When I was brand-spankin’ new to the whole community aspect of writing, I dove into Absolute Write without having any clue how freaking frightening it would be to someone like me. No lie: it’s a scary place, but it’s packed with writing advice, people who’ve been through the trenches and back, and tons of other information that would be massively useful to any writer.
One thing that scared the hell out of me when I was still new to it, though, was this post by one of the administrators called “Why I Won’t Beta Your MS.” Of course, once I read it, I understood, but I didn’t really understand, because I hadn’t really done any beta-ing yet, except for my lovely friend Chris who was a delight to read for and who read for me as well.
Well, as with most things, with experience comes understanding, and having beta’d over 30 manuscripts in the past year (and given a lot of query/first-three-chapter crit besides), I now completely understand the urge to write a post entitled “Why I Won’t Beta Your MS.” And here’s why:
- I don’t know/read your category/genre. I read and write contemp. I also read suspense, thrillers (psychological and otherwise), literary fiction, and historical fiction. I read Adult, NA, and YA. That is it. That’s not a critique of other categories or genres by any means, it’s just the fact of what I read and what I know. So I can’t tell you if the science in your science fiction doesn’t work. I don’t know. I can’t tell you if the creatures in your fantasy are too familiar/overused, or if your plot seems derivative. I don‘t know. I can’t tell you if your voice works for MG. I don’t know. And a billion other people do know, which is why they might be perfect for you, but I am not. This is my shortcoming, to be sure, and I hope to be well-versed in more categories and genres some day, but I’m not there yet.
- You didn’t actually ask. One of the most uncomfortable things for me is when someone declares on Twitter that they’d like me to beta their ms. Not only does it make it really difficult to say no if I’d like to (which, for various reasons, sometimes I would), but stating that you’d like me to do you a favor is not the same as asking. Asking is asking. And asking should genuinely allow for the person being asked to decline. And if you just e-mail your manuscript to me without asking? I promise you will never, ever get a response.
- I’m not a cheerleader, and you’re not being honest about that being what you really want. There are a lot of frustrating things about the business of writing, but you know what’s the absolute worst? Taking the time out of your own writing to help someone else and having him or her ignore you completely. I have a full-time job and a part-time job, and I try to squeeze writing in whenever I can. “Whenever I can” is an incredibly, incredibly rare time, so when I take time away from that to send you beta notes and you completely ignore them because you actually just wanted someone to tell you your manuscript was perfect? I hate you. Like, actually hate you.
- You don’t (even attempt to) return the favor, or pay it forward. I don’t know where people got the idea it was OK to swap mss but only accept crit and never even read the other person’s, or to toss out their mss like candy but never make time to read anyone else’s, but this is the sort of behavior I feel pretty done encouraging by supporting those writers. You don’t have time to both beta and do all your writing? Guess what – neither does anyone else. (See #3.) We make time. Yes, I have lots of time to read on my long commute, but thinking notes in my head on the subway doesn’t translate to getting them to you via e-mail. I make time to do that when I get home, and the same way I’m doing it, so should you, if not for me, then for someone else. And even if I’m not going to take you up on it (and I’m probably not, if I’m being honest, for Reasons), I really do appreciate when people offer to return the favor. Because it shows a basic level of decency I find missing far too often in a sea of entitlement.
- Because I’m not your agent or editor, and I don’t have the time beyond what I’ve already given to be treated like one. If I agree to beta your manuscript, you have every right to expect that I will send you notes, as I should. I have every right to expect that you will acknowledge those notes gratefully. We can certainly discuss a bit, particularly right after I send them, but unless you’re my CP or I specifically offer, which I rarely do, I don’t want to be approached a week or a month later with more questions, or a request to read again. The truth is, I probably don’t remember your ms well enough to answer them, not because your ms is bad or boring but because by the time you’ve asked me a week later, I’ve probably read four more books/mss. Because all these reasons are why I won’t beta some mss, but:
Here’s why I will, when I will:
- Because I’ve read for you before, and you appreciate it, and you discuss my notes with me or at least act like you’re putting thought into implementing them.
- Because even though I haven’t read for you before, I know from however I know you that you are a decent person who will appreciate it and thank me for it, and think I can probably do a good job.
- Because you have beta’d mine, which I wholeheartedly appreciate. Or you’ve offered to beta mine, genuinely enough that I just might take you up on it someday.
- Because I’m the last round and you’re looking for a very, very light beta read. And I am trusting you, even though I’ve been lied to about this in the past. (See #5.)
So, when it comes down to it, yeah, I’ll still probably end up beta-ing a manuscript every week or two. But I’m going to do it for people who make me happy to do it, who make it feel like a privilege, who make me glad and grateful to be part of this community. I’ve read some truly wonderful stuff this past year, and even gotten to see some of it land agents and book deals. I could never and would never give that up for good, and I look forward to a whole lot more good news this year too. Just don’t forget to thank your betas 😉