Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Be a Better Beta Reader Series: Nana Lovesitall and the rest of the Gang

One of my favorite things about being a writer is being part of a critique group. I love having a circle of people I can trust to set me straight when I’ve gone astray and pat me on the back on the rare occasion when it’s warranted.

As anyone who has participated in a critique group knows, you sometimes run into some interesting characters, and not all of them are equally beneficial to the writing process. Here are some of the characters I’ve come across (or have occasionally been … oops!) in the last few years and some thoughts on how to make the most of their feedback.

Let me be clear before I launch into discussing some of the less-than-stellar characters who you might find in a group -- I adore my critique partners and they have improved my writing ten-fold. These characters are stereotypes based on minor aspects of multiple people, including myself. None are digs at any one person.


CHARACTER: Nana Lovesitall

Just look at that sweet face!

QUOTE: “You are the best writer! Really, sweetheart, this was the best story. I wouldn’t change a thing. You’re just amazing.”

DRAWBACKS: Nana rarely has any suggested changes to discuss, but she’s very enthusiastic and kind. Most of us want to believe that we’re doing a good job. It can be easy to ignore valuable (but maybe not so positive) critiques from other partners if there’s someone telling you that everything is perfect just the way it is. Unfortunately, even Nana’s praise falls short because it’s generally vague and generic.

BENEFITS: Everyone needs a cheerleader!

THE TRICK: To get the most from Nana’s critiques, compare them to the overall response of the whole group. If it seems like Nana is the only one who doesn’t have a problem, put her critique in a safe place and pull it out to soothe your bruised ego AFTER you’ve tackled the problems the other group members have pointed out.


CHARACTER: One-note Willy

QUOTE: “I know I bring this up a lot, but I’d like to discuss your choice of setting for this story…”

DRAWBACKS: Willy seems to have tunnel vision when critiquing. I’ve known a few Willies. One could only talk about the length of the sentences within each story and their effect on the reading level of the piece. Another can’t avoid pointing out passive verbs. (Okay, that last one is me. When I am rushing, that’s pretty much all I see.)

BENEFITS: Through virtue of sheer repetition, One-note Willy generally knows what he’s talking about … when it comes to that one thing.

THE TRICK: I suspect that there is an element of Willy in all readers. We all have that one error that just leaps off the page at us. If you know which of your critique partners is most apt to notice repetition (or POV issues or plot holes or sloppy grammar) then you know which person to go to when you need help with that particular problem.


CHARACTER: Bob the Bully

A total jerk.

QUOTE: “This is the worst description of a character I’ve ever read. You must not be very smart if that’s how you think people talk. Don’t quit your day job.”

DRAWBACKS: Bob is a jerk. His comments consist of personal attacks and unnecessarily aggressive opinions. Obviously, it’s hurtful to hear abusive comments. Even when you cognitively recognize that they are inappropriate and unhelpful, it’s difficult to avoid internalizing them.

BENEFITS: It’s good practice for when you’re a famous author and critics are tearing you apart in the New York Times?

THE TRICK: Honestly, it’s hard to deal with Bob. Best case, the rest of your group sticks up for you and he gets ousted. Worst case, you identify him as a bully and use his critiques to line the birdcage.



CHARACTER: Sensitive Sally

QUOTE: “Ohhh, I had to stop reading your story after the first page. It was so violent!”

DRAWBACKS: Sally has a hard time with violence. And profanity. And sex. And soooo many other things you wonder how she manages to live in this modern world. Unfortunately, conflict has to come from somewhere and often that means anger, violence or sex, not necessarily in that order. If Sally can’t read your story, she can’t give you feedback. Worrying about what Sally will think might even cause you to self-censor.

BENEFITS: There are Sensitive Sallies out in the real world. If you want to end up on a best-sellers list, you’re going to have to understand a wide audience. Sally can give you perspective you might not have for yourself.

THE TRICK: Keep in mind that what Sally chooses to read or not read has no influence on what you must write or not write.


Honestly, I can forgive this lady
for not reading my submission!

CHARACTER: Skimming Kimmy

QUOTE: “Sorry I’m late! The traffic was horrible and I’ve had SUCH a busy week!”

DRAWBACKS: Kimmy is too busy to read the submissions and it shows in her generic feedback. Generic feedback is not helpful.

BENEFITS: I’ve been thinking about this for some time and I just don’t see a benefit to this kind of beta-reader. I guess maybe, like Silent Sam below, you don’t have to feel bad if you run out of time before you critique her submission.

THE TRICK: Don’t expect much. Maybe you’ll be pleasantly surprised one day? I dunno. These folks eventually stop coming to the group.



QUOTE: “ … “

DRAWBACKS: Sam is really only in the group because he needs beta readers for his own work. He might make a couple of half-hearted notes on your story, but usually doesn’t have much to say. It can be frustrating to put time and effort into critiquing someone else’s work knowing that they aren’t going to return the favor.

BENEFITS: When you’re running short on time, you don’t have to feel bad about skipping Sam’s stuff.

THE TRICK: All of the groups I’ve been in have had rules about this kind of thing. Silent Sams tend to weed themselves out of the group once they realize they won’t be allowed to submit if they aren’t going to reciprocate. Make sure your group has clearly established participation expectations.


CHARACTER: Tammy the Former Teacher 

"So, you see ... "
(yes, I used to be a teacher ... why do you ask?)

QUOTE: *launches into 10 minute explanation of the difference between there and they’re because you made a typo.*

DRAWBACKS: Tammy treats everyone as though they’ve only just learned to hold a pencil. She assumes that all mistakes come from lack of understanding and she’s hell-bent on helping everyone learn. She tends to drone on and each time a new member joins, you’ll get to hear the same old lectures all over again.

BENEFITS: Sometimes Tammy manages to share information you don’t already know. Learning is good! Also, you can get some writing in while she’s talking … and talking … and talking.

THE TRICK: It’s helpful to have a timer going during critiques to keep everyone, not just Tammy, from rambling on too long. Most of the time when I come across a Tammy, I just make strong eye contact, smile and nod, and thank her for her information. She means well.


Soooo clueless.

CHARACTER: Clueless Clyde

QUOTE: “Wait … so Biscuit was the dog? Ooooohhhh. I totally didn’t get that.”

DRAWBACKS: Clyde gives such inane feedback and so clearly has missed the whole point of your story that you end up biting holes in your tongue to keep from shouting “Of course Biscuit is the dog, you ninny! The whole story hinges around this dog!”

BENEFITS: Sadly, there are a lot of Clueless Clydes in the world. The Clyde in your group can help you identify the scenes they are likely to misunderstand or the plot points they are going to miss.

THE TRICK: Like a canary in a coal mine, Clyde can give early warning that something isn’t working for your readers. Also like a canary, you don’t want to rely too strongly on Clyde’s advice for much else. He’s not going to have good suggestions on how to develop your main character, Biscuit, if he thought she was the daughter of the divorcing couple instead of their dog.


Do you recognize some of your critique partners in the characters I’ve described? Do you recognize yourself? Have I missed a character you interact with regularly? Tell me about them in the comments! 


  1. I see that I have been a Nana

    1. Yes, but that's what your parents are supposed to do! :) I have plenty of people telling me what's wrong with my writing. You're one of my cheerleaders. <3

  2. I like the 'names' here-made me laugh. How about the Wrong Genre Johns? I found that a reader who does not like/appreciate/read your genre will have flat feedback. Fortunately, I have never run into Bob the Bully, but I have met a few Silent Sams. My groups mates have been fantastic!

  3. I've been in several writing groups, and they were all great. But I've never gotten the hang of critiquing well. You don't usually get the very beginning of people's work, and how can you tell anything about character development or plot holes, etc. from a few pages in the middle? I can copyedit or help with awkward phrases, etc. but nothing really substantial without having read it up to that point. Hmm, just had a thought: maybe you could do a post on that?

    1. That would make a great addition to the series. I'll have to think on it. Maybe I'll hit you up for some thoughts. :)