Beta Readers

Beta readers are often used now for authors to find out if the book they’ve just written will resonate with readers. Most people have a very dedicated group of individuals who will provide fabulous feedback on their work, pointing out problem areas and suggesting fixes.

Then there is the other group of beta readers, who are only doing this to add their input into the book, to be a writer without having to do the hard work. They don’t care about recognition, only about changing the book to reflect how they believe a story should be told.

The first group of beta readers will help an author improve their book. Their input is so invaluable that the author wouldn’t dream of submitting their book to a publisher without consulting their beta readers first. These people are dedicated to being part of the background, are satisfied with the recognition of an acknowledgement or a thank you.

This is the type of beta reader you need for your finished but not quite ready for submission book.

The second group of beta readers can and have done a lot of damage to the books they critique. Their interest isn’t in assisting the author, although they swear it is. All they’re looking for is the chance to point at certain passages and brag that they wrote them and insisted the author include that prose, because it makes the book so wonderful.

I recently had a chance to begin editing on a book that had gone through this type of beta reader. In fact, from what I understand, there were several beta readers adding their input. This book had been submitted to me already and was, in my opinion, the best that author had ever done. I was filled with pride at how much she’d grown in her writing skills and how ready she was to become the author I knew she could be.

Her request to do some revision she’d received from her beta readers met with my approval. After all, I’d never run into a group of beta readers who anything but the author’s best interests at heart. What could it hurt?

To repeat: What could it hurt?

In this case, a well written book that would appeal to teens who love paranormal stories was so significantly changed that it was unrecognizable. It was obvious the author had been cajoled into adding large chunks of prose, even extra chapters (approximately twenty-five new chapters), and the book was now so awful I estimated we might spend six months or more editing out the damage.

To say I was horrified is an understatement. Horror didn’t begin to cover the feelings I was having, including a sex scene that in no way could be allowed to remain in a book for teens. It was time to approach my author and let her know that she’d made a mistake and I only knew one way to do it—edit the first few chapters and show her were things went wrong, and how we’d have to fix them.

In actuality, how she’d have to fix the rest of the book. Considering that she’d just spent five months adding in these revisions, she was less than pleased. After going over my carefully worded email and the corrections I’d already noted, she came back and asked if we could go back to the original book.

My resounding “yes” could be heard around the world.

But this didn’t take care of the bigger problem she had. This is an author with what appeared to be untapped potential, someone who couldn’t overcome homophone problems, poor sentence structure, and verb strings—those pesky instances when a single verb is deemed incapable of carrying the action, so let’s use five, ten, or even twenty verbs.

Yet, I didn’t see that much of a problem with those issues in the original submission of this book. It was the rewritten version, what the beta readers decided were problems, where I found these problems, and I knew I had to address this major problem with the author.

The emails flew back and forth between us. I worked hard on making her understand that while beta readers were good, hers had perhaps begun to think their contribution was to be much more than it should be. They were, in essence, changing her book to the point where it would be hated by reviewers and readers alike.

Remember this lesson when deciding on beta readers for your book. Give people applying for this very important position in your writing career a test—have them read over and make suggestions on a chapter or two of your book before you sign them up to beta read your book.

If they are significantly changing the structure of your story, say goodbye without regrets.


Gaby said…
Thanks for the heads up.
Unknown said…
This makes sense . . . We need to look at readers as advisors, not masters: the author is the one who decides whether a recommended change is needed -- and what change it should be.

I've heard that Tolkien took his beta readers' comments seriously and almost never failed to address the targeted passage -- but he frequently made an entirely different sort of change from what the critiquer suggested. I find myself in much the same position (in a much more modest way!). If a passage hits multiple readers wrong, then something should probably be done about it; but the solution that fits the story is something the author has to determine.


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