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I was recently sent a document to beta review, so I transferred it to Google Docs and started making suggestions. Once I'm through the four pages, there's about thirty miscellaneous spelling/minor plot errors, plus a page of feedback on the bottom about larger plot, personality, description, and word repetition issues, as well as a bit of overall feedback and advice for moving forward.

I should probably tell you that this was a new writer, and as far as I know this was their first story.

With my current suggestions, it's a bit overwhelming but is mostly fixed by clicking 'accept' and then reading the extra page at the bottom. I don't think this will make them stop writing, but it raised a good question in my mind.

How harsh is too harsh when reviewing/critiquing?

By too harsh I mean it offends or hurts them in some way and makes them discouraged when writing in the future. Any guidance on this would be appreciated, thanks!

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  • 1
    What do you mean 'it's mostly fixed by clicking accept'?
    – Blazen
    Jan 30 at 15:48
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    @Blazen I use suggesting mode on google doc and make suggestions. if you click accept it will automatically change to the suggestion. Jan 30 at 15:54
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    If a being harsh as a reviewer will stop him from writing, then they weren't meant to write. You put your words and thoughts and dreams out to the public, and you're going to get some painful reviews. Better from a beta reader than the public.
    – NomadMaker
    Jan 31 at 5:59
  • It seems that you're attempting to be both editor and reviewer. It may be better to concentrate on one role at a time (as some of the answers suggest, sort out structural problems first, as this may well eliminate some of the more detailed issues, as well as create new ones). Feb 2 at 15:18
  • Are the changes you made in suggesting mode all genuinely "tyops"/obvious spelling errors/mechanical errors like missing punctuation at the end of a sentence, or did you make any suggestions for word order, punctuation choices, or other style elements? Feb 2 at 15:47
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No such thing:

By saying you are going to beta-read someone's work, you are promising them help to become a better writer. It's your duty to tell them what is obviously wrong with style, plot, flow and characterization. If you don't tell them what's wrong, they aren't going to know. It's a duty.

I say that with two caveats.

  1. Beta readers are not responsible for addressing every spelling and grammar issue in a story. It's mostly the big stuff. If you were specifically asked to clean up all that spelling and grammar, then fine. They ASKED for it. But otherwise, just mention the stuff that disrupts the flow of the story. You can offer to edit, if you want, as a separate step in the process.
  2. I ascribe to the "crap sandwich" theory of critique. Offer a positive comment about the work (I love the concept!), then tell them what's wrong, but close with more positivity (this has lots of potential, but is just a little raw yet). Unless you think it's the worst thing you ever read, you should be able to find some good to mention. It's equally important to encourage the good parts of their writing as to fix the bad.

Also remember, these are your suggestions. They are free to do with them what they want. If your suggestion disrupts a critical element in their minds, work with them to see what fixes they can make while preserving the heart of the story. The best authors I've read opinions on this subject from have said good beta readers can be incredibly brutal, but a literary agent or future reader will simply stop reading. That's more brutal than any other critique.

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Consider providing feedback in a "terraced" fashion: Focus on the larger-scale issues that should be fixed first, like the plot and characters. Note to the author that there exist other, minor or localized issues like spelling, and offer to read another draft if they wish. The benefits are that you avoid making an overwhelming amount of criticism all at once, and you save the time of making detailed corrections to text that may change entirely. On the next draft, if you no longer see big structural problems, then focus on issues within paragraphs, sentences, or words.

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    This is excellent advice.
    – bob
    Feb 2 at 19:24
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Proceed with caution


Once I'm through the four pages, there are about thirty miscellaneous spelling/minor plot errors...and word repetition issues...

Fix them, fix them, fix them all¹

Fix every single of those spelling, technical errors, and word repetitions. Trust me, the writer will thank you later. No one wants that many small errors in a piece of writing. You also may want to check out a more advanced program to find technical errors like Grammarly compared to the standard Google Docs program. Minor plot errors will also be noticed by readers, so your job as a beta reader is to fix them².


... a page of feedback on the bottom about the larger plot, and the personality, description...

Tread carefully

Now changing up this stuff could potentially upset the writer as they are new to writing. With a more experienced writer you could give them tougher critique, but with a new writer - you should be more careful. The writer has worked hard to come up with the plot and characters and then describing them, so you giving too much critique in this area could offend them. That is not to say that you can't give any critique in this area, but give less - and the critique you give must be gentle. Rather than telling the writer what they did wrong, or immediately giving them ways to do it right, guide them through it with feedback so they are the ones who fix these issues. Not you.


a bit of overall feedback and advice for moving forward.

Go ahead

As long as it is not an overwhelming amount of feedback, it's fine. That is what you are supposed to do. I am sure that the writer would love some overall feedback and advice so you shouldn't have too many problems in this area.


Edits to clear up confusion in comments:

¹Normally a beta reader does not directly edit but in your scenario, it sounds like you are directly editing and reviewing the writer's work. If this is not the case, just suggest all of the technical edits to the writer.

²See above.

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    Shouldn't the author be fixing their typos? Why is that any reader's responsibility? Jan 31 at 12:14
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    Got a source for your definition? Wikipedia for example mentions nothing about beta readers fixing errors for the author. Jan 31 at 23:14
  • @curiousdannii I understand that usually, beta readers don't directly edit the writing. But the OP says: "With my current suggestions, it's a bit overwhelming but is mostly fixed by clicking 'accept' and then reading the extra page at the bottom." In their case, it sounds like they actually are editing. I will edit to clear up the confusion.
    – Nai45
    Feb 1 at 1:42
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    @curiousdannii Does my edit help?
    – Nai45
    Feb 1 at 1:47
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there's about thirty miscellaneous spelling/minor plot errors

There are two schools of thought on typos. One is they're fixed after everything else, as other tasks can add potentially typo-laden material, so it's the author's responsibility to sort that. The other is that they should also fix typos before it goes to a beta reader, because it's not right to waste their acumen on such objective details. Either way, they're not what you should focus on. If they're rare, you can mention the occasional example you couldn't help but notice; if not, you can mention they're frequent.

Your "/" suggests you're comparing some plot errors to spelling errors based on their size and importance. Are they even plot errors? "Why did character X do Y?" questions often have a plausible answer you can easily think of; if you're only four pages in, they can be a hint of something that will be revealed later. Either way, they may be as unimportant to mention in detail as the typos to which you compared them.

plus a page of feedback on the bottom about larger plot, personality, description, and word repetition issues, as well as a bit of overall feedback and advice for moving forward.

That's what beta reading should be for. Your feedback shouldn't be a quarter of the text's length, but many of the issues you notice now will recur and not require re-mentioning. As a rule, focus on patterns. Word repetition issues, if they need to be dealt with at all, can be mentioned concisely and then you move on; you needn't even give examples if you think the author should develop their own eye to them. Furthermore, Ben Blatt's Nabokov's Favourite Word is Mauve notes a distinction (and also concedes an overlap) between two types of words an author uses more than is average in the language, "cinnamon" words (which are still acceptably rare) and "nod" words (which are distractingly common).

How harsh is too harsh when reviewing/critiquing? By too harsh I mean it offends or hurts them in some way and makes them discouraged when writing in the future.

If you worry about that, it's because you're a good beta reader. All you need to do is make sure you also mention what you liked, even if it's just things other authors frequently mishandle that this one didn't. (Positive feedback still won't be a majority of what you write; if the author's smart, they'll understand why!) But don't separate positive feedback into its own section; if you were already working approximately chronologically, continue to do that.

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A lot of it depends on the writer, but in general, we have to take people at their word when they say they want criticism.

Personally, I'm usually at my harshest with an experienced writer who is already very good. I know that is what they need, and what they are asking for, and that they will know how to handle it.If I'm critiquing a piece with a lot of basic things wrong, on the other hand, I try to be encouraging, look for the things that are done right, and focus in on one main actionable thing that they can and must improve.

A side note --after long years of not following this rule, I now try to avoid giving or soliciting criticism from people I am close to (unless they are also writers). It's just too much of a stew of emotions to combine writing criticism with a preexisting relationship --also it's becomes hard for what you know about the person to not become part of the context of the critique.

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It looks like you are doing not just beta reviewing, but a full blown editing. You can be harsh (and should be, if that's editing), but need to set a proper perspective for the author.

Tell that this amount of notices is perfectly normal, especially for a new writer, and in fact, this is what editing is for. If your overall assessment of the book's potential is positive, don't hesitate to stress that.

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