From time to time people will ask Owl to read their writing. In general Owl is flattered. Very few people want Owl’s opinion on anything. Owl is delighted to be a beta reader, the person who reads a rough draft and gives feedback. Beta reading offers, well, anyway Owl believes beta reading is a noble calling. The beta reader is a writer's most supportive ally and can be the difference between making a piece and breaking it.
However, much like doctors who are asked for drive-by diagnoses at cocktail parties, Owl’s inbox is beginning to fill up, and she has noticed that like many other noble callings, beta readers have no unions and very few people speak up for their rights.
For example, in college Owl lunched with a young gentleman who wanted a poetry critique. Owl read his poem and could not make head or tail of it except for the distinct impression that it was somewhat less than Nerudian in quality.
When she offered up her feedback, the young gentleman treated her with a cold stare. Owl humbly admitted she didn’t know much about poetry. The young gentleman made disapproving noises. Owl broke out into a sweat. The young gentlemen made a few choice comments about Owl's reasoning abilities.
Classic case of beta reader abuse. Owl never lunched with the young gentleman again.
The following is a list of six rules for the care and keeping of your beta reader. Rest assured Owl has broken all of them. She is nothing if not a hypocrite.
[Note: All of this assumes that your beta reader is a relatively sane and kind individual. If that is not the case, Owl recommends getting a new beta reader. You can find them at certain coffee shops. It helps if you offer to buy them a sandwich. Beta readers like sandwiches.]
1) Say thank you.
Saying thank you is tantamount to putting on your pants. People don’t notice when you do, but they sure as hell notice when you don’t.
Owl once beta read for a couple of people who did not say thank you. Owl remembers their names. Owl knows where they live. Owl is waiting for the writing gods to smite them down with giant shit-hammers of doom.
|Summoning the giant shit hammers of doom.|
2) Become one with the fact that beta-reading is a good deed.
Oftentimes writers will toss manuscripts at Owl with the air of one conferring a great favor. Owl understands. It takes a great deal of effort to write a manuscript, and a great deal of ego to believe what you produce is worth reading because most writing isn’t. (Owl believes this category includes James Joyce and Herman Melville. And Shakespeare. Owl thinks Shakespeare should be disemboweled for writing Romeo and Juliet.)
Long story short, even if you’re the reincarnation of Jane Austen, Owl can drum up at least ten other things she should be doing instead of beta reading: purchasing work-appropriate socks, investing in the stock market, polishing her own work.
Beta reading is an art form that requires tact, care, and analysis. It takes roughly fifteen minutes to read a short piece and form a gut impression. It takes hours, sometimes days, to figure out how to translate the impression into constructive criticism wrapped up in encouragement.
A beta reader is giving you their time and their attention. This is a gift. Do not forget that.
3) Don’t argue with your beta reader.
Owl is actually not interested in hearing why her feedback is wrong, why she’s a stupid reader, or why the next draft will render her feedback useless. She’s not even interested in hearing this diplomatically.
Odds are your beta reader will spend more time and effort reading your work than any editor or the general public. It’s better to hear the criticism from your beta than receive a rejection that reads: “If this piece had XXXX, we would have accepted it. As it is, sorry.” Owl reports this from the frontlines of bitter experience.
You don’t have to agree with your beta reader, but don’t waste their time arguing with them. They don’t want to hear it, and you have better things to do like revise your piece.
If you have time to write fifty seven pages, you certainly have time to read fifty seven pages. To write is to labor, to be lonely, and to be afraid that no one will ever read your work.
Be generous. Support your fellow writers. Share the love by beta reading.
5) Respect your beta reader’s time.
Don’t send your beta reader your first draft. Send them your best draft. Don’t send your beta reader multiple revisions, send them your best revision. Make sure any revision is substantial enough to warrant a reread.
If you want a pat on your head for writing, show the piece to your mommy. If your mommy is like Owl’s and thinks writing is hazardous to one’s health, get a gerbil. Gerbils are pretty good at unconditional love and they don’t take up much space.
6) Send a thank you note.
A beta who gives nothing but praise is loved and utterly useless. A beta who gives criticism risks the relationship but may be the best thing that ever happened to your writing. You want your beta to be faithful to your piece, not you.
Once you get your beta’s feedback, send them a note. Thank them for the insights that were the most helpful (this can only help your beta become a better beta reader) and thank them for having the courage to tell you things you didn’t want to hear. Your beta worries about hurting your feelings. Your beta is a nervous wreck until they get a reassuring e-mail that you will not descend upon them with the forces of Mordor.
Owl remembers putting one writer’s story through a paper shredder and then spending the rest of the evening curled up in a miserable ball. The writer called Owl up and showered praise and gratitude upon Owl.
Owl is now said writer’s servant. If the situations had been reversed Owl would have crawled into her kitchen cabinet and stayed there for a week fashioning beta reader voodoo dolls. Don’t be Owl.
Writers, be good to your beta readers. They do their work out of love. Pay them in kind, and they will spend hours ripping apart your work so you can rebuild it into something winged and shiny. Treat them badly, and best case scenario, they will vanish into the ether. Worst case scenario, they will tell you that you are God’s gift to writers and there is nothing you can do to improve, and you, you will believe them, hook, line and sinker.
That's when you are doomed.
That's when you are doomed.