking and nodding at it.

Ouch.

But I needed to know that. As far as I was concerned, everything in that story worked. The problem was that I wanted it to work, so I couldn’t look at it objectively. That’s why I gave it to a beta-reader. That’s what beta-readers do. When you give your manuscript to a beta-reader, you are essentially saying “I think this is great. See if you can find anything in there that sucks.” Don’t be upset if your beta-reader does precisely what you asked. Just make a note of their comments, thank them kindly for their time, and move on down the road.

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2 responses

29 10 2007
Virginia Lee

Amen.

29 10 2007
sak6

I think a lot of people feel the same. Thanks for stopping by Virginia 🙂

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