Beta-Reading 101

I belong to a writing critique group, and I recommend that any serious writer do the same. A good critique group will give you honest feedback that will help you hone your craft.

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One of the things you must learn, however, is how to actually give a critique. It’s not enough simply to correct a couple of typos and give a vague “It’s good.” Here are some hints to make you an ace at beta-reading for your peers.

  • Don’t just dish it outalways offer to critique in reply. It’s just not fair to expect another writer to take the time to help you out if you’re not willing to return the favor.
  • Take small steps – instead of sending your entire manuscript, just swap a chapter, or a specific number of words (my critique group tries to keep our submissions under 5,000). This saves everybody from an overwhelming task if they dislike the writing – and you can always ask for more if you end up loving it.
  • Set a limit – pick a deadline for critiques and stick to it. It’s also not fair to dawdle over a critique for weeks and weeks. Decide ahead of time when the critiques are due and be sure you honor the deadline.
  • Read with a red pen – as you skim over the work, make note of anything that leaps out at you (typos, misplaced commas, run-on sentences, etc.). This sort of thing will eventually be caught by a professional editor, but why not help the author create the best manuscript they possibly can?
  • One more time – once you’ve gotten past the obvious errors, read the sample again with an eye for more subjective problems. Check continuity and flow. See if the dialogue comes across as realistic and character-specific. Look for spots where the story drags or heads off on a tangent. Read with an editor’s eye.
  • Be specific – avoid the totally un-helpful “I love it” just as much as you refrain from saying “This sucks.” List the exact spots where you love their writing – or hate it – and then explain why you feel so. Give them something to compare the rest of the work to, or something to correct and a helpful hint on how to do so.
  • Make a sandwich – the best way to deliver criticism is to say something positive before you point out a problem, then end on another positive note.

If you try to be a fantastic beta-reader, you’ll not only create a grateful author (or authors), but you’ll show others how it’s done so that your future critiques will be more helpful as well.

Writing Advice: The Top 10

When you’re a writer, everybody you know seems to have some bit of wisdom for you – most of it wrong. Here are 10 of the best tips I’ve ever gotten:


  1. Give yourself permission to write a piece of crap. The number one reason for “writer’s block” is fear – fear of writing poorly or fear of having “nothing to say.” Just allow yourself to write something – anything! – and tell yourself it’s OK if the thing stinks. You can always cut it out later. Just keep writing. Many an author has gotten to the end of their first draft and said “Crap, now I see how to tell this story!” Don’t waste time getting to that point. Just get it written.
  2. Write what you know. It’s overused, yes, and many people misinterpret this, but it’s great advice nonetheless. “What you know” means several things: what you’ve directly experienced, what you’ve learned from watching another’s experiences, and what you’ve researched and learned. Trust me – if you’ve done enough research, you definitely know that subject.
  3. Write like you speak. Don’t try to make your words sound like “real writing.” Your readers will be turned off by your stilted and stuffy sentences! Instead, allow your unique voice to come through. Imagine that your biggest fan is sitting next to you, and just type what you’d say to them as you tell your story.
  4. Keep it short. It’s tempting to go on and on about a subject, or to try too hard to give the reader the perfect mental image of a scene. Get to your point quickly, and use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
  5. Cut the cliches. A cliche is something that has been said or written so often that your brain skims right past it without noticing it. That’s not what you want from your readers. Try to consciously discover new ways to describe familiar things or events. If anything you’ve written sounds familiar, change it.
  6. Write less, not more. As you grow as a writer, you’ll learn that your biggest chore is not writing that draft – it’s editing the damn thing! One of the points to keep in mind as you write, and as you edit, is “less is more.” You want to pare your writing down to the bare minimum needed to tell your story. Cut the elaborate descriptions and unnecessary scenes. If it’s not absolutely essential, it doesn’t need to be there.
  7. Keep reading. Not only will you see what’s working in your genre, but you’ll learn almost without your realizing it from the professionals – how a good sentence sounds, how to capture an audience, and how to keep a good story going.
  8. Keep something on the back burner. Always have something you can work on cooking away in the background. If you get stuck on a plot point in your novel, switch to a short story, an article, a blog, or even another novel. Don’t stop working.
  9. Remember the trick. Writing is a magic show – you’re showing the reader only what you want to show, trying to trick them into thinking you’re going one way, then surprise them by heading in the opposite direction. Keep this in mind as you write, and it’ll be easier. This isn’t lying – the reader expects a good show! – it’s a necessary part of storytelling. In order to accomplish this trick, you’ll need your bag of tools: grammar, spelling, storytelling technique, and everything that makes you a writer instead of someone who just sits down in front of a keyboard every now and then. Get up on that stage and wow ’em!
  10. How do you get to Carnagie Hall? As with everything else, the answer is practice, practice, practice! If you don’t write every day, you’re not going to grow as a writer. Unplug the internet, switch off the cellphone, shut your office door – whatever you need to do in order to get the job done. Set a daily word count and keep it, even if it’s only a few pages or a thousand words. So long as you’re writing, you’re improving.


Characters: Public vs. Private

Everyone has a public side that they show to everyone, and a private side that is only shown to their most intimate friends (and sometimes, not even to them!). So what about your characters?

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There is a difference between a character trait and a character persona. Your characters, just like real people, will have certain traits that they wish to keep hidden. They have certain facets of their personality that they will strive to disguise. And that can give you a great source of conflict and tension.

Think about people you know: the beefy muscle-man who’s petrified of needles, the soccer mom who runs marathons, and the bespectacled professor-type who’s a secret underwear model. Don’t we all have our hidden sides? Shouldn’t your characters have one as well?

Give your characters some secrets, preferably ones that they either don’t want known, or that aren’t immediately obvious. Perhaps they’re battling their own dislikes when they serve at that soup kitchen line, or perhaps that jock would really rather be reading a good book instead of making that basket.

The fun of a good story is finding characters who seem to leap off the page, and they can’t do that if they’re just cardboard cut-outs.