The Dos and Don’ts of a Favor: Beta Reader Etiquette

“You’re a writer? Me too! Will you read this?”

Depending on whom I’m talking to, this question is either a real treat for me or it’s a prompt for my inner “fuuuuuck.” Not too long ago, I got bogged down with some “obligatory” reading—promises I had made to various writers that I would critique their work in my free time. “Sure!” I said. “I’d love to, bring it on!” Boy did I learn my lesson.

Let me be clear: I LOVE helping out other writers, especially those who inspire me. But here’s a brief cautionary tale for all you writers out there who are constantly being hit up for beta reads.

It all started when a really good writer-friend asked if I would give her finished manuscript a read and get back to her with feedback. Industry peeps refer to this as a “beta read”—when a writer gives an unpublished manuscript to someone in their target audience. I said, “of course!” I loved this gal, and I enjoyed her writing despite it not being in the same genre as my own.

But then another writer very politely asked me if I’d give her first chapter a read. “First chapter? Sure!” I genuinely smiled. It felt good to have another person so interested in my feedback. And even though she handed me three chapters instead of one, I didn’t care. But then another writer approached me about her manuscript. “OK,” I said through clamped teeth. The more the merrier, right? Right guys? . . . guys?

Meanwhile, I’d been attending an Inprint workshop every Thursday, and it was very reading intensive. Every week, the mediator allowed 4 writers to submit up to 25 pages per critique. Do the math—that’s 100 pages of reading per week. Normally, this would not be an issue—after all, most writers are avid readers and we can easily blow through 100 pages of a novel in one day if the gettin’ is good—but this wasn’t that kind of reading. This was a workshop. The work was rough and typically needed to be marked up multiple times throughout the read. Lots of stopping and starting.

So there I was. Seven different writers, two manuscripts, three chapters, and four 25-page pieces comin’ in every week. And all of this while I’m still trying to come up with new material for myself. It’s no wonder I have a drug habit. Kidding! . . . sort of.

I firmly believe that all writers must dedicate half of their time to reading. But if we’re constantly shelling out favors to other writers on a regular basis, our own priorities (and personal deadlines) suffer. Also, when we’re reading a lot of other people’s writing—writing that might not coincide with our own style—it kind of fucks with our own writing, no? We’ve got all these other voices and styles (and varying skill levels) in our head, muddying the waters of our creative subconscious.

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Beta reading for others is a great thing, and having critique partners/groups is a wonderful tool. It’s crucial that we support each other and help out when we can. So here are some quick tips to avoid getting caught up in a nasty situation where your reading pile starts to resemble the closing contract on your first house.

  • It’s OK to say no. Seriously. You can always use the valid excuse of “I’d love to, but I really need to focus on my own work right now.” And if they judge you or shame you for that, then they’re not a real writer. Cause they don’t get it. Word.
  • Be aware of how much is too much. Nowadays, I only agree to 2 to 3 full manuscript beta reads per year. I dunno if that’s high or low, but I’m hoping its average because beta reads—on top of everything else I’m reading—is a lot. Respect your priorities and balance your favors.
  • Keep your beta reading and your writing separate. On a given day, pick one or the other. I’d encourage this for any type of reading/writing relationship. In my experience, it’s just a less-stressful way to work.
  • If you’re not feelin’ something, or if the writing doesn’t flow well, stop and tell them. This is tough, but it’s something we need to start practicing because we’ve all been there—you’re reading someone’s work, attempting to critique, and it is PAINFULLY tedious. Or worse, it’s so rough that you’re having to spend more time marking than actually reading. In these cases, it’s OK to get back to the writer and politely admit that you’re having trouble getting through the piece for whatever reason. Maybe you’re not the right audience. Or maybe the work is just too underdeveloped to give a solid critique. You’ve got to be honest. You’re not doing them any favors by withholding information. Master the art of being polite and supportive, but still honest. This is the heart of beta reading.
  • Be honest about your progress. When a writer reaches out to you after only two weeks, it’s tempting to lie about where you’re at in the book because you yourself have been there—waiting for that special someone to finish your book so you can talk about it and pick their brain over every detail they liked/hated. But again, you’re not doing them any favors by lying. If you’re running behind on your progress, be honest but give yourself a deadline and stick to it. The first “I haven’t read it yet” is fine, but having to say it twice sucks ass.
  • Don’t be a genre snob. I write contemporary women’s fiction, but I’d be stupid to stunt my growth by steering clear of a read just because it was suspense/thriller or magical realism. Challenge yourself. Stretch your preferences. You won’t regret it.

But hold up, writers! Just like Marlon Brando, etiquette goes both ways. When we hand over work, we’ve got responsibilities too:

  • Only send manuscripts to people who have offered and confirmed to read it. When Susie asks me about my book and then follows up the conversation with, “Wow, that’s awesome. I’d love to read it!”—that’s not an invitation, that’s just someone being nice. If I really want Susie to offer up a beta read, I’ll approach her through an e-mail so she’s not on the spot. If she says yes, GREAT. But if the e-mail goes unanswered, it’s safe to assume Susie is busy or she really was just being nice and didn’t know how else to wrap up the conversation.
  • Only send out manuscripts that are somewhat polished and reader-friendly. Beta readers are real people. They’re tired. They’re busy. And our book is not at the top of their priority list. Hell, my own husband won’t even jump to read my stuff, if anything he’ll put on a suit of armour and run away. So when people offer to read our masterpieces, make it worth their while. Give them something polished, formatted, and well-written. Sure there are going to be problems—typos, slow spots, continuity issues—but the least we can do is make sure a favor feels like a favor and not a job. Cause there’s nothing worse that trying to get through a hot mess of a book.
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  • Lastly, don’t pressure readers to finish. It’s cool to politely pop in after a few weeks—ask how it’s going—but don’t ask if they’re finished. If you’re on a deadline, you can (politely) sneak that date into the conversation, but assure them that any feedback, finished or not, is a real gift . . .
  • A true favor.