Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Care and Keeping of Beta Readers

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.

4)      Reciprocate
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.


  1. *writes this down somewhere prominent* Good things to remember.

  2. A lot of this made me giggle, but had a lot of truth in it. I usually try not to fly off the handles when someone points out something wrong in my writing. Cause 9 out of 10 ten times I will be grateful. Specially if it is something I missed totally and should have been obvious!

    However, sadly my beta reader has real life issues to deal with and I no longer have a beta reader to praise. ;_; However, I do agree that it is good to praise and thank your beta reader. A lot of times that helps them get done quicker. At least from my experience.

    Any way... I am going back to my happy little corner and try to write more to my Novella. *nods*

  3. 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.

    Ahhahahaha! So, so true. Brilliant essay, Owl!

  4. @TheChoosenDarkness

    Excellent point. Praise-fat beta readers tend to work much faster. Also, I'm totally guilty of beta-reading faster and better for people who've been really nice to me.

  5. Owl is now said writer’s servant.
    I haz minionz? *evil laugh* :D

    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.
    Um, I might be taking back that offer to beta... >_> <_< *hides under table*

    From the writing side, since I haven't beta-ed in a while:
    One thing I've found out about reading comments is that they're easier to take when I haven't just completed the story/piece of writing. I get mad at my dad when I send him things like a cover letter to read because he sends it back almost immediately and I look at it therefore about 2 hours after I've written it. That is bad because the writing is still my baby in that short of a time span and the critiques are much harder to take.

  6. @danceswithwaves

    You do, you do indeed. Do I count as minionz? Awesome, I've always wanted to be multiple people.

    *cough* I only say that because I feel like I put your story through the grinder. Fix this! Fix that! Also I don't have any materials for making voodoo dolls. How do you make 'em anyway?

    Excellent point about time span. Stephan King writes about how there are moments when a writer has door shut--needs to keep the world out--and then door open, can get opinions. I feel like the few hours after you've written and the piece is all glowy and shiny like a...freshly born baby?...freshly baked cookie?...um clearly it's not my night for simile...is part of door shut. Unless the world is going: YES, IS DARLINGEST PIECE EVOR!!

  7. @Owl

    I now have a total of three names for you, so that totally counts as you being multiple people. (Because, of course, we can't go blaming my grammar.)

    You did put my story through the grinder, but in the best possible way. What made it not so bad was that all your comments were in the body of the email, so I still had sovereign control over the story. It showed that you had faith in me as a writer to fix the freaking giant problems, instead of making the small decisions for me. (The second time through, when there were fewer problems, having the track changes was nice and helpful, but the first time through it helped not seeing red slashes and comments across every page. *Note to self: that's something to remember.*)

    I believe voodoo dolls can be made out of any material as long as they have the general form of the person you are trying to spell. In order to work best they should have something of the person's attached to them (bit of clothing, hair, etc) but a picture can also be used. Then anything you do to the doll, or any other spell you use it in, happens to the person. Sympathetic magic. Waaaiiit...maybe I shouldn't have told you all that...

    How about a chocolate chip baby! Um, clearly I should go to bed two hours ago. I think I need to find this book (it's a book, right?) by Stephan King.

  8. @danceswithwaves

    I need to work on that...sometimes I'm not even sure what my name is. I caught myself thinking in third person Owl at lunch today. "Owl opened the fridge. She wanted a snack."

    Man, I wish I could take credit for that...but I don't think it was a conscious decision. More like track changes scares me. And frustrates me.

    But I'm really impressed with how far you've taken your story, and how it's still so much fun to read even though I've read it multiple times. That's rare and that takes skill.

    Voodoo! Voodoo! I want to make voodoo doll cookies. They can go along with the chocolate chip baby (what? wait what?).

    What book are we talking about? King's 'On Writing' or one where he writes about chocolate chip babies?

    Ya know the more I think about chocolate chip babies the more frightened I get.

  9. you did an absolute knockout job on "When 2017..." for me. thorough, precise. i recognized everything after you pointed it.

    reminds me...

    i think i owe you a 10,000-word b-read?

  10. Owl: You have hit the spot. "beta readers" are always taken advantage of. Sooner or later I was ready to do a post of it on my blog.

    Perfect points!

  11. @cinda-cite
    Aww, you're such a sweetheart. I'm already massively indebted to you for your e-mails and your betaing. Also the awesome owl photos and books.

    Thanks. :) After I wrote this I had a massive 'erk...did I just go bitchtastic'? moment. Conclusion, I did, but it's nice to know that these issues have a broader scope. Do write it up on your blog, I'd love to read and commiserate!