• Ejuen Armstrong

Why Beta-Reading Friends and Relatives are a No-No

You're desperate for a beta reader – someone to look over your completed manuscript and tell you what works and what doesn't. You've asked your work colleagues. Those strange people across the street.The cat next door. Each and every one of them gave you an emphatic no. Now there's just one choice left. Ok, two. A friend.Or a relative. So you approach one of them and ask the dreaded question. “I've just finished writing this book. Would you be willing to look over the final manuscript for me?”

They grin from ear to ear. “No problem! Love to!”

Whoo! Well, that was easy.

Sadly, what's even easier is grouping beta readers who happen to be your friends or relatives. They will invariably fall into at least one of the categories below, and quite a few more that hide in both the shadows and in plain sight.

Ok, let’s start grouping…

Sure! As soon as I ...

They've got your hard copy manuscript and email attachment. Two days later, they email or text you. (Pay careful attention to this method of communication.) They've not had time to look at your book yet, but they willpromise. Just as soon as they've finished their current reading of the entire collection of every Greek philosopher ever born.

The next time you see or hear from them again will be because someone close to both of you has died, and there's a will to be read.

The Heartbreakers

Your book is the best thing they've ever read! A masterpiece! They loved a, b and c. Z was evil.What does this response mean?

It means they love you, not your masterpiece. They are so in awe of having a 'writer' amongst their connections, you could write cardboard – literally c-a-r-d-b-o-a-r-d – and they'd think it was a grand opus.

As any honest agent or publisher will tell you, these people mean well, but the truth, you can't trust them as far as you can throw them. They'll drive you into therapy and substance addictions.

Edward Scissor-Eyes

ESEs will tear your work to shreds, ignoring all the good bits. Actually, they didn't see any good bits. Whatever made you think you could write?

If you're lucky, this last statement may be left unsaid, but it remains implicit in the sneer accompanying their every word. Ten years later, you hear passing news of their death. Passing, because the two of you haven't spoken since that day.

Lost in Translation

They read it, but they didn't get it. They have nothing more to offer. Other than it was … very clever. And poetic. You're obviously a very clever and poetic writer. You must be – because they didn't understand a word that was written. Did anyone else understand what it was about? They’re sure you’re a very clever writer. Yes, clever … that must be it.

Some months later in a slip of the tongue, you realise these people were simply jealous of you. It’s too late – by that time you’ll have knotted yourself into a neurotic pretzel trying to make sure they understand every word you write. Ok, just me then…

The Die-hard Competitor

If your write stories with a twist – never let these people see it. In the midst of a social gathering, they bring up your book, giving everyone within earshot a loud summary of your story, and consequently an invitation to pull the plot to pieces. Even more loudly, they announce they'd be happy to help you re-write it.

Fair but Firm

Ah, here's a professional. One of your peers – another writer. You get honest, fair, constructive criticism. There's just one problem. You hate it. They obviously don't have a clue about writing. And anyway their own work sucks. You let them know it. You'll both feel the mutual resentment – nay, hatred – for the rest of your conjoined lives. Or at least until the day you revisit your work and realise they were right – it was utter cack.

The Twist at the End

You are in a group of friends listening to the latest offering by another writer. They’re raving about it; and you feel a twinge of envy. But as you listen to the plot, the characters, the setting, your sense of envy turns to uneasiness. There’s a tiny frisson of déjà vu. Your frisson turns into an avalanche. You’re so angry you can only think of French terminologies. Because your envy is misplaced: you can write like this. You’ve been standing listening in awe to your own work. And yes, there are times when somebody does want to steal your idea!

The Hustler

Your story is great: they adore it. You feed off their positivity, honing your characters at their suggestions. They've been absolutely sharing that writing journey with you.

Three months later you find the manuscript you gave them exactly where they left it. In your home, buried amongst your own collection of world literature; dumped in the corner where they were sitting when you gave it to them. And suddenly, it hits you that during all their critique, not once did they initiate the name of a single character or analyse a single scene. Like a sham psychic, they were simply feeding off your prompts.

Complete and utter timewasters. Forget them. Just like they 'forgot' your manuscript.


The lesson is, if you want a long-term reliable beta reader, find someone who likes reading the kind of work you write and who's never previously seen your work. Who isn't a friend or relative. Check out social media, relevant forums on your genres. Otherwise, taking short cuts will bring you right back to where you started: “Hey Great-Aunt Mel, I've just finished writing this book. Would you be interested in critiquing it for me? ”

#critique #betareader #writing

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