Are you a decent betareader?

As a writer you might’ve heard about betareaders; people willing to read your earlier drafts and give you feedback on what to improve. Writers need betareaders. They need fresh eyes on their story. Of course you can find people who would do this for a fee, but when it comes to those early stages of writing, no writer wants to pay for a professional to go over their work when they know it’s not up to a certain standard. Betareaders are the solution in those stages.  

Betareaders are people who love to read. They’ve read a lot of books and they know what they like and dislike. Because they are so well read, they know what to look for in an earlier draft of a story. They have the ability to give the feedback the writer so desperately wants to hear.

Having this ability doesn’t always mean that a betareader will follow through on that. There are betareaders who don’t want to give feedback to improve because they feel they might hurt the writer. Although it’s nice of them to take the writer’s feelings into account, it’s also not what the writer asked them to.

The writer wants to improve their writing. They can’t do that if all they hear is what good is about their story. They need to hear what doesn’t work in their story. And one way to do that is by asking for honest feedback.

How to give feedback

There are ways to give feedback and not hurt the writer’s feelings. Being decent and upfront about it is one thing. Another thing is by giving a bit of feedback to see how the writer responds to it. You don’t have to dump every single thing you disliked about the story in one message, because you are right; that might hurt the writer’s feelings.

Writers are human beings and human beings can get their feelings hurt. But the key is to see it as 2 separate beings: you have the writer (who is the professional and wants to improve their writing) and you have the person who wrote the story (who is in love with their story and wants everyone to like it). Business and personal. Direct your message to the writer, not the person who wrote the story.

Decent versus Indecent betareaders

As a writer myself I’ve been fortunate to find a few gems between the many betareaders out there. People who understand my need to selfimprove and who want my books to succeed just as much as I do. These people have a permanent place in my writer’s heart.

But I’ve also been unfortunate in meeting betareaders who have completely ghosted me after sending them my work. People who don’t respond to my messages. People who lash out when I ask them about their work after the deadline has passed. When expressing my feelings about this process, I’ve met understanding and I’ve met critique. One even suggested that it had to have been something I did for those betareaders to act that way.

Finding betareaders

To find betareaders is a pretty gruesome job. I’ve found a few writer groups on Facebook which allows me to post a message asking for betareaders. The people who respond to that, agreeing to become a betareader for me, will then get a personal message from me.

In this message I tell them a bit about my work like the number of words/pages, my expectations of them as betareaders and the deadline I have for them to keep. I ask specifically if they can get the work done before that deadline and that they inform me if something gets in the way of that. If they agree, I then send them my work and a list of questions for them to answer about the story. Things I’m a bit unsure of and I need their opinion on.

Then the waiting begins.

Getting feedback

Some betareaders get back to me before the deadline and give me solid feedback. Others give me minimum feedback within that deadline. And both I’m happy with. But there are people who don’t respond before the deadline.

Because I know there’s a time difference, I usually wait one or two days before contacting them. To give them the possibility to finish their betareading and to contact me. But when there’s nothing but silence, I ask them to give me an update. Something like this:

After sending such a message, you’ll find out whether you’re dealing with a decent or an indecent betareader. The difficult part in this for me is that it seems normal for betareaders to ghost you, or to lash out at you when you just point them on the responsibilities they themselves agreed to. Even among writers this seems normal. It’s not liked, but it’s normal.

But I have to ask: why would we accept this as normal if it’s not decent?

That’s life

Now, let me make myself very clear: I understand life can get in the way. I understand shit happens and that might take your focus of the promise you made to betaread a story. I completely understand and sympathize in this. That is why there are no hard feelings whatsoever when I ask for the initial update. But if you don’t have the common courtesy to respond to that message, when I see you’ve been online and you’ve read that message, I’ll change my mind about you. I’ll categorize you in the indecent section.

The last time this happened, I decided to contact the administrator of the group I’d found these betareaders in. I posted a message in that group to warn other writers but I kept it decent and didn’t name anyone personally. I just wanted to get out there that I found these people in that particular group and that writers need to be aware of this.
The admin brushed it off as something that ‘just happens’ and didn’t do anything about it. And my post was deleted by a moderator because it was considered selfpromotion. Of course they’re within their rights to say and do what they see fit for their group, but it doesn’t meet my standards of common decency. Needless to say, I left that group.

The key to this story is this

If things are heavy for you and you can’t keep a promise you made, the only thing you need to do is communicate about this. This goes for the writer as well, because of course they can be indecent as well (I actually wrote a blog about indecent writers). No one can force you to keep your promises, and I wouldn’t want that either. I’d like to believe all writers would feel sympathetic towards you if you just communicate about what’s been going on. You don’t need to go into details. A simple ‘I’m sorry. Due to personal reasons I can’t continue betareading.’ is enough.

That’s what I would consider the decent thing to do.

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