Oscar Wild said that “in this world there are two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. ” Correct, he was. In fact, a greater tragedy can be actually getting what one wants. It is the dream of every amateur write to have his or her novel-length manuscript line-critiqued, “beta-read,” by a professional writer. If the writer is a college English professor, the dream becomes even sweeter. Finding such a willing critique partner isn’t easy.
They’re alwaystoo busy, or in the middle of a semester, or just don’t want to be bothered with someone lacking academic credentials. Last summer, on a writers’ message board, exactly the person I had always wanted to give my novel manuscript a look advertised for a beta-reader. She was a college English professor with two post-graduate degrees. Of, course, I couldn’t answer fast enough. We exchanged manuscript files. I read hers, in between other things I had to do, added comments in the text, and returned the file. Her ms had the polished feel of one written by someone with two graduate degrees in English. So there wasn’t a lot I, an amateur, felt I could add in the way of criticism.
The response to this was thanks but no thanks, the level of criticism wasn’t what she expected, and would she finish critiquing the rest of what I had sent? No, sorry. “I can’t look at it,” a direct quote from her reply. The custom, when exchanging writing for criticism, on every writing forum I’ve visited. is not to keep score regarding what one gets for what one gives, as one would a baseball game. Read when you’ve been sent, critique on the highest level at which you are capable, and return it. “I can’t look at it” being held in the same regard as treason.
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Light Out / 2 I offered to go back through the manuscript again. No, thanks, sorry, came the reply. All of this radically changed my view on writers’ critique groups, and reading others’ work in general. Prior to this, I had read and critiqued a long middle-grade novel, one chapter at at time. The task was time consuming, but I enjoyed every minute of it. When this project was done, I organized and led a small Yahoo writers’ critique group. After “I can’t look at it,” I closed the writers’ group. I stopped offering to beta-read manuscripts.
Having someone else’s work in my hands became something with which I was not comfortable. I will never again exchange even a paragraph for criticism. The scorekeeper with the little letters after her name, who regarded a simple exchange of manuscripts as one would a labor contract, drained the pleasure from what was once the high point of each day. Without her, I would still consider myself a writer. I got what I wished for. I wish I hadn’t gotten it. On this particular writers’ forum, in the beta readers section, there is one less point of light. I consider this the forum’s loss, and not mine.
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