“My beta readers loved it.”
If I had a dollar for every time I heard a writer say this—and every time I groaned in response—I’d be on the next plane to Paris.
Which is not to say that beta readers are a bad thing. Like any other tool, they can serve a valuable purpose, when used properly. Here’s a run-down of the benefits—and the pitfalls—of beta readers.
The Pros of beta readers
Writing can be an isolating and frustrating business. It can be hard to get anyone to read your work. That’s where beta readers come in, providing much needed:
For writers longing for readers, beta readers are for many their first audience. The first people willing to read the first draft-, second draft-, third draft-manuscripts, etc. of a work-in-progress. Just having someone to talk to about your work can be a joy and a relief as well as an education. Any chance to connect with readers, wherever you find them, can prove beneficial.
As I used to tell my husband whenever I gave him one of my own first drafts to read: “The only thing I want you to say is, ‘It’s wonderful!’’ That’s because while I knew that it wasn’t wonderful (yet) and that I had plenty of work to do to make it wonderful, what I needed at that pivotal moment was praise and encouragement. Beta readers can give you that boost when you need it most. And they should.
Writing is a lonely business. All that seclusion is best offset with the camaraderie of readers and writers, who provide companionship and bonhomie on what can be a very solitary journey. Beta readers can be a vital part of the community that nourishes your writer’s spirit.
The Cons of Beta Readers
The most dangerous thing beta readers can do is give you as the writer a false sense of confidence in the viability of the work itself. That’s because too often beta readers’ feedback is flawed by:
1. Inadequate Sampling
For most writers, their group of beta readers constitutes a sampling too small, too narrow, and too parochial to reflect the potential audience for the book itself. Publishers are looking for authors who can attract a large enough readership to profit by the publication of their work. It’s a rare group of beta readers that is large enough, varied enough, and geographically widespread enough to embody the audience you need to build to be a successful author in today’s marketplace.
2. Uninformed Opinions
You need to take any and all beta readers’ opinions with a grain of salt. For most of the writers I know, beta readers ran the gamut from family and friends to members of their writing group. While the latter may be better than the former, if the members of your writing group are unpublished, they don’t know any more than you do. And if they are published, they may be writing in different genres or sub-genres or maybe they broke into publishing during a very different market, all of which means their guidance may be only so useful to you. Remember: Few beta readers are publishing professionals—and even if they are, their advice is not necessarily relevant to today’s marketplace, which by definition is a moving target these days.
Every reader has a bias—and for the beta reader, the bias is always in your favor. This is your mom, your BFF, your writing buddy we’re talking about. So, they’re much more likely to tell you they love it than is an agent, an editor, a reviewer. Praise is good, but you need to temper that praise with a cold, hard eye. Even when a beta reader does offer criticism, accept it with skepticism, as that criticism may be misplaced, borne of envy, or just plain wrong.
The Real Estate Law of Beta Readers
When we first begin writing, we find beta readers wherever we can—and that’s fine.
But eventually you should adopt what I call the Real Estate Law of Beta Readers.
When you buy a house, you know you want to buy the ugliest, smallest, least expensive house on the block, so that with improvements the value of your house has nowhere to go but up.
Same with beta readers (and by extension, writers’ groups). Ultimately, you want feedback from wiser, better published, more polished, more successful writers and publishing professionals—so that with improvements the value of your work has nowhere to go but up, too.
Then, when your beta readers say “I loved it,” it will mean something very, very good.
Do you have beta readers? Who are they? How’s that working for you? Let’s discuss on Facebook.