Wednesday, May 21, 2014

On the subject of beta readers

Never ever ever ever ever ever use another writer as a beta reader.

Now, let me clarify: a good writer.  A good writer will only be able to give you two kinds of feedback:

  1. It's a work of genius.
  2. It needs work.
If your beta reader/good writer is honest, they will not easily bestow "it's a work of genius" on your work.  A good writer will always have good suggestions for "it needs work;" they are the only suggestions worth considering.  (The problem is, if you take advice from a good writer, you're also opening your work to having a co-written status.)  

A good reader will only be able to tell you that it doesn't generally work; in that instance it's still the writer's prerogative as to what, if anything, needs to change.  That's a reader's job.  To have a reaction.  To experience the material.

All of which is to say, that's my opinion of beta readers.  They're an established element of the writer's repertoire.  Look at any book and you're liable to find a lot of thank-yous in an acknowledgements section.  To me, this is always kind of the unnecessary look behind the curtain.  It's nice that/when a writer can depend on a lot of resources to reach the end of their story, but to my mind, writing is still a solitary achievement.  Writing books, anyway.  It's a completely different story, talking about movies or TV shows or music.  That's why there will always be a stark contrast between books and other entertainment mediums.  That and the fact that it's a completely different experience, almost always demanding far more commitment than others.  But that seems to be changing in our current binge culture.  Still, you know what I mean.

I appreciate the concept of sounding boards.  Writers want to know if what they've been spending so much time on is actually working.  The more nervous writers are already questioning themselves.  They can hardly even finish what they're working on.  The most nervous writers (besides the ones who can't manage to put a single word down) are the ones constantly questioning their stories as they're writing them.  Parallel revision.

But if you must depend on beta readers, know what they are.  Understand that you can't just assume you will get the valuable feedback you're expecting.  Asking other writers is like asking for trouble.  If you're a writer who really does need this support, are you asking others writers you know are better than you, or are you asking those who are of a comparable skill set?  If the latter, are you just assuming that you will improve each other in the process?  Or setting yourself up for further mediocrity?

Because that's what I fear.  I fear that writers who depend on beta readers won't really consider what they're risking.  Maybe it's a matter of what I personally expect from writing.  I have no real interest in writing for the sake of writing.  I want to produce something that has the potential to be remembered, for all the right reasons.  I don't just want to slap a few words together entertainingly, slap my name on it, and get a lot of readers.  I want something good.  Not just something passable.

If you end up with a good writer as your beta reader, are you willing to accept their advice?  Because chances are that good writer will not react to your material the same way a good reader will.  Both can forgive a lot, more than you'd expect.  Reading is inherently a marathon.  It's pointless to expect every word to be perfect.  But the story as a whole should be.  No matter how you approach that.  The reader will forgive more than the writer, though.  The reader will be less demanding.  But the writer will force you to a story that will make good readers.  And perhaps even good writers.


  1. I use test readers for an early draft who are readers. Their feedback is more for the overall storyline. I use critique partners who are writers for one of the last drafts, and the best ones I've used are indeed better writers than me.

  2. I think you are forgetting one important factor. You are not writing for writers. You are writing for readers. You want to produce something that is considered good and memorable for readers. That is why some writers decide to listen to beta readers feedback as well as critique partners. If you are writing a book about the art of writing, then by all means only hear genious writers (which is subjective because they will be good or bad according to your personal taste) but if you are considering common people for your audience, it doesn't hurt to listen to your market.

    1. And on a totally unrelated matter, I cant stop thinking about your comic strips. I would like to ask you two questions. What is the idea of illustration you had in your mind originally? I guess you have seen comics and you have thought "I would like to see my story illustrated like this."
      On second thought, my second question is only relevant after you answer me the first one.

    2. My market...I wish desperately that I had the writing community of my dreams, the kind you read about from past eras. But I don't have that.

  3. You could have avoided a lot of problems if you'd had a beta reader for Pale Moonlight. Basically any kind of beta reader.

  4. I haven't used "beta readers" for most of my writing, although I'm thinking of using some for future work. But I'd prefer someone to critique it, not just read it. I've used a website called Scribophile in the past, where people will critique your work in exchange for your critiquing theirs and found it very insightful.


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