Will All You Sexy Beta Readers Please Stand Up?

I see you there hunched over your kitchen table, curled up on your couch, sipping lukewarm tea while reading your friend’s writing.

You didn’t even hesitate: Yes, you said. Yes, I will read your 700,000-word novel or your 700 essays or your seven-word piece of speculative flash.

Your glasses are stylish and your eyes are bloodshot. You are searching for those elements the wise TSNOTYAW podcasters are always talking about: the tension, the action, and that elusive rainbow called narrative arc.

You exist in the margins, scribbling or typing comments beside passages with the same focus and precision you bring to your own work. Your opinion has been requested and therefore, of course, you shall provide it!

There you are doling out encouraging check marks like Oprah throwing gifts, trying to assure your vulnerable writer they are good enough, smarter than they thought, and worthy of a little extra appreciation every three pages or so.

You question and suggest, never cross anything out, never hit delete. You keep track changes to a minimum. You use a pencil instead of a red pen so you can easily erase questions if they are answered a few paragraphs later.

An occasional pause is to be expected. Go ahead, take a minute to gaze off into the distance wishing you’d written this manuscript yourself or something half as good, or something twice as good, or that you could at least finish that one project you keep talking about.

But look at what a mature adult you are, a professional critique partner, a CP who can keep jealousy at bay enough to provide sincere help. You are the perfect combination of humble and self-righteous, sympathetic and pragmatic.

Wait, you are confused on page 137. You read the paragraph a few more times, then the previous pages and realize – ahhhhh – you missed something. Is that your fault or the writer’s? Neither and both, you decide, but perhaps this could be clarified?

You are but one reader, and a mere mortal, yet capable of imagining hundreds, or even millions of hyper-critical readers scattered across the land six years from now when this finally goes to print. If you don’t help to fix this draft now, you know those bookish Goodreads vultures will rip your dear friend to shreds.

Still, you are a portrait of restraint. Look at you with that extra pencil tucked jauntily behind your ear. You could copy-edit the ever-loving shit out of this WIP – typos abound, words are missing, and the punctuation is hit or miss – but you don’t because you are a person of extreme faith. You are 96 percent certain the writer or the grammar bot of their choice will catch these mistakes in later iterations.

I love how you’re wearing your softest pajamas and your most ironic socks. You know your friend will initially disagree with everything other than your check marks, probably hate you, and rue the day they invited you into their brain. You also know they’ll eventually come around and take you out for a drink. They’ll thank you alongside a thousand other people on their acknowledgments page.

It’s 2 am. Your wife/husband/partner/kid hasn’t seen you all week. You’re turning pages at triple speed. You can’t believe how it ends! You are sobbing. Your heart is full. A human you know created this out of nothing. They asked you to read it for them and you understand that the honor has been all yours. Even though it’s the middle of the night, you text the writer a whole collection of ridiculous yet sincere emojis. That’s what you’d want them to do. It’s beautiful, you type then stand up, and finally go to bed.