Writers love their beta readers. But let’s be honest. Beta readers also kinda drive us crazy. Some of them are perfection: as polite, professional, and talented as any in-house editor. But others… well, let’s just say their lack of tact and their questionable knowledge of the craft can sometimes leave us howling in frustration. Why isn’t there a manual for beta reader etiquette–for how beta readers should conduct themselves and how writers, in turn, should respond?
A few weeks ago on Facebook, a reader asked if I’d written a post on beta reader etiquette. I hadn’t, so today I’m remedying that oversight. Because trading critiques is the time-honored mode of reimbursement between writers, most of us will end up wearing both the beta-reader hat and the being-beta-read hat more times than we can count. In the interest of keeping peace and patience amongst ourselves and, even more importantly, maximizing our helpfulness to one another, let’s consider ten bits of beta reader etiquette and eight bits of writerly etiquette in response.
The 10 Rules of Beta Reader Etiquette
1. Be Honest
You can’t be useful to fellow writers unless you’re willing to be honest with them: about the good and the bad of their stories. No, you don’t want to hurt any feelings, but just assume that any writer who asks your opinion will be big enough to handle even a negative response.
2. Be Specific
Generalities like, “I loved it!” or “Your plot was boring!” aren’t going to be much help. Even if you start out with only a gut feeling about the story, do your best to figure out why you liked or disliked something. Give your writer friend something concrete on which to build his revisions.
3. Couch Criticism in Praise
The whole point of a critique is the criticism. But be a sport and don’t be too rough on a writer’s delicate ego. Say what you gotta say about the book’s faults, but couch your criticism in praise. Whenever you can, be lavish in your comments on a bo0k’s good points. Open your critique by telling the writer what you liked best, and sum up with either a generally positive opinion or a belief that the author will be able to refine his rough draft into something good.
4. Avoid Negative Absolutes
Insofar as honesty allows, try to avoid negative absolutes: “This book is awful.” “I hated this character.” “Your theme is nonexistent.” Focus on the fix, rather than the problem: “I recommend using a more cheerful tone.” “What if you let this character pet a dog?” “Have you considered a theme for this story?” Even writers who want to hear all your criticism will grow resistant to accepting it if you put them on the defensive.
5. Observe Deadlines
Aside from the fact that most writers will be chewing their fingernails with anticipation from the moment they send you their precious manuscript, they’ve also probably got some serious deadlines to meet. So once you agree to a timeline, try your darndest to meet it. Yes, you’re doing the writer a favor, but he’s also depending on you. If you’re going to be unable to meet the deadline, always take a moment to let the writer know about the delay.
6. Observe Standard Editing Protocol
Make things easier for both yourself and the writer by observing standard editing protocol. Either use Word’s Track Changes to mark your comments and corrections right into the manuscript, or use standard editing symbols for marking up a hardcopy. No need to waste either the writer’s time or you own with comments he won’t be able to access or decipher.
7. Respect the Author’s Guidelines
If the author says she’s only looking for a general overview of the story–not a line edit–then respect that. She knows what stage her story is in and what kind of opinion will be most helpful. An unasked for line edit at too early a stage may not only end up wasting your time, but also killing the writer’s confidence in her story.
8. Check Your Personal Agenda at the Door
Remember: as a beta reader, you’re there to serve the writer, not the other way around. If you have a personal dislike for characters with red hair, the word “stupendous,” or rainy scenes, keep it to yourself. There’s a difference between pet peeves based on technical mistakes and pet peeves that are specific only to us and our personalities.
9. Identify the Author’s Vision
In the same vein as #8, your job is to help the author realize her vision for the story. It’s definitely not your job to try to impose your vision (or worldview) onto the writer’s story. If she wrote an adventure story, but you wanted a romance, don’t take it upon yourself to rewrite the genre. Do your best to figure out what type and tone of story the author is going for, and shape your comments to help her figure out where she’s falling short of her vision.
10. Respect the Author’s Autonomy
No matter how much effort and time you spend critiquing this story, there is no guarantee the author will make the changes you’re suggesting. Once you’ve turned over your critique, let the story go. You’ve had your say; you’ve fulfilled your duty. It’s not your responsibility to talk the writer into using all your suggestions. When the book comes out and the main character still has red hair, resist the urge to throw up your hands in frustration or write the author a scolding email.
The 8 Rules of Writerly Etiquette in Response to Beta Readers
1. Show Gratitude
Taking the time to read and comment on a manuscript is a humongous favor. Never take that for granted. Even if you should get your manuscript back and end up disagreeing with every single thing the beta reader said, never discount the effort that went into making those comments. Always thank beta readers profusely and let them know you’re aware of the effort they put into trying to help you.
2. Don’t Argue
Upon reading some (or all) of a beta reader’s comments, your first instinct might be to argue. But don’t. Just… don’t. If you’re face to face with a beta reader, simply nod and smile as they explain their thoughts. Only challenge their opinions if you need clarification on a point, and even then make sure you do it with graciousness and humility. No need to let a bossy beta run you over, but try to keep any knee-jerk negative reactions simmered down to a professional, “That’s a good point. I’ll take that into consideration.”
3. Don’t Take Offense
Yes, you’ll occasionally run into a nasty beta reader with a personal axe to grind. But generally speaking, most betas aren’t out to get you–even when they may sound less than kind in their critiques. Give your betas the benefit of the doubt and assume they just want to help you. Even if they’re dead wrong about your story, don’t take offense. This isn’t personal. It’s business.
4. Give the Edit Some Time
Most of us need a little time to process a critique–especially if it’s harsher than we expected. Before outright rejecting a beta reader’s critique, always give yourself a week or so to process the comments. Step away from the manuscript and just let those initial emotions brew for a while. When you’ve cleared your head, come back to the critique and evaluate the true worth of the beta reader’s offerings.
5. Remember the “Two People Have to Agree” Rule
Just as you shouldn’t outright reject your beta reader’s offerings, you also shouldn’t swallow everything a beta says. My personal rule is that “two people have to agree” on a change before I’ll make it. One of those people can be me: if I immediately recognize the worth of a beta’s suggestion, obviously I’ll go ahead and make the change. But if I don’t agree, I’ll put the comment on the back burner, where it will stay until another beta reader or editor makes the same comment. If that happens, then I know I have to reevaluate my initial gut feeling.
6. Respect the Reader’s Time
The beta reader is giving you the gift of many, many hours of his time. You’d be paying a professional editor thousands of dollars to be doing what your beta is doing for free (probable discrepancies in knowledge and skill aside). Respect that gift. Don’t ask beta readers to adhere to impossibly tight schedules, and once you’ve agreed upon a reasonable deadline, don’t pester the beta with requests for progress updates. Only after the deadline has come and gone without response from the beta reader should you send him a gentle email, asking if he’s had time to look at your book. If he hasn’t, tell him that’s all right and look elsewhere for another beta.
7. Don’t Request Brainstorming Assistance
A beta reader isn’t necessarily a brainstorming buddy. Brainstorming requires almost as much time and effort as critiquing, so don’t assume that just because someone agreed to read your manuscript he’ll also want to help you name characters and figure out how to fill plot holes. Pointing out the holes was his job; filling them is yours.
8. Return the Favor
It’s an unspoken rule in the writing world that if you receive a critique, you should also be willing to give one. Offer upfront to return the favor, and when that favor gets called in, do your best to promptly, kindly, and professionally fulfill the duties of the beta reader every bit as well as you’d like to have them fulfilled for you.
The dance between writer and beta reader can sometimes be a tricky one, since not one, but two big, fat, bruisable writer’s egos are in play. But figuring out the rules of the dance is always worth the effort. Treat your beta readers with kindness and respect, and always critique other writers in the same measure. When it comes to beta reader etiquette, that’s really the only rule any of us needs to remember.
Tell me your opinion: What do you think is the most important rule of beta reader etiquette?
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