Recently I was trying to talk to a friend who was one of the beta readers on a novel, along with a dozen other people.

My friend was the only one who returned the book with “needs to be completely rewritten.  This is not a novel.”  It appears everyone else returned it with “not my thing, but it is very well written.”

Of course, under the Sarah rule of thumb, if only one person complains you ignore him/her and my friend was in near hysterics because this person, who is a mutual friend, will now think she’s being evil or has it in for the writer, or something.

The catch there is that my friend is the only writer in the bunch of beta readers.

I was reminded of this yesterday as someone dropped by my blog to chide me for a typo (would you believe, a green grocers apostrophe? Yep, it’s one of my pet peeves, too, but the fingers have a mind of their own.) He said he normally wouldn’t have mentioned anything, but the author is an author, and a well-regarded one (that last was news to me, but okay.)

It brought home to me again that writers talking about writing, and lay people talking about writing mean completely different things.

First, typos happen. I have a friend who used to work for a scientific publisher, as the head of a team of copy editors.  Because he’s very exact, he had each of his team initial each paragraph after they proofed it.  And yet, there would still be typos when it got to him.  This is because humans don’t have it in them to be exact, and because typing is largely muscle memory.  In my case, I’ve determined I type by taking dictation from my head.  If I’m tired, I started exchanging words that sound alike to me (because accent) like leave and live.  If I’m exhausted my fingers invent their own language.  For instance, the only f sound in the alphabet is ph.  So I phall phatally phorward.  I don’t know why, but my older son has the same issue (can this kind of typo be genetic.)  If I’m TRULY out of it, like at the end of a three-day novel, I type entire sentences in reverse, something I couldn’t do if I TRIED.  My fingers are weird.  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

It is a mark of the amateur novelist that there will be no typos at all in the manuscript.  This is because the manuscript has been gone over a hundred times.  It is also the mark of the amateur novelist that there will be no life in the manuscript.  This is because the manuscript has been gone over a hundred times.

However, when you have first readers who aren’t writers, you need to be alert to “what they think we do” (like those posters with, you know, what my mom thinks I do, what I really do, etc.)  The general public thinks the first qualification of a professional writer is to be sort of a super spelling and grammar person.  We are extremely good with written language.  We never make a mistake!

(At that you should be grateful, because now we have computers, and before that typewriters.  My grandfather, otherwise an intelligent man, once told me that I’d never be a writer, because my handwriting was impossible to decipher.  Apparently, in the times before typewriters — in Portugal, at least — we were also supposed to be expert calligraphers.)

In fact there is a not inconsequential overlap between writing fiction and dyslexia.  No one is absolutely sure why, but there is.  As in, more of us are dyslexic than of the general public.  Also, in matters of grammar and punctuation, we are much like the rest of the public.  We’re often uncertain where commas should be, and each of us has a theory of how to apply them.  Except me, of course, I missed punctuation day in all seven languages, so I punctuate by guess and golly.

Because I’m a writer, and writers have fledgelings while they’re still fledgelings themselves, as we all trudge around looking for someone with just a little bit more of a clue to show us an inch more of the way towards craft mastery, I’ve read manuscripts at all levels of professsionalism, from raw beginner to best sellers (yeah, I have bestselling friends.  Yeah, sometimes they too want to know if a scene or a chapter, or a plot works before mailing it in.)  Typos, grammar mistakes, dropped words and haphazard commaing (totally a word) happen at all levels.

However, when readers-who-aren’t-writers tell you “it’s very well written” or “it’s beautifully written” what they mean in fact, is that they found no typos or grammar mistakes.

If you let yourself be lulled into a sense of false security by this, and slap your manuscript up on Amazon, you’ll be riding for a fall.  You could have written how to boil cabbage for 400 pages, but provided all your letters are in the right place, and your punctuation works, amateurs or lay people will tell you “it’s beautifully written.”  In fact your manuscript could BE boiled cabbage.  They’ll still tell you it’s beautifully written provided it accords with the rules of the English language.  And, by the way, in passing, yeah, that can be a problem too.  If you’re writing dialogue, or first person, or whatever, sometimes you have to break the grammatical rules for it to sound “alive.”  People do talk in sentence fragments and run on sentences ALL THE TIME.

But the part you should pay attention to is “it wasn’t my type of thing.”  If a group of readers who have enjoyed your work in the past are all telling you that, no matter how grammatical your work is, you’ve misfired.

Your job is not to make sure every comma is in place, there are no spurious apostrophes, and no letter got misstyped.  Your job is to take the reader on a journey of the mind.  Your job is to make sure people live through the story, ideally as vividly as if it happened to them.

To mind the commas and the periods, the articles and the conjunctions is your copy editor’s job.

Your job is to start with a gripping sentence, then introduce details of your world as the story unrolls, and do it so sneakily, so stealthily, so exactly right, that people are captured in the story and would rather continue reading than eat, sleep or make love.

Your job is to be gripping.  Leave the copy-editors to take care of the typos.  You are the writer, and only you can weave the spell that will make readers live in your world for a little while and care about non-existent people as though they were their dearest friends.

THAT is a “beautifully written” novel.

Now go do that.






  1. Oh goody. Working on a “beta novel” for a friend and I am just focusing on the story. 🙂
    Trying to be “critical” hoping to push him in a better direction. Mind you I have only beta’d two stories so far, and grammar isn’t something I am good with. 😀

    1. The best beta readers, like you, look at STORY. If that works, then the author can worry about fixing the small stuff. If it doesn’t… then fixing the grammar is one of those things that falls into the general category of “washing garbage.”

  2. With beta readers, there’s one word I want to hear more than anything else. “Fun.”

    If I’ve got that, I can work with anything else.

    If that’s not there, then I’ve well and truly screwed the pooch.

  3. “I had trouble finding errors because I got pulled into the book.” [insert happy author dance]

    Three page list of typos = OK, what’s wrong with the story sort of re-thinking.

    1. Oh, that’s the best kind of compliment.

      That and, “I lost sleep reading this because I couldn’t put it down and go to bed.”

      Sent from Mail for Windows 10

      1. My problem is that I have an OCD-like tendency to see some (not all) typos and grammar errors to the extent that I can’t understand what was supposed to be there until I stop and examine the previous sentences more closely, so they can throw me right out of the story.

        Of course, this is such a common thing with me that I’m used to picking up the story where I left off, and continuing on, so it’s not that huge a problem any more.

            1. What’s your reading speed? Say, a 350 page novel you’re leisurely enjoying? (By leisurely, it’s an interesting enough story that you want to get back to it if you have to put it down, but you’re able to go ‘I finish this thing, a chapter is my reward, I don’t want to finish yet!’)

              1. 350 pages, depending on language usage (naturally, more complex language is slower), typically runs me between 12 and 16 hours, if I’m leisurely enjoying it. Maybe 10 if I’m plowing through it.

                1. That’s… pretty fast, you know, for average reading. Some folks take a few days to a week, reading, from what I’ve heard, because other stuff gets in the way. For feedback and/or editorial work, a few days to a week always seemed reasonable to me.

    2. Yes, exactly. I have lost count of the curses hurled at my head because I kept somebody up past their bedtime by sucking them into the story. (Beatific grin). From writers, I have gotten the “I don’t even LIKE this kind of story and I still had to finish it, damn you!”

      I have also made a stoic man cry for five minutes after finishing a story. And helped more than one person get through a painful medical scan for a frightening issue (all better now!). And gave hope to someone in dark times.

      I regret nothing. 😀

    3. I’m fair. When someone asks me to look over their book, I ask “Do you want me to look at it as a reader, or as an editor?” The latter means I’ll look for typos actively and the former will only notice the most obvious, glaring mistakes.

    4. I finally received copies of the book I had published, and found out, to my dismay, that the wrong file had been uploaded and this was a definite badly-proofed version (first pass back from editor, in fact, so a lot of things like double punctuation remaining where clauses had been removed.) The screamingly obvious errors to me were the outright editorial inserts, as in “(maybe clarify for your readers)”.

      On the one hand, I wanted to scream at all of my friends who have read this, “Why didn’t you tell me?” and on the other hand, I’m pleased that they didn’t notice…

      (Publisher was informed and uploaded the corrected file immediately. Hooray for POD.)

  4. Then there’s the situation where the beta reader points out a problem that you suspected but other readers “by-passed” in their comments.

    I know that writers aren’t always correct about the “problems with their story”, but it will get interesting if somebody else identifies the same problem.

  5. There was something I once heard about dyslexics that they just see the world differently. For instance, if you ask a dyslexic to mentally flip something they see in their head, they can do it much easier than an average person. Maybe that’s why there’s more dyslexic writers. Literally seeing the world differently can lead to a little more creativity.

  6. Funny, I’ve always known that phrase as “by guess and by gosh”. 🙂 Both are probably watered down versions of the original.

  7. Working on it, Lord help me, I’m working on it. But the dang characters keep getting minds of their own and adding stuff in that I then have to go back and work into the rest of the story!!!

    Why can’t they just do what the are told for once! My six year old listens better than they do!

    1. But they may be correct.

      IE A character saying “No Way I going to go up (or down) those stairs. The monster will get me if I do.” 👿

      1. Do it anyway!! The story requires it!

        *No, I’m not stupid.*

        But… not w I have to rewrite the whole chapter!

        *Not my problem. Should have thought of that earlier*

        Grumble… grumble… delete, delete

        1. Chuckle Chuckle

          I remember reading about the problems that the writers of the Batman comics had.

          Basically Batman is so smart that he can think his way out of traps but because he’s so smart, the writers have to think of “how do they get him into those traps”.

          IE, He’s so smart that he would be able to avoid the traps that the villains set. 😀

          1. If the villains were smart, they’d just shoot Batman instead of sticking him in traps.

            1. Point.

              On the other hand, Batman plans on how to deal with those sort of threats.

              On the gripping hand, some of his foes (like Joker) are twisted enough to want to kill Batman in a trap instead of just shooting Batman. IE Shooting Batman is “too easy”, they want to out-smart Batman. 😉

        2. If they won’t go down the stairs, have the monster come up them.

          Or drop the floor.

    2. Hey, my characters and their landscape (!) just trashed the entire flippin’ plot of the novel. I have no idea where things are going.

      1. Ah yes, improv. And I hear you on the landscape, though at least some of mine was planned. (I was raised by someone who loved geology, so when I say “world-building,” I mean “plate tectonics.”)

    3. I feel your pain. My MC refuses to pull the trigger on the big demons vs. Valkyrie tanks battle because he’s petrified. Can’t get him to do it.

      So I’m writing about him being petrified. Eventually he’ll pull it together and go get ’em. He’s a brave lad.

  8. Since my brain has been on chemo (low levels but for almost 15 years), it stutters. I will see on the and in the next to each other. It’s like my fingers type from a different part of my brain that does not connect with my conscious mind. I can even read it right when i look at it on the screen or on the page. My mind didn’t use to stutter like that btw. I was a typesetter in another lifetime… a really good one.

        1. I’ve found my fingers typing entirely different sentences than what was in my head.

          What’s awkward is when my fingers’ sentences are better. :/

          Sent from Mail for Windows 10

          1. Apparently auto correct for fingers was a thing long before computers came along to help. I do it too. All of it.

      1. For some reason, when I’m tired, my fingers will transpose “c” and “s.” Even when the sounds don’t swap over.

        I don’t know why.

        1. It is not well known, but there are tiny brains in the phalanges that serve as satellite CPUs for the fingers; they can run on independent programs, getting a lot more done, if properly programmed.

          Up until this year and all the troubles, mine would do that flawlessly, including processing for typos.

          Now, not a chance.

  9. The current drug has my brain and fingers at low mast.

    But we’re all different, and I can no more ignore a typo than I can stop breathing: they leap out at me and demand I at least mark them somehow.

    One highly regarded agent/writer has ‘principal’ instead of ‘principle’ twice in a well-regarded book on writing – so he thinks that way, and his proofreaders do, too.

    It doesn’t keep me from focusing on story; it happens on a different plane, but at the same time. I’m lucky there were few typos in printed work I was reading as a kid, or I would have been stuck.

    I’m more worried about whether the reader can follow the story, which is long and complicated, without too much effort. I really like seeing sometimes on KU that someone has read the whole thing in a day. (When you don’t have that many borrows, you can see individual readers.)

    I wasn’t the least bit dyslexic ever – until now, with the brain on drugs. I’m sorry I wasn’t more sympathetic (though I’ve always understood it was a brain thing).

    1. That sort of typo (principal/principle) is a hiccup in the flow of the story – and as a reader/not writer, I really look for 1) does the plot work, 2) does the story have have flow.
      Not sure I can define “flow” precisely and analytically, but it includes minimal hiccups, not just from typos, but also from unmotivated changes in style of expression, sentences so fragmentary you have to stop and figure out what’s going on, and the like.

      1. My brain does the same thing: full stop at misspellings of words (and missing commas) to parse out what should be the author’s responsibility, not mine. I try to make the word actually written there fit into the sentence and the flow.

        I’m sure most people would just keep going, and the gist of it would be good enough – my brain is just nitpicky.

        Too many hiccups, and I’m not enjoying the story!

        So I have to be extra careful not to do that to my readers – one of whom is me. I would cringe each time I came to the problem. It is a problem of the slow brain type, the one who wants to read everything and not skim. Those are some of my readers.

        It’s hard to believe, but I don’t pad. Not every little thing will make sense on the spot, but, if it’s in there, the reader will ‘get’ it later down the line.

        It’s part of the fun for me, burying the land mines as I go.

  10. I think I would translate “not my thing, but it is very well written” slightly differently. I see two possibilities:

    (1) It really isn’t his thing, and he doesn’t feel qualified to judge it. You should pretty much ignore the bit about it being well-written and any other comments. Believe the person who offered an actual opinion.

    (2) It sucked, but he’s too polite to say so. The “it’s very well-written” bit is probably due to being taught that you should always include something nice in any review of someone else’s work. (I’m reminded of my experience as a science fair judge where we always needed to include on the comment sheet “something [the project] did well.” This year, there was one project where the judges all had to confer in the room afterwards to try to figure out what to write on that line…)

    1. If I tell someone “it’s not my thing”, it really isn’t my thing. I can tell good writing, and good story development, and I have said of more than one thing that it is excellently well done and I will never read/watch it again. I do try to match people to books, so if something’s not my thing, I’ll try to figure out what it is so that I can point the right people at it.

      That being said, if I say “this isn’t usually my thing,” that is a big compliment, because it means that I liked it despite not liking that particular genre.

  11. Leave a few typos in; there are people who look for that sort of thing, and we don’t want anyone to be disappointed.
    NONE of the people who frequent this blog are very old. There may be a few in their 70’s and maybe one or two in their 80’s, but I think most are younger. And that’s significant, because with very few exceptions, all of the words used are far older that the writers.
    If a word has NOT established the way it is spelled by NOW, then I really don’t think it is up to us to make the changes.
    Sucessfully? or successfully? Kiss mah sweaty foot, word! You KNOW you are the word I mean! Now, shut up, and GET IN LINE!!!

    Oh, yeah, Alma T C Boykin’s “Language of the Land: A Steampunk Fantasy” deserves its’ own graduate course.

    I’m just sayin…

  12. the last chunk i had written, around 1500 words, was handed off to a possible beta reader, who wanted it to be posted somewhere like google docs where it could be edited inline and interactively.. because its how he has worked with fanfic writers, apparently. I was just trying to find out of the story and style sounded interesting…

  13. Enjoyed the article, this especially resonated with me:

    “It brought home to me again that writers talking about writing, and lay people talking about writing mean completely different things.”

    So much so that I was compelled to write something that I shall put up on my blog in the next day or two.

  14. Good post. With English being a second language and I write in English, I struggle with this quite a bit. Getting all the i’s dotted, the punctuation and all that. Yet, I’ve also seen that what I write can connect well on an emotional level and then I know that despite my struggles with commas and adverbs, passive voices and long sentences, I at least have a good story. That’s satisfying.

    1. English is my second language too. (Well, third, if you want to get technical.) I advise what Dean Wesley Smith told me almost 20 years ago “Stop obsessing on words. Concentrate on the story. Your words are good enough.”

      1. Same here. On the one hand, learning English as a second language meant grammar rules are “fresher” in my mind, having studied them later in life. On the other, I make mistakes that would be obvious to a native speaker (mistakenly using “in” instead of “on” is a common trap, since in Spanish “en” means both “in” and “on”). But I leave that to the proofreaders and focus on making the story flow.

        1. I can tell when I’ve been doing a lot of German reading and writing – my English grammar into German turns. And my clauses have clauses in their subclauses.

        2. Mistakes are only obvious to a native speaker if you learned it right when you were three.

      2. And even if your words aren’t good enough, first do the story, then the words.

        I give advice to beta readers: start at the top. If the first half and the second half obviously belong to different stories, it doesn’t do any good to point out typos, because by the time the writer revises out that problem, all the typos will likely be gone — and replaced, but that’s another kettle of fish.

  15. If you get beautifully written from me it means just that, a wonderful use of prose. However you will usually get a but after that. If I think nothing of the story other than beautifully written there is no story there. I mention this because I am a reader, not a writer and therefore invalidate your classification of readers 😀

  16. I do my beta reading as a reader, not as an author, and so I tend to be picky about the things that I am picky about as a reader, I figure what the author needs to know is if I didn’t know her or him and just picked this book up at random, would I want to know what happens next.

    I’ve gotten into arguments because I’ve read a few pages and then fired back an e-mail saying, “I only read this far because your story didn’t interest me.”

    “But you didn’t give it a chance!” is the usual replay. Yes, I did–in fact I almost always give works I’ve agreed to beta read more of a chance than I would give something I just picked up. But if you don’t give me somebody to care about pretty darned quick it doesn’t matter how well the prose is structured, you’ve lost me as a reader.

    I use an analogy with the visual arts a lot–don’t try to sell me a beautifully painted picture of something that I don’t want to look at. Don’t tell me that the character is going to change for the better or that once I understand the relevant backstory I’ll be able to sympathize.

    The reader doesn’t owe you a chance. The reader doesn’t owe you any time or attention at all. You start out owing the reader, for the money, time, and attention that she or he gives you just by picking up the book in the first place. You’re in the hole on page one and you need to pay up right from the start. Once you’ve both got something on the table you can start to negotiate.

    1. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d RATHER you do something like that rather than we waste each other’s time of you trying to beta read a story that doesn’t do it for you.

      Sent from Mail for Windows 10

      1. No, it’s completely valid. I read longer, because I read in mentor mode. My critiques are usually “If you foreshadow this earlier and lose this scene this will work”

  17. “To mind the commas and the periods, the articles and the conjunctions is your copy editor’s job.”

    Sadly, I -am- the copy editor. 😦 And I suck at ti.

    “In fact there is a not inconsequential overlap between writing fiction and dyslexia. No one is absolutely sure why, but there is. As in, more of us are dyslexic than of the general public.”

    Oh, good! I’ve got that part covered. 😀

  18. “It is a mark of the amateur novelist that there will be no typos at all in the manuscript. This is because the manuscript has been gone over a hundred times. It is also the mark of the amateur novelist that there will be no life in the manuscript. This is because the manuscript has been gone over a hundred times.”

    Oh, I hope not. I dearly do hope not.

    I’m getting my first novel in shape to self-publish, and the first beta reader I sent it to said it looked like it had already been to an outside editor.

    No, it was all me. I was trained as a kid to watch my grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and I’m still like that to this day. I too am slightly dyslexic, so I take more care to guarantee that what I meant to go down on the page is what ends up there. Besides, how could I *hire* an editor of any sort? Not unless they reestablish indentured servitude.

    I can’t catch everything, though, and thank heaven for beta readers who flag SPaG errors. But—! if I fail to catch a fed tell myself that’s only to be expected. Happily, the “well-written” beta comments I’ve gotten have been followed up with “I usually hate romantic storylines but I really liked this” and “I love your characters; you will be writing a sequel, won’t you?” I don’t think I’ve edited the life out of it since then . . .

    Takeaway Lesson: “Do your best, kid, get the jolly thing posted, and write the next book.”

    (BTW— I came across this blog a couple weeks ago when I Googled how to know if I should leave my writers’ crit group. I haven’t yet made up my mind on that, but I’m enjoying everyone’s posts. I paste them into a text-to-speech reader and listen to them when I can’t be writing.)

    1. “But—! if I fail to catch a fed tell myself that’s only to be expected.”

      Gah!!! It only goes to show, doesn’t it? Those revision/rephrasing ghosts are the worst. I meant to say, ” . . . if I fail to catch a misstroke I tell myself that’s only to be expected.”

      No idea where that “fed” came from. Gremlins. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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