The Wandering Writer

by limebirdkate

The other day I heard from a friend who is new to the writing scene. She was very upset over a disappointing experience with a beta reader. She felt she wasn’t getting quality feedback and that she was working harder and investing more time on her end.

This is an all-too-common problem in beta reading or in writing groups. There are some people who are only in it for their benefit and don’t provide substantial or quality critiques in return. I told her she needed to quit the beta reading with this person and find someone else who is equally committed to helping her with her manuscript.

Her dilemma reminded me of a humorous, albeit frustrating, incident that happened in my writing group, The Five Pages.

Liz, Wendy, and I were sitting in a corner booth, ready to share our work for the evening when a man stopped by. He had seen our group meet before, found out we were writers, and wanted to know if we would read and comment on his short story.

We’re a fairly lax and open group, so we invited him to join us. He said, “Oh no, I’ll just leave it with you to read.”

It was called “First Kiss,” about six pages long. Dutifully, we read it, while he sat at the bar and downed a Bud Light. Liz, Wendy, and I spent some time critiquing it, making sure we gave him something helpful. We all found some weak word choices, punctuation issues, and a timeline problem. We found some nice bits and thought up some encouraging things to tell him.

When he returned for our thoughts, we each went around the table commenting on the things we liked.  Then we talked about the things he might consider working on.

He claimed every single girl in his writing class cried when he read it out loud. He also claimed that those in his writing class begged—begged—him to write another story. He told us he said, “I got lucky once. I’ll stop here.”

He said it was not based on anything real in his life, that he sat down, whipped it out of his head one night, didn’t even edit it.

When we asked him again if he’d like to join us for our session, he said, “No, I don’t need to look at your stuff. I just wanted to see what you thought of my story.” He took it and left.

Does anyone have an anecdote to share about their writing group or beta reading experience?


40 Comments to “The Wandering Writer”

  1. I have to say, I’ve never actually been to a writing group or had a beta reading experience. I’m WAY too frightened to get someone to read my proper work, for fear of what they’d say.

    That guy sounds like a royal twonk, get over yourself! Haha. Every single girl in his class cried! Oh gosh, pull the other one. How cheeky of him too, to just get you to read it and give nothing back. *rolls eyes*

    Anyways, thanks for sharing your experience Kate, I’m looking forward to reading other experiences in the comments!

    • Hey B,

      I had a fun time writing this, because it still makes me laugh. As annoying as it was at the time, I do look back on it as both a lesson and a tension-breaker.

      I love this British vocab! Twonk! That’s great. I know, right, every girl cried. Probably because he bored them to tears! haha

  2. What never ceases to surprise me is that half a dozen or more writers, given the identical topic, will all produce something totally different. That’s perhaps the wonderful thing about writing and the proof that there is always something new to say, because everyone has a unique perspective.

    I didn’t know it was called “beta reading” though, and hope you don’t think selfishness is predominantly a male trait – we’re not all like that, honestly.

    • Hey unpub,

      There are probably other terms for it. Beta reading can refer to two people exchanging manuscripts for a mutual critique.

      Oh no, I don’t think it’s because he was a man. I think it was because he was new to the writing scene and really wasn’t all that serious about it anyway.

      There is a man in my writing group (he came on board after this incident), and he is very considerate and generous with his time and thoughts and help. So, no worries, no man-bashing from me! 🙂

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. While anecdotal, this story is so true on many levels, Kate. I’m glad I’m not the only one who has experienced the take-and-no-give situation between writer and beta.

    When I give feedback, it’s usually freely, without prompting. I try my best to be honest and critique where I can, but I also want to be sensitive to the writer’s feelings and try to find good things about the work, too. If it has horrible grammar and punctuation, I’ll mention that they should brush up on this or that, and give some pointed examples in their work. But I’ll also mention that I found this part quite funny, or that I enjoyed so-and-so’s conversation here, or whatever.

    But, when people actively knock on my door looking for my critique, I warn them that I take writing very seriously, and I won’t hold back with the red marks. Now, I never “flame” anyone, and where I make critique, I try to give examples of what I mean when I talk about flow or description or whatever, but I don’t pull punches. And I warn them about this. If, after a few warnings, they still want my critique, I’ll take a look.

    Well, I had one person (who knows that I’ve written a lot but has never given me any feedback) ask me to look at the first 10 pages of manuscript. I went through and marked the thing up, noting where description could be fixed, perspective could be introduced, etc. I was very thorough, which I thought the writer would appreciate, since this person ASKED for my opinion. But I was also very professional about it; I didn’t degrade the writer or the work, just made suggestions about doing a bit more research (e.g., online maps) for the descriptions, and trying to show the reader what’s happening with the main character, rather than just giving three paragraphs of expository inner monologue (which I personally despise…but that’s another rant). Anyway, this person received my critique…and then proceeded to quietly bash me – and my work! – across the ‘net!

    Some people, I tell you…!

    • *Gasp*

      Mayumi, that is terrible! I am so sorry that happened to you. Something like that is unforgiveable, and I really hope that so-called writer got it back full-force. I personally think people like that are hazardous.

      It can be such a touchy situation when writers ask for critique and then aren’t happy with the results. Over the years I have learned to tread lightly with new authors because they haven’t had time to develop the thick skin that is typically required for this line of work.

      But that doesn’t mean veteran authors aren’t overly sensitive either, so it really is a risk we take when we critique work.

      I hope that you have had more positive experiences since that ugly one!

      Thanks for commenting.

    • Blimey, how awful, Mayumi! Any writer should be grateful to receive the critique you’ve described. Anyone who offers up their work for critique just wanting to receive congratulations is plain daft (and likely not nearly as strong a writer as they believe they are). Personally I’d be hugely grateful if someone put that much thought and care into critiquing my work and I know I’d take a lot from it even if there were points that I didn’t necessarily agree with.

      (Btw, I don’t have any current works-in-progress wanting critique so I’m not trying to butter you up to ask a favour! I’m just aghast by the volume of writers who miss the point of critique and the childish way yours was received).

  4. Mayumi, such an unfortunate encounter, and a common one that I’ve heard before. If you can’t accept a critique and aren’t willing to learn from it, you don’t belong in writing.

    I was fortunate to find a fabulous critique partner early in my career (the group thing always scared me off). She keeps me on the straight and narrow, and is honest but kind.

    After I got published, I taught creative writing at my community college for a while, and my students would think nothing of dumping their 300 page ms on my desk and ask me to ‘take a look and see what you think over the weekend’. I figured if the college is paying me for my writing expertise (and only my time in the classroom – I didn’t get paid for any prep work or correcting, which took hours) other people should too. So I would tell them sure, but I charge $4 a page. I mean, why not? You wouldn’t ask a hairdresser, a tailor or an accountant to ‘give me a quick haircut, take in my jacket and do my taxes’ for free, would you? Same with a writer. We’re professionals, and our time and expertise is worth something.

    Plus, charging money weeds out the people who aren’t serious about receiving professional criticism.

    Just my 2 cents! I made a ‘movie’ about why I eventually quit teaching writing, for those interested, you can check it out here:

    Nancy 🙂

    • Hi Nancy,

      This is so funny. I love that movie. I think it’s fair if you ask for payment. Critiquing is work, after all.

      Very good point about weeding out those who aren’t ready or serious. The minute people realize they have to shell out money, they take great consideration of their circumstances.

      Thanks for commenting!

  5. I also had never heard the term “beta reader” until I got into the indie publishing thing. I guess you could say I have had one beta reader – my best friend who lives in Oklahoma. I have always sent her copies of my MSS and she’s been the first to read them. She has liked most of them (not every one), but she always just gives me general impressions and some occasional proofreading but not close criticism. So I’ve pretty much always worked on my own. I’ve never done any beta reading (frankly, I don’t think I would enjoy doing that at all, even if I had time), but I did copy-edit one book and the author was pleased with the result.

    I do have one experience to share. I worked in a college accounting office at one point, and every day the Wells Fargo man brought in and picked up money. One day he was talking about this detective story he had written and how a detective fiction magazine was interesting in publishing it. He asked some of us if we would read it and tell him what we thought. So I read it and it was just awful. The man couldn’t spell or punctuate and the plot and characters were flat, cliched, and boring. If he really had had a publishing nibble, that magazine must have had pretty low standards. When he came back the next day, all I said to him was that he needed to get somebody knowledgeable to correct his spelling and punctuation. And he just looked at me like he was offended and his feelings were hurt, and he took his MS and we never heard another word about it. Obviously, all he wanted was somebody to praise his work. Sigh. Don’t we all?

    As an afternote, I presume all of you know by now that my “Termite Queen” has been published and is now available on Amazon.

    • Hi Lorinda,

      Great anecdote! Unfortunately, it’s those unskilled writers who take criticism the hardest. They are still in their fantasy world of every-word-I-write-is-wonderful. But it’s a world I think most of us have been in, one time or another.

      Congrats on your published book. Good luck!

  6. Beta reading is completely new to me, I heard the term on twitter a few weeks ago and have panicked ever since as to why I don’t have beta readers. Should I get a beta reader? Where do I find them? What does a beta reader actually do? I feel like such a nice-but-dim writer!

    • Hi Lindsey,

      Don’t panic!! A beta reader isn’t the answer for everyone, so don’t worry that you don’t have one. In my opinion, writiing groups are better than beta readers because you get a variety of eyes and ears on your ms.

      However, a beta reader is most helpful to people who can’t find a group to work with. Lots of times you can exchange work via Word documents so there is no pressure to “meet” with people. Or people are often willing to mail hard copies, you just tell them your preference.

      A beta reader basically reads and critiques your story. Depending on what you’re specifically looking for, the critique can run the gamut between flagging punctuation or typos, tracking structure, plot and character development, commenting on believability, dialogue, setting, tension, minor characters…anything really. You can ask your beta reader to focus on certain elements or ignore a chapter. It’s very flexible and informal.

      In exchange, you read his/her manuscript and give quality feedback also.

      It’s like a free critique of your work! But that’s why it is really important to scout around for someone who is a good match for your work. Be careful you don’t end up with someone who has never read fantasy and that’s your genre. They won’t be helpful critters in a case like that.

      Of course, you can always pay a professional editor/writing coach for this but you might not have the money.

      Have you stopped by the Limebird forums here? You can introduce yourself and tell about your work and say that you’re interested in a beta reader. You might get a bite. There are other writing forums out there that you can peruse too.

      Check out these links that I wrote a few months back about writing groups/forums/beta reading, etc.

      Let me know if you have any more questions! I’m happy to help point you in the right direction.

  7. That’s unfortunate for your friend. In any beta reading or writing group experience, there has to be give and take or it has to be win-win. For someone to take time to do a beta read, the reader has to gain something from it, be it learning how to critique or give feedback or perhaps having their work critiqued in return. I would get frustrated too if I were investing time to provide quality feedback and wasn’t receiving the same in return.

    • Hi Buddhaful,

      Yeah, she was pretty bummed. But I think she’ll find someone who is a better match. Unfortunately, it is a lesson we all go through in one sense or another. It helps remind us how important our comments and suggestions are, and even better, if we’re really good at it. I know I always get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I know I’ve helped re-direct a writer or pointed out how wonderfully showy she wrote a particular chapter. It’s gratifying, you feel like you’re contributing in some way.

      Thanks for commenting!

  8. What a twonk-bag! Clearly insecure as deep down he knows he’s a twonk-bag and trying to cover it up by acting, “Like totally awesome.” “I had them in tears?” …of laughter? Embarrassment?

    I’ve recently had a bad experience with a critique partner who I met from ladies who critique. We exchanged the first three chapters of our novels in January and critiqued each other’s work, which I think we both found very useful. We then exchanged more of our work – me the next c.18,000 words of my book; her the next 60,000 of hers so a big difference in workload already. I laboured over her novel, adding copious notes even though I was repeating things that I’d said based on the first three chapters (for example her teen characters were constantly making references to eighties pop culture, which was clearly the writer’s reference-point rather than the protagonists’; and trying to find polite ways to make critique such as some of her characters, particularly the ‘English’ one felt like a parody based on stereotypes rather than a believable character). I did struggle to get through it as it needed a lot of work, but spent a lot of hours working on it because I wanted to do a good job…I then spent the next couple of months chasing every few weeks (so I wasn’t being too pushy) to see how she was getting on with mine. The first couple of times she said how bad she was feeling because she hadn’t got round to it, but then she just went silent and I never heard from her again!

    It obviously made me feel as if my own writing was so terrible she couldn’t even bring herself to plough on with reading through it, so it personally hurt and shook my confidence, but I also have a very strong moral code and if I commit to something I see it through, so I was stunned that she was so discourteous and inconsiderate. I left ladies who critique over it. I just wish her book hadn’t been so rubbish so I could have at least gained something from it!

    Phew, feels quite good to have had a little moan about her – I hadn’t really bothered before! I think it’s just one of those cases where some people are just not very nice!

    • Sally, I think you have just stated quite clearly why I have no intention of ever doing any beta reading! I don’t have the time to waste!
      I was interested in your remarks about teenagers using the wrong lingo for the period of the book. I would be terrible at that. That sort of thing is one of the reasons I like to set my books either in a later century or on a different planet! There are two ways to approach that – you can either manufacture a lot of “new slang” – something I’m not that great at but do attempt at times – or use neutral colloquial English that won’t suggest any particular period. I also have my 30th century characters use “old” slang that’s recently been rediscovered and has become trendy. One thing I did was to completely cut out the expression “OK.” While it’s become pretty standard, I can’t believe it will survive the Second Dark Age and persist into the 30th century. I also never say “computer.” A computer terminal is called a “port.”
      I also cringed a little bit at your criticism of the British character. I also have a British character; my male protaganist in “Termite Queen,” has Welsh roots – born in “Kardif” (30th century spelling) and spent the first 10 years of his life there, then moved to South Africa, then returned for university at “Oxkam” (Cambridge was bombed out of existence, unfortunately, during the Dark Age, so Oxford and Cambridge were combined into one university and one name). I try to make Griffen sound English without going overboard. I hope I succeeded. If any of you ever reads my book, I’d be interested in your opinion.

      • I beta reading has real value, but my learning from this is next time to go with someone who I’ve met through the blogging world who I feel a know to some extent and can trust!

        With the lingo it is a general learning. I think different writers can approach it in different ways – your way sounds like it really fits your book. I wouldn’t be too paranoid about your British character either – I’ve read lots of British characters written by US authors and they’ve felt authentic, this particular writer just missed the mark due to a range of reasons!

        Are you releasing your book as an e-book? I’m afraid I can’t stretch to price at the moment, particularly as I’ll need to add shipping to that but I’d like to download it to my kindle if you’re offering that as a lower cost option at any stage.

      • Well, shucks, to use a Southern American expression! But I’m glad you want to read my book! Yes, I do plan to do a Kindle version, but I have one more problem with those cotton-pickin’ (yet another Southernism!) permissions. I have several epigraphs that use Robert Graves quotations, and the e-rights for Graves are held by a different publisher from the print rights. I put in a request three and a half weeks ago and they wrote back that it could take 2-3 weeks. I do hope they come through – I’m tired of hassling about this stuff. In the meantime, I want to see how many copies I can sell of the paperback because it alone will have the correctly formatted conlang, and of course the really striking color-printed cover. But ultimately I do intend to have a Kindle version.
        I was told several months ago that Amazon didn’t market print backs in the UK. Is that still true? I know that Kindle books are available through

    • Oh my goodness, Sally! That is horrendous. I have been there, actually a VERY similar experience. I didn’t write about it in this post because I didn’t want to overshadow “Man-Who-Makes-Girls-Cry” lol

      I will have to post about it later and reference your experience because just hearing you rehash that made me shake with uncontrollable anger!! What a bitch. Sorry, if I offend anyone but that is one of the worst things any writer could do to another (like screwing them over the net, poor Mayumi).

      I’m glad you took the opportunity to get it off your chest. That’s a load to deal with, and you are so right in being upset. But don’t you dare think it was because your writing was unbearable. I don’t think that was it. In fact, I’m more inclined to think the opposite.

      Someone like her who is obviously not a skilled writer was probably intimidated by your writing talent. She couldn’t critique it because she knew that this wonderful Sally P author is in the midst of reading her crap. I really think that’s what happened. There was no comparison, so she bailed. I’ve seen writers in groups totally buckle when they are in the presence of better writers, so I could totally see something like that having happened in your situation.


      • Oh you’re so sweet! I’m guessing she just took on more than she had time to deal with and wasn’t mature enough to be straight with me, but your explanation is a lot more flattering to the ego! The big up-side is that I never sent her my critique because I was waiting for her to get back to me, so I did have my little protest at her treatment – the gain to me was minimal as I’d already put in all the work, but it was definitely a consolation! I also managed to not be unkind and say anything mean to her about her writing (even if I did think it!), which as you can see in my comment I have been slightly immature about now (“it was rubbish”), but, oh, how cathartic it was (and true…oops, did it again)!

    • Haha, Sally we both used twonk to describe him! 😛

  9. My partner is my beta reader. She doesn’t always ‘get’ it (particularly if it is science fiction) but she has a great eye for inconsistencies etc.

    Now horror, if she suggests something then I seriously consider it, as she reads horror continually and knows what works!

    As for “Every single girl in his class cried!” Maybe he should invest in mouthwash, it could have just been their eyes watering!

    • Hi Dennis,

      That’s awesome. And what a great arrangement. She can get around the technical aspects of Sci Fi to get to the heart of the writing. And really, that’s what matters most.

      Haha, I know. Even as he said it, I had it in my head that they couldn’t have been crying because it was any good…gracious. Just the fact he said something like that goes to show how insecure he really is about it. It’s too bad that he brushed us off, because if he ever does follow through with it he is going to get one rude surprise.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  10. I’ve never had any experiences like this, but jeeze what a great guy, eh? Seems he’s a bit full of himself.

    And after reading the comments I now have more fun words to add to my vocabulary – royal twonk, and twonk-bag.

    • Hi Laura, yes just a tad bit full of himself. Haha, I know, right! I love twonk. I need to use it at some point today I think…

  11. I was part of an online critique group for about 2 years. I found that, by and large, others were much more interested in getting detailed critiques than in giving them. I was dedicated to giving my all of any critique I offered, earning a lot of respect in the groups I belonged to (they gave me nice feedback on my critiques). When it came time to critiquing my work, however, only 2 or 3 people would spend the time and attention to give me an equally thorough critique. Most feedback I got was flattering and not at all helpful with just as many words it took to get the “points” needed to submit another chapter for critiquing.

    I guess I was in the minority because I really cared about improving the craft of writing for everyone and most cared about getting published for themselves. I felt like a socialist in a capitalist country!

    • Hi Lorna,

      It can be a very frustrating experience. I can imagine how you must have felt, knowing how obvious it was that those people were only doing enough to get by. Aargh!

      I am currently in a group that is committed, but we have had our rough patches. Luckily, we could work past the differences and move forward. But I think you hit the nail on the head. Writers who are serious and dedicated to improving their own writing are the ones who will work harder for their cohorts.

      Writing might be a solitary experience, but only to an extent. We need each other in one way or another to refine our craft.

      Thanks for commenting!

  12. Gosh I can’t stand that; take, take, take!
    That’s what I love about the community I’m finding online; its just not like that.

    I’m still learning the critique skills, but when I visit my writing group its as valuable being able to give feedback as it is to receive it. Its a two way street that helps everyone and that’s why I love the group so much; everyone knows and appreciates that.

    I did some beta reading for a Twitter follower and tried my absolute hardest to give him something constructive to work with because that’s what he needed. That’s what he asked for in a beta reader. I’ve got a couple of folk reading through my WIP and I know I’ll get the same treatment. Doesn’t it help us all to learn and grow and improve?

    • Hi Ileandra,

      I agree. I feel very fortunate to have found a wonderfully supportive community online as well. It can really take the sting out of some of the experiences I have elsewhere.

      You seem to have found the best way to give critique–by joining a group and learning hands-on. You can learn a lot from watching/reading how other writers do it. Eventually you will find your own rhythm and style and master it! 🙂

      Sounds like you’re definitely headed in the right direction and that you have found some really good partners to work with. That can only help you in the long run.

      Thanks for commenting.

  13. Wow, that’s an unfortunate experience. I had a friend about a month ago that opted to be my beta reader. Even though she doesn’t hope to write for a living, she is an incredible writer and gave me a lot of feedback that has really helped me. I could see how not having a good beta reading experience could have people shy away from the experience though.

    • Hi Amelia,

      Exactly. When you’re lucky enough to be in the middle of a positive experience, it will foster a strong sense of what to do vs. what not to do for future projects. Sounds like you have a great arrangement with your friend. That’s awesome.

      Negative experiences can be very damaging to the ego, esp. for newbie writers who really don’t know what they’re getting themselves into.

      Thanks for commenting!

  14. Thankfully I have no horror stories to report! Helping each other with our writing should be something we enjoy doing. The feedback from objective readers is invaluable. And it should go without saying that the critique should be given honestly and respectfully between both parties.

    Unfortunately, many new writers don’t realize that even the most delicately phrased feedback can sting if they don’t recognize that the first draft (and even later ones!) is not perfect.

    Taking that leap of faith and letting someone else review one’s work can be scary. But I think it’s something serious writers need to do before submitting a short work to a magazine or a novel/work of nonfiction to an agent. You may not incorporate every suggestion from a beta reader—and I wouldn’t run to my manuscript and start changing things the day I received feedback. But give those comments time to sink in, and I think we’ll significantly improve our drafts into the final polished work.

    Good readers are worth their weight in gold. So for anyone who’s nervous about the process, I would definitely recommend finding someone (or several someones) you can work and share with.

    • Hi JM,

      Well said. At some point all writers need someone else to review their work. And it really should be someone who has a writing background and who is objective and has an eye for detail and inconsistencies. I used to think it was better to have someone who reads in the same genre that you write is important too, but over time I decided that a wide range of feedback is really what a writer needs.

      That being said, you don’t want to corner yourself in with readers who can’t relate to your work at all, no matter how skilled they are at critiquing. If there is no connection between your ms and your critter then the feedback isn’t going to hold much water.

      Thanks for commenting!

  15. Grrr – in my reply to Sally I obviously meant “print books,” not “print backs,” in the last paragraph! The fingers don’t always follow the brain!

    • Ha-ha, I thought it was a technical term! I don’t know, but I don’t see why would be different to .com. All the best with the book and fingers crossed those rights come through.

  16. Wow horror story, he has let his wirter karma go! If you get someone to read your work you really need to re-pay the favour. I haven’t been to a writer group but shared things with writers I’ve met online. It can be so helpful when it works right!

    • Hi Victoria,

      Absolutely. If a writer can’t be willing to repay the favor, then it is not going to bode well for him/her down the road. And the same is true online. People have long memories when it comes to stuff like this.

      Thanks for commenting.

  17. Sometimes it’s difficult to find a beta reader who works well with one’s style. It’s definitely a personality thing. There’s also a spectrum of how much digging, renovating, and/or polishing each writer truly wants, and when. If someone gives me a suggestion, I interpret that as he/she cares enough to want to help. (Even if the suggestion isn’t always what I’m going for, I do treasure the feedback.)

    From a writer’s perspective it’s such a high to be given praise for writing something someone thinks is good! It’s a compliment to your mind. It’s not like a pair of shoes or a haircut. It goes deeper.

    Recently, I worked with a great, but new, writer to help her edit a short. I made corrections and suggestions. She had some fun ideas, a great vocabulary and a lovely knack for imagery. I told her so. She sent the second draft to me in minutes, telling me she was in a rush. She’d added new content where I’d given suggestions, but hadn’t made many of the corrections. I knew then we weren’t compatible. I tried to be gentle about it. She wasn’t a bad writer at all; she just needed a beta who was happy to be a sounding-board. I’d spent a lot of time on the first draft, and I wasn’t going to torture myself by not feeling appreciated for the attention I give to details.

    This came directly after helping a writer on a twenty-something chapter story. She and that story taught me so much about the give and take of having a good critiquing relationship. I think it’s important, when choosing a beta or choosing to beta, to say, “We will give this a try. If it doesn’t work, it’s okay. We each have our own style and approach.”

    • Hi Rilla,

      That’s a great example of a beta-read-gone-wrong. I think you were smart to get out of that as quickly as you did. I find that the more we invest ourselves with writers and their work, the harder it is to walk away. The whole idea behind a beta read or exchanging work with other people or helping other writers is that it is a two-way street. I think too many writers are selfish and forget that they have to give back if they want to still receive.

      Yes, I like your last sentence. It’s a perfect way to get out gracefully.

      Thanks so much for commenting.

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