Near where I live there's a poetry night where anyone can get up and recite/read their poetry - an open mic, or an open stage. The audience sits in reverent silence.
They have to.
If they make any noise (apart from an appropriate response) they get shushed by the organisers/other punters, or kicked out.
So everyone is equal at this poetry night.
Anyone can scribble some words on the back of a bus ticket, stand up and read them - for the same applause as the poet gets who's poured their heart and soul into their work, agonised over it night after night, placing every syllable just right to make it sing, dance, convey their deepest secret, their wildest desire, their greatest loss - or whatever.
Is this exactly fair?
I mean, you can't exclude anyone, but at the same time, what about art? What about skill? What about catching people's attention, entertaining them, moving them, making them cry?
I don't write poetry.
And on to beta readers - I do write books.
I didn't know about beta readers when I started writing books - didn't know about a lot of stuff.
You have to get people to read it before you publish, they said (Facebook writers' groups). Do beta swaps - you read theirs; they read yours. It's free!
OK, says I. I'm game. Bring it on.
I read a bunch of people's books. I TRIED to read even more. I read two books (actually one and three quarters) that shocked and amazed me with their offensiveness (and I don't mean smut - smut is often cool). I read a book that was almost all conversation with no dialogue tags (and not in a good way). I read a book that was entirely made up of dangling modifiers. I read several books in which nothing happened at all. I read ONE book that I actually liked.
Turns out anyone can write a book - and they will. On the back of a bus ticket, maybe.
But what do you say to these people?
Do you point out ALL the dangling modifiers? That would be draining.
Do you tell them their book offends you to the core of your very soul?
Do you explain that in a story, something has to, um, happen?
I'm a terrible beta reader, turns out.
And then, of course, they read your book.
I had an idea of what a beta reader should be that I got from somewhere - it might have been my own common sense.
A beta reader reads your book and responds to it as a reader. They tell you what they liked, what didn't work for them, what they were confused by, what they were excited by.
A beta reader is not an editor.
A beta reader does not rewrite your book for you.
That's what I thought before I got started.
It's not what the other beta readers thought, though.
Here are all the instances where you should show, not tell.
The character would not do that then.
Use this phrase instead of that phrase.
This is passive.
I don't like that character's name. You should change it.
Your paragraph would read better like this.
Add another point of view.
Why not kill a character, or two? (OK, no-one actually said that - I put it in because it rhymed.)
And more important than all that, I guess, plenty of evidence that they hadn't actually read it.
I tried doing some of the things they said - especially at first.
None of it made my book any better - most of it made it worse.
Who are these people, I began to ask myself?
What do they know about my story, my message, my language, my ideas, that they feel they can convey those things better than I can?
How are they so confident with their advice?
Do they know anything about writing, anything at all?
Maybe not. How would I know if they did?
But then, what do I know about writing?
OK, I've been a teacher for 21 years, but that doesn't mean much - I teach children.
OK, I've written ten books and self-published seven of them, but that doesn't mean much - anyone can self-publish.
We are all unproven as writers.
We are all the same.
We are all equal - to be given an equal chance.
Some of us have poured our heart and soul into our stories, agonised over them night after night for year after year, maybe, placing every syllable just right to make the language sing, dance, convey our deepest secrets, our wildest desires, our greatest losses. Or something.
Some of us have read and read and read books from across time and genre, and studied the language, the stories, the style until we have an understanding, a feel that goes beyond simple description or a YouTube video.
Some of us have looked up every grammatical convention there is, and have learned to use punctuation for precise effect (eventually).
And some of us have written our books on the back of a bus ticket.
Which am I, I wonder?
Can I give another writer meaningful advice?
Should I take someone's advice if their own writing is full of offensive stereotypes and dangling modifiers?
It would be nice if beta readers would be what I want them to be - readers who respond and don't try to advise.
Mostly they are not, but some of them are.
Those people are like diamonds. If you find any, keep em.