Monday, September 17, 2012

Wordcraft --Living la vida beta

It’s official. I’m a beta reader. Been one for years without knowing it. But recently a friend who asked me to read her not yet published novel called me a “beta reader.” I’d heard other writing friends referring to their beta readers, of course, and pictured swarms of adoring pre-publication readers schooling around them like fish.

(Which I hope explains using Jon Hanson’s picture to illustrate this post. Plus, I really like his schooling fish. Click on the illustration to see more of his work.)

Back to betas -- an online definition of a beta reader is someone who “reads a work of fiction with a critical eye, with the aim of improving grammar, spelling, characterization, and general style of a story prior to its release to the general public.”

So those of us in writing workshops, critique groups -- beta readers, all. And after years of being a beta, even an unknowing one, I’ve compiled a list of things to do -- or not to do -- as a beta reader.

-- Critique as you would be critiqued is the first one and most important commandment. I promise to point out something good about every story I read. And if anything needs fixing, I’ll do my best to be gentle.

-- Don’t harp on eccentricities of spelling, punctuation or grammar. That’s an editor‘s job. An editor who gets paid, unlike us betas. (Although if these things are consistently causing trouble, I’ll mark one or two examples. Then I’ll shut up. Promise.)

-- The next commandment is like unto the previous one. Instead of focusing on the little stuff, look at the big stuff -- character, story arc, originality.

-- Respond to the writer’s specific requests. People often ask whether they’ve set up conflict, whether they’ve explained things enough, or too much. Address these issues.

-- Except when the writer’s request is an invitation to gratuitous cruelty. One writer asked me to tell him at what page in his manuscript I lost interest. This is a workshop
exercise I wish would go extinct. (See “Gonged for a good cause,” on this topic, May 21, 2012). Such requests make me think the writer is looking for a quick fix to a problem. But a loss of interest at the fifth page or the fiftieth doesn’t mean the author wrote brilliantly that far and then flopped. As Dan Decker explains in his Anatomy of a Screenplay, the cause of a problem lies further back than the actual page at which it becomes obvious. (See “Bones of a novel, part I,” October 12, 2011, and “The bones of a novel, part II,” October 19, 2011, on this site for ways to solve this problem.)

-- Bring a dose of humor to the table. Not humor at another’s expense, but the kind that reminds you, this too shall pass. For writer and reader.

-- Leave room for your own commandments -- and share them with us!

This is a busy week for me as a beta reader. While reading a complete novel and a chapter or two of works in progress for a novel-length workshop, I also found more than a dozen short stories, novel first chapters, and outlines in my inbox for next weekend’s workshop at the FenCon science fiction/fantasy convention in the Dallas suburb of Addison. I’ll try to follow my own advice.


Want to get your writing in front of a big publisher without going through an agent? For two weeks only, starting October 1, Harper Voyager, the science fiction and fantasy imprint of HarperCollins, will accept unagented manuscripts at

The imprint is looking for adult and young adult speculative fiction for digital publication, especially in the epic fantasy, science fiction, urban fantasy, horror, dystopia and supernatural genres. See submission guidelines and additional information at the site.

Thanks to Debbie Waller, FenCon Writers Workshop Coordinator, for sharingthe information!


  1. You sound like a fabulous beta-reader, Melissa. They say that you learn a lot from beta reading other's works. Thanks for all the tips.

    1. Probably learned more from the writers than they have from me!