Sidestepping the flippancy of the headline, I invite you to follow me on a brief rant of why you absolutely should get beta readers for your work, and then you absolutely should learn how to ignore them. If you happen to be a beta reader of my work, don’t worry I still want to be friends. This post comes after I provided feedback to someone, and it inadvertently disrupted their vision.
People have different names for the different stages of critiquers. I’m talking about the first round of readers… the alpha readers, the workshoppers. The ones who are probably writers themselves. Since alpha reader doesn’t seem to be a commonly used term, for this rant I’ll just call them beta readers.
There are tons of reasons you should get beta readers. I’m not going to spend too much time on this point, because I think it is well understood. The bullets are as follows:
- Outside opinions are indispensable for calibrating mystery plots
- Outside opinions are essential for gauging foreshadowing and plot twists
- Beta readers will catch tons of obvious mistakes to which you were totally blind
- They will help you see pacing and arc issues from a fresh perspective
The list really speaks for itself. No matter how much creative distance you give yourself, there is no way to approach your own work the way a reader would, and the feedback a good beta reader can provide will help turn your story from good to great.
Protect your head
Here’s the rub: mixed in with all that great feedback will be — inevitably — a lot of things that should just be ignored. Things that appear to reflect on the quality of your story, but don’t really. Your job is to keep those things from getting into your head.
First of all, no book you write will be a perfect genre match for someone else’s tastes, it just can’t ever be. The reason is simple. No matter how brilliant the story is, a book’s prose are only half of the equation that forms the “experience” of a book. The other half is the repertoire of beliefs and experiences brought by the reader. When these two combine, each reader has a unique experience of a given story mixed with their emotions and imagination. An experience surely guided by the author, but unique nonetheless. There is no one-size-fits-all, so there is just no way to write a story that works for everyone in all ways. This does not imply a problem with your story.
Then there are the high level preferences that are unlikely to be a perfect match for all readers. Your style of descriptions and prose, your use of voice, the length of your chapters, the characterization of whoever, the way you pace and plot… in that enormous list of “things you do in your book,” at least one won’t perfectly match a given reader’s preferences. This does not imply a problem with your story.
Both of those compatibility issues are normal and expected. Not a problem. A casual reader will love a book even if it wasn’t a 100% perfect genre match to their taste. They probably won’t even notice if this or that stylistically wasn’t perfectly their ideal. These things are overlooked by the casual reader, who just remembers how much they loved your book. These things probably won’t be ignored by your beta readers!
Finally, exceptionally few people will really know what you are going for until they’ve finished your book. Because beta readers often give feedback along the way, they will — thoughtfully and with the best of intentions — identify places where they perceive the story is veering off course. Off what course? Well, the one they anticipate. Probably the one they themselves would write, or at least the one they expect you to be writing. Whatever the case, they are almost certainly wrong, and their nudging doesn’t serve to steady the ship so much as confuse its vector.
In all of these cases, the related feedback actually has nothing to do with your story, it is merely a reflection of subtle mismatches between your story and your chosen readers. Recognizing when feedback is bubbling up from these sources is crucial, so you can safely dispose of it. We’ll return to this observation shortly.
Seek, and you will find
New writers often become new critters as part of the initiation into the world of writing. If you have workshopped other people’s writing, let me ask you something: has it changed the way you consume published fiction at all?
In other words, have you ever slipped on your workshopping hat while reading a published book, perhaps and old favorite, and been surprised to see that you could make a list of issues if asked? I recently had this experience with Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss as well as The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. Don’t get me wrong: those are both fantastic books, and well worth a look by any serious fantasy writer. Nonetheless, I could find issues… things that didn’t move as well as they could have, unbelievable character statements or feelings, etc.
Of course I could, but so what?
All this should demonstrate is that the goal of the author is not to construct a story that is immune to feedback, it is just to construct a great story! The two are not mutually exclusive.
I think, at its heart, it is an issue of “academic” issues vs “actual” issues. In workshop-mode, all the rules and guidelines and best-practices are swimming about in our heads, and when we see something that deviates, we notice. We point it out, because that is our job as a critiquer. Yet many of these academic things do not imply storytelling problems, not necessarily anyway. It might just be that you want a chapter to meander a bit to set the tone. You want a character to overlook something for reasons revealed later. You want tension interrupted by flowery metaphors. It is not bad that beta readers will point many of these things out, it is bad when the author decides they need to “fix” all of these observations categorically.
Ignoring beta readers
Which brings me to the thesis of the rant. If we reduce all this to an actionable summary, it would be this: just as important as workshopping is learning how to filter feedback.
I’ve heard Steven King quoted to say he takes one in three comments. For newer writers with less experienced writing groups, I’d say forget Steven King, and be even more stingy.
Look for trends, ignore the rest.
Watch out for feedback that stems from simple incompatibilities between your readers and your book. These are all the things we talked about above: stylistic or genre mismatches, big-picture nudges, and anything else that threatens to veer you off the course you intended to walk. These are rarely real issues with your story, and are unlikely to be repeated by other readers.
Furthermore, remember that a lot of feedback will be pedantic in nature. This is nothing against the beta readers — their role is to make sure you notice these things! But all you need to do is look for patterns, not specifics. If there are no worrying patterns overall, go ahead and stick to your stylistic choices, and disregard the feedback saying otherwise.
Finally, remember that your story is done when it feels right to you. You might still have a pile of “unfixed” feedback, but that does not mean the manuscript on your screen isn’t fantastic and publishable.
I hope none of this is construed as an excuse not to reflect on the feedback you receive, or to otherwise make a less than stellar book. I merely hope to impress upon you that it is all measured to your standards; you the author, the creative force. It is to your judgement this book must yield, nobody else’s. Consider what they say, be aware of the types of feedback that are unlikely to help your story, then decide for yourself and discard the rest.
Don’t lose track of your vision, and make sure your beta readers don’t inadvertently steer you the wrong direction. They are an invaluable resource in many ways, but never the final word, and never the golden standard against which your writing must measure.