The Point of Beta-Reading is Not to Ruin Someone’s Confidence

So as I delve into my first actually serious attempt at utilizing beta-reading, I wanted to talk about a particular problem I’ve noticed in the writing community. Maybe saying it’s a ‘problem’ is too inflammatory. But bear with me for a second.

Beta reading is someone’s amazing dedication of time to look over another’s writing and give feedback. Writers tend to be a my-art-is-my-child bunch, so this is an important step in fixing any issues that the writer may have not seen being so close to their story. From everything from sharing with close friends to swapping read-for-read with strangers on the internet, beta reading is a fairly well ingrained idea in writing culture.

But it really bugs me when someone sends out their manuscript to be beta-read, and the response just crushes their soul.

Photo Credit: Kelly Sikkema from Unsplash

Caveat: I’m well aware that some amount of negative reaction is normal when receiving criticism, especially when we’re talking my-story-is-my-baby writers. (*cough* me *cough*)

Especially when one writer is reading another writer’s work, it’s very easy to tell someone what to change and how. But I think it was Neil Gaiman who said: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Art is subjective. It’s intrinsic and instinctive, and easily warped by influence. And I’m starting to wonder if the role of the beta reader is actually that well understood.

So here’s my premise:

A beta-readers job is not to tell somehow how to write something. Their job is to highlight their reactions to the author in an as unfiltered way as possible. Armed with that data, the writer can then figure out how to solve it, if they want to solve it, in their way. “I got bored here” or “this is fascinating!” or “this is the place I took my first break from reading” is actionable information that tells the author how the story pacing is going. Maybe there’s too much info-dumping. Maybe some scenes need to be moved to later. Maybe one person thought one thing and another thought the opposite, so the issue can be relegated to “you can’t please everyone.” The point is, it’s all up to the author and no one else.

(Of course this is all different if a writer asks for advice on how to change something. But that’s straying into the role of a critique partner, which is different.)

Maybe this is just me finally getting with the program of the rest of the world, who already knows about these pitfalls and what to do about it, but it felt like a significant realization to me. And I think it also explains why I’ve always half-assed the beta-reading stage before. I’m a soft marshmallow soul and I think it would be too easy to be tied into knots and warp my own creative spirit with the wrong influence.

The second part of my premise: I think this problem is partially on the writer. Handing over a manuscript with a “tell me what you think!” is going to cause a variety of responses. Readers may not even know what to say. Particularly if the reader isn’t used to that particular genre or style. While a lot can be gotten out of that, I think it’s really easy to fall into a pit of unhelpful or even harmful feedback.

It’s up to the writer knowing and asking for what they need.

Which brings this whole conversation to now (and about me again, sorry). After finishing up the revision process I talked about last time, I decided to buckle up and do this beta-reading thing for real. In an organized and structured fashion. Which means actually knowing what I need and guiding the eyeballs on my words to give me actionable feedback. So, I built a strategy with everything I’ve just talked about in mind.

Once feedback comes back, I’ll be writing another post on, you know, if this actually works or if I’m just being self-important. But the basics of my strategy are… actually pretty simple and obvious now that I think about it.

  • I comprised a bunch of questions based off recommendations and research.
  • I made a list of about a dozen trusted people.
  • I sent the manuscript and questions with an outline of what I’m looking for to said people.

The set up was actually the fun part, which I’ll go into detail next time. Mostly I just used Google Sheets and Google Forms… with some personalization. But I’m strangely proud of myself for the whole thing. It’s probably silly. But we’ll see what happens when it all comes together!

For now I wait. Until then, what are your thoughts? How about your experiences with beta-reading — either reading or sending a manuscript to be read?

About R. K. Brainerd

I've been writing since my pre-teens, mostly in the realm of fantasy and sci-fi. Taking interesting concepts and dropping complex characters into fantastical worlds is my jam. I also raise dairy goats and herd cats, the evidence of which can be found on my Instagram. Welcome to the adventure. View all posts by R. K. Brainerd

9 responses to “The Point of Beta-Reading is Not to Ruin Someone’s Confidence

  • Goblinrant

    What a good blog post! This should help to take a little of the mystification out of beta-reading, which can help in many ways.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Bookish Breakdown No 27: March 2021 | Thoughts Stained With Ink

    […] ⚔️ R.K. Brainerd @ Awake Dragon shares a wonderful post about beta reading. […]

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  • versescurses

    I think I needed to read this tonight. I’ve just had some work beta-read by a tutor and I’m feeling very down about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • R. K. Brainerd

      Oof. I’m sorry you’re feeling that way. Now that you’re dealing with it, My best advice would be: leave it for a while. At least a day, a few or a week would be better. Come back at it and try not to see it as judgement. Remember: you are not your writing at that particular moment.

      Also, what is the person who gave you feedback trying to do? Teach you? Tell you do something a certain way? Have an agenda? Point out weaknesses? Think about their POV and try to discern is the comments are helpful or just one particular kind of way of seeing something. Sometimes, something someone points out may not actually be right, but might point out something else you can learn. (IE: “you need to do this” – “well actually I don’t, but it tells me maybe I need to be clearer in this scene about xyz!”

      And don’t think you need to respond to the person. Thank them and move on (unless you need clarification on something they said and feel good enough to ask about it). The comments now are yours to use or toss away.

      Anyway… hopefully that’s helpful at all. Good luck and don’t let one person’s opinion stop you, friend!

      Like

  • mariavalewrites

    Usually my editor is my first reader because I’m terrified of having people in my life Beta read. If they don’t like it, I’m mortified. If I don’t like their suggestions, they’re offended. It feels like a lose-lose situation to me. You really have to trust the taste and good will of the Beta reader!

    Liked by 1 person

    • R. K. Brainerd

      You really do. That’s why I haven’t done a serious beta-read until now! It’s been an interesting experience so far. There’s a lot of positive that’s come out of it, and I’ve been forced to think of the story in different ways and push myself in places I didn’t expect. But you really can’t get away from the feelings. 0.o But! I was semi-prepared for it and only had one “I’m a horrible writer and should just give up now” meltdown. 😛

      (Which makes me think that there is a secondary, maybe even more important stage to beta-reading, which is calling on those who love and adore your writing to boost you up again, so you can see the possibly-negative comments in a more “real” light that isn’t stemming from hurt.)

      ANYWAY. I’ve been further convinced that Very Clear Expectations are vital. I don’t think beta reads are supposed to be debated. Once they send the manuscript back, that’s the end of that. Unless something is really confusing that you need to follow up on. Like you said, there’s a high possibility of hurt or offense or any of that, so once you have the “data” of what they said, it’s up to you to use or throw out, never to be spoken of again. X-D And, also, back to my point that beta-readers shouldn’t ever be “telling” you what something is or isn’t.

      (If you DO have someone you trust to talk through changes and what they think about how something could be done another way, I think that’s more an alpha-reader relationship, which is a heck of a lot of trust and vulnerability and more of a rare relationship).

      (Good LORD sorry about the novel-length response haha)

      Like

  • My Beta-Reading Experiment | Awake Dragon

    […] do something broader and more critical. I also wanted to be organized and structured about it. As I’ve talked about previously, I’m a soft marshmallow when it comes to criticism, and I wanted to guide feedback in a way […]

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  • How to streamline your manuscript | Awake Dragon

    […] have begun. If you’re curious, I’ve talked about some beta-reading culture problems here and how I attempted to address that […]

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