Thursday, July 28, 2011

Not-Good Betas?

Betas are one of the most helpful tools in a writer’s arsenal. They’re ‘in the biz,’ so to speak, and they’re not your spouse/mom/bestest friend, so they’re impartial. I know that I would never have learned what I was doing wrong without my beloved Betas to point out the plot holes, inconsistencies, and other assorted no-nos that were ruining my novel.

But what do you do if your Beta…well, sucks?

Yes, yes; I know it’s mean to say that, and believe me I’m cringing right along with you.

But you know what I mean.

You tuck into their sample chapters, eager to help the one who has helped you out so much. But as you go along, your smile begins to fade. You realize it’s only page 5 and you’ve blown through 30 of those little Windows ‘comments’ boxes, largely due to improper comma usage or other easy SPaG errors.

You shake it off. Typos, you assure yourself.  They'd catch these things in the next round of edits, anyway, surely…although there’s this niggling fear at the back of your mind that maybe you shouldn’t have taken their suggestions for your MS quite so seriously.

By page 15 or so, you’re beginning to feel like you’re taking crazy pills. The plot is confused, the characters one-dimensional, the writing choppy/passive/just plain bad, the dialogue cheesy/unbelievable…and you don’t know if you can power through the rest of it.  You feel like a terrible person.

From this place of guilt, you begin to wonder, “Is it me, perhaps? Am I the terrible writer? Because either this person is mangling the English language, or I am. One of us has no idea what in the blue blazes we’re doing, and needs to go back to the third grade and start over.” That thought strikes an icy lance of terror through your soul, and for a brief moment you question everything you’ve ever believed in, everything you thought you knew as a human being and a writer and an organism.

Until you remember the half-dozen other Betas whose chapters didn’t make you want to kill yourself, and who liked (or perhaps even loved) your MS. Your heart slows down a bit. No, it’s not you. You’re sure of it. There’s simply no way you suck that bad. Pity wells up within you, but it doesn’t make choking down their poorly-written literary abomination any easier.

And now that you know what kind of a writer he/she is, everything he/she said is suspect, even if their suggestions were good ones.  You panic at all the changes you made at his/her urging. Did you save a copy from before you started working with this Beta? NO???  Well, that's another three rounds of editing. 

So what do you do now? You can’t say, “I’m sorry, but your book sucks, and you need to take a writing class.” That’s just cruel, and they won’t listen to you anyway.  You want to help them, because everyone’s written something terrible, and how can we correct mistakes we don’t know we’re making? Yet often times, these are the people most resistant to helpful criticism. These are the ones who often turn nasty and defensive, sometimes sparking fights and spewing F-Bombs all over the internet. The ones who refuse to hear anything but glowing reviews of their work.

So what do you all do? Do you try to help them, or just hit the delete button and deal with feeling like a jerk for a couple of days?

(BTW, this is not in reference to anyone in particular.  I've been wanting to do a post about this for awhile now, so no one should take this personally!)


  1. I don't have much experience with betas - as I just returned to writing last year - so I don't know how to handle the question "Do you try to help them?" My gut reaction is: if their writing is that poor, you can't help without a large investment of time (if at all) AND a beta reader shouldn't be expected to teach Grammar & Spelling 101.

    As for their crit of your work, I wouldn't panic. If something had been way off base in their crit, you probably would have noticed. Even if their MS is pretty bad, that doesn't mean they aren't widely read and couldn't offer you good suggestions. I mean, do all betas have to be writers?

    Back to your beta's poorly written MS: shouldn't you have receive a polished draft? Why would anyone waste a valuable beta by submitting anything other than a polished draft (at least 2nd draft stage).

    Given how much time it takes to write a critique, I think it is fair to tell the author: "I don't think this MS is ready for a beta reader just yet because of...blah,blah,blah" and summarize the major issues. You could even include the first few edited pages as an example. You may hurt their feelings, they may react, but you would be giving honest feedback. That's what all writers really need. She/he can do with it what they will...

  2. Being a beta reader does not mean you need to become someone's writing coach.

    If the novel is clearly not polished, then the writer is not ready to have the work beta read. Explain this, and give a critique with the focus on the big issue problems (plot, pacing, character motivations).

    Once the major issues are addressed, then they should find a second beta reader to focus on the other issues. (Grammar, punctuation, spelling). I think it's asking too much for you to do all of this for one person if they are not able to return the favor with equal skill.

    And even if they are not as good of a writer, you shouldn't be afraid to place value on their comments. Writing and critiquing uses a different mindset. For example, I point out certain issues to my betas and they'll turn around and give me the same advice.


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