Writing 101: The Terror of the Beta Read

by Margaret Yang

Asking someone to beta read a novel is terrifying. We ask—beg—people to take the work of our hearts and attack it with a machete. If done well, the pages come back with so much red ink on them it looks like someone mopped up after a goat sacrifice. And yet, we do it. We seek out new betas and bribe the ones we already have with coffee and chocolate. We know it’s going to hurt, but we need the lessons our beta readers will teach us. We beg for critiques because we know the only way to make a manuscript strong is to first let someone tear it apart.

As scary as receiving a critique is, it’s even scarier to give one. A beta reader never knows how a writer will take her suggestions. Will she find it helpful, or have I wasted my time? Will she understand my points, or have I made things worse? And most importantly, will she kill the messenger? I once lost a friendship over a critique. Every time I beta read, I’m afraid I will lose another one.

In a relationship so delicate and emotional, both sides need to be on their best behavior. A writer owes a beta reader her best work. It must be complete, polished, and formatted correctly. Never, never, never make your beta reader do your copy edits for you. Of course, your manuscript isn’t perfect—that’s why you’re getting a critique. But your beta knows the difference between a manuscript you’ve toiled over and sloppy work that you’ve rushed out because you couldn’t wait for feedback. Knowing you can do better, but not doing it, isn’t fair to your beta. I have returned manuscripts half-read for that reason, telling the writer that I will critique the next draft, but not this one.

A beta reader owes a writer complete honesty. But honesty comes in many flavors. A critique must be given in the gentlest of terms and only up to the edge of a writer’s vulnerability. The problem is, a beta reader never knows where that line is. I crossed that line once and it still haunts me to this day.

When I critique, I’m usually careful to point out what a writer does well along with suggestions for improvement. However, one time I was reading for an old friend. We’d been betas for each other for years and I thought we were both pros. She was in a hurry, so I rushed through the critique, pointing out the errors, skipping the flattery. After all, she knew what her strengths were, right? I didn’t need to keep spelling them out in each and every critique, did I?

Actually, I did. That writer was crushed by my negative critique, and our long history together only made it worse. She was used to me telling her all the good and bad things about her manuscripts. Pointing out only the bad must have meant it really, really stunk.

I lost a dear friend that day.

Since then, I err on the side of caution. I pour on the praise and sprinkle in the criticism. I don’t worry about being too gentle. Writers have special antennae for criticism of their work. They can zero in on the mildest comment and understand it full well.

Most of the time, my critiques are received with grace and bravery bordering on heroism. I feel closer to the friends I’ve beta read for. Like war heroes, we’ve gone through this terrifying experience together and emerged on the other side scarred, but whole. I learn from every critique I get, but I learn more—much more—from the ones I give.

About the Author
Margaret Yang is the co-author of The Caline Conspiracy and Fate's Mirror, written under the pen name M.H. Mead. Her newest novel, Taking the Highway, was just released December 1st. Margaret is a reader, writer, and parent whose true mission in life is to find the perfect slice of key lime pie.

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  1. What a great post! I gotta say, Betas are the best! Their value is priceless!

    I havent been a beta yet (though I will be when my betas are ready to ask me!)

    My main problem is finding beta readers! Every one is so busy, its just hard to find someone willing to ask for your help and give you help in return!

  2. Margaret,

    That is a wonderful post. You are a gentle, sweet, courageous soul. I'm privileged to share the occasional bite of time withchoo.

    Mrs Jones, honestly, I think folks have plenty of time, it's the fear that Margaret refers to scares 'em away from Beta-reading. I used to do it easily for fanfiction. Doing it for someone who is trying to make a livelihood out of it is a whole 'nother affair.


  3. Right up to the point of vulnerability is a good phrase. BUT I think it is unfair to pass a piece to a beta reader and tell him/her you are in a hurry. That just asks for trouble, less careful critique and yes, a lack of feedback on what's right. I find it is just as necessary to say what is right - after all you wouldn't sit with a child and show him/her what she's messing up as she knits. You'd show her/him what part of the work she/he is going well so he'll do more of it.