Beta Readers, The Best Ones Will Tell You The Truth. Let Them.

Recently I gave my manuscript to early readers, or beta readers as the literary lingo goes. A beta reader* is someone who scours a manuscript for plot holes, inconsistencies, confusing passages, character flaws, etc.—before you send the book off to an agent or publisher.

All my early readers brought something different to the table, and I can’t thank them enough. But to keep this post a reasonable length, I’ll expound only on two.

Image credit: Microsoft Clip Art

Image credit: Microsoft Clip Art

Rain Man Yoda

The first was Oldest Teen Son. Don’t laugh. Although only sixteen at the time, the kid has the insight of Yoda. In fact, his high school English essays come back bathed in comments like:

“Brilliant!”

“A joy to read!”

“Masterfully done!”

Little stinker. He’ll be the one with a best-seller.

Given one of my characters is a fifteen-year-old boy, I wanted to make sure I captured the voice. Who better than a teenage boy to tell me?

But not only is my son Yoda, he’s apparently Rain Man as well, because when I took him to lunch to discuss the novel, he recited page numbers and manuscript problems from memory. The nuances and inconsistencies he spotted proved invaluable, all minus the sugar-coating. For example:

“Mom, that part’s stupid. Get rid of it.”

My sweet-talking muse.

Rainman Yoda

Super B-I-L

Another early reader was my fantabulous brother-in-law. Let’s call him Super BIL. Yes, I know, another family member, but this man entered our lives late, and I’ve only met him twice. Plus, he’s a lawyer, a former journalist, and a hands-on father of a small army.

How Super BIL does everything in the course of a day, I have no idea, but he can now add Super Beta Reader to his résumé.

I originally petitioned him because he enjoys thrillers, and I wanted his input as a lawyer for the legalese in my book. But he went beyond that, writing detailed notes in the margins of the manuscript, pointing out everything from weird words to unclear passages to dislikes and likes.

Like my son, Super BIL did not sugar-coat. But thanks to him, I saw my manuscript through new eyes and made several changes as a result.

This isn’t Super BIL, but it could be. (Image credit: Microsoft Clip Art)

This isn’t Super BIL, but it could be. (Image credit: Microsoft Clip Art)

Tears Or Cheers?

So, were my feelings hurt by my readers’ suggestions and criticisms?

No.

Why not?

Because as a writer I’ve grown.

Had it been my first novel, I would have fretted and fussed. No more. I wanted the nitty-gritty, and the nitty-gritty is what I got. Luckily, nobody’s suggestions had to do with weak structure. As such, the changes were easy to incorporate. Perhaps my lofty outline paid off.

So why the thicker skin?

  • Is it because my writing is stronger since my first book? I hope that’s part of it.
  • Is it because I’ve already weathered a few bad reviews? Probably.
  • Is it because with increased confidence comes increased ability to separate objective criticism from personal insult? Certainly.

I can make that separation easily in medicine, just as I suspect you can in your areas of expertise. But writing was a new world to me, and as with any new world, we must cross rocky terrain before smooth.

Am I made of rhinoceros hide yet? No, not quite.

But I’m getting there…

To all my early readers, I truly cannot thank you enough. And to Super BIL—you rock!

*For an excellent series on beta readers, see JM McDowell’s page.

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standing color cropped tiny for blog posts

Carrie Rubin is the author of Eating Bull and The Seneca Scourge. For full bio, click here.

 

222 Responses to “Beta Readers, The Best Ones Will Tell You The Truth. Let Them.”

  1. leamuse

    Great post! I’ve got a volunteer beta reader for a book that is only in its infancy. She is my father’s cousin and a retired librarian. She is always looking for the next book to devour. She may live to regret this… 🙂

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    • Carrie Rubin

      My son was a good crap spotter. He has a knack for seeing what could reasonably happen and what couldn’t, especially when it came to dialogue. “That goes on too long, Mom. No one would ever say all that at once.” That type of thing. He’s on my permanent beta-reader list from now on. 🙂

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  2. Main Street Musings Blog

    Sounds like you have some reliable and trustworthy beta readers! I think it’s wise to get a fresh perspective. Sometimes we’re too close to something to see it objectively. I am so excited for you. I can’t wait to hear about your next step!

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you. Now it’s a waiting game. I sent a partial to an agent just over 2 weeks ago. He takes 4-6 weeks to get back on queries. Patience. I need patience…

      Like

  3. talesfromthemotherland

    As you can see, I am super behind on blog posts– mine and others. This is fantastic! Could not agree more. My writing has improved so much, thanks to the honest and direct feedback I get in my writing group. Super talented writers, themselves, I am grateful for each thing they share with me… no matter how hard it is to hear, from time to time. Way to go, Carrie. Good stuff here!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you! Sounds like you know how to take the feedback well. That’s very grown up and will make you that much stronger of a writer. It took me a while to get there, but I’m much better now. 🙂

      You’re a good blogging bud to go back and look at posts retrospectively! I don’t have time to do that. Sadly, if I miss some, they’re gone forever. 😦

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  4. susan sheldon nolen

    Hi Carrie, oh the beta reader, what a blessing they are. My beta readers have pointed out the odd flaws–red hat on page three- blue on four- to asking poignant questions that lead to another chapter. It’s very hard though with beginning writers to always tell the truth. Even when I was a judge on a short story competition, we got ” hate” mail in response to not choosing a particular story. And then again, quite often it is a case of the brand new baby syndrome, one can just be too close to the writing. The one thing about novel writing, that I wish someone had told me in the very early days was, it is a growth thing. The novel never stops growing from conception, to writing, to editing, to publication, and then on to the reader for yet another growth spurt! What a fabulous process! May it never end!

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    • Carrie Rubin

      It is a growth process. I wish I would’ve taken criticism better with my first novel. I was too quick to take it personally. But I was so much more grown up this time. My BIL apologized in advanced, saying he hoped I didn’t take any of his thoughts personally. His apology was unnecessary, because I was grateful for all his insights. And yes, thank goodness for those who can pick up that we changed someone’s hair color (or hat color…). Now THAT’S a beta reader who’s reading closely. 🙂

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      • susan sheldon nolen

        We’ve all done it. I remember throwing a manuscript away and vowing never, ever, ever ever, ever, sending anything to Random house again, as long as I lived! ( course I was ten and I would crawl on my hands and knees for them to say yes now! Random House…if you are listening…

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  5. kateshrewsday

    I couldn’t agree more, Carrie: all my life I have been relying on my husband Phil, a journalist and editor, and he makes sure I don’t go out into the world with writing that would make my toes curl later on. Writing can so often be a shared process. I’m sure that’s why the Brontës had such success. They were a family of beta readers.

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    • Carrie Rubin

      “a family of beta readers”–I like that! I know it’s often advised not to use family members, but if they have experience in writing and they critique honestly, I think family members can prove to be valuable beta readers. Of course, a wide variety of betas is best, everyone from readers to other writers. We just have to be willing to listen to them and not get our feelings hurt. 🙂

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  6. Chrystal

    I would be a nervous wreck turning that large of a piece over for review. My heart races as I watch my husband read my blog posts and those are 20 minutes worth of work, at most! I admire you for being able to develop that thick skin! I can’t wait to read the new book!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you. 🙂

      It’s funny, after two years of blogging, my heart rate still picks up before I hit the publish button on my posts. I suppose we never lose that feeling of vulnerability to share our work, but at least we learn to absorb the feedback better. Or hopefully we do!

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  7. lorna likiza

    I get all jittery whenever i give someone my manuscript to read but usually i get very good reviews afterwards. Currently, i’m writing a book i have entitled `when i finally get married.’ Since i have noone at the moment to review it, i have been blogging excerpts of it. Feel free to read `how vindictive can she get?’ and `a week long of psychological intricacies and writing motivations’ and tell me honestly what you think. I will be highly grateful as i’m yet to publish a book.

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Good luck with the book! I don’t usually critique others’ work, but I certainly wish you well with your writing. Putting our stuff out there can make us feel vulnerable, but hopefully the more we write, the easier it will get. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

      Like

  8. Inion N. Mathair

    Much like you, Carrie, Mathair and I have grown a lot in these last few years and we’ve come a long way from our first book. I can remember our editor handing us back our manuscript with those horrible red marks and side comments. Back then, it looked as if someone had bled on our story, but now we can see that it only helps in the end and makes you a far better writer for it. Of course, there are a few things that still sting a bit, but we’re still learning. Great post.

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  9. djmatticus

    I’ve been asked by a friend to be a beta reader twice. The first time I was gentle, told him what I thought could be strengthened, caught some errors, but didn’t give him everything I could have. After he got some feedback from an agent that it wasn’t strong enough to sell, he made a few changes and sent it back to me and asked me to give him everything I had. And, I did, brutally.
    He didn’t take it very well, unfortunately… but, hopefully he’ll come through it a better writer, and will see that getting the honest edits and thoughts from the beginning is the right way to go.

    I’m glad you’ve got some great beta readers that helped you with your current story. I’m glad you were able to take their comments without feeling like they were attacking you personally.

    Perhaps you’ll beat out Oldest Teen Son in the race to get published after all. 😉

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    • Carrie Rubin

      “He didn’t take it very well, unfortunately…”—-That’s part of the reason I’m hesitant to exchange beta reading with online writing buds. I don’t want to strain any relationships. It’s easier to do it with someone you don’t know. I hired a manuscript critique for my last novel from an experienced author, and I’ll do that again if I start getting lots of agent rejections. But I felt I had a great mix of beta readers this time around so I haven’t done that yet. We’ll see…

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  10. jeanjames

    Skin does grow back thicker after it’s been worn down enough. Good for you being in a ‘bring it on’ sort of place. How fantastic your son is your beta reader, it’s easy to underestimate kids sometimes, but really they’ve got their finger on the pulse.

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Kids are underestimated, and I’m probably guilty of that myself. I expected him to help with the teenage voice, but I hadn’t expected him to have so much insight into plotting, pacing, character development, etc. He showed me!

      Like

  11. Britt Skrabanek

    “Mom, that part’s stupid. Get rid of it.” Ha! That is amazing.

    My editors are my in-laws. They’re just close enough to be willing to donate their time and intelligence, just unrelated enough to give it to me straight. : )

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  12. 4amWriter

    Good beta readers are hard to find, I think. Even when a beta reader knows her stuff, if the author is not thinking in the same vein then the beta’s suggestions won’t stick. And vice versa. You’re lucky to have some helpful betas!

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    • Carrie Rubin

      They were the only two family-member betas, of course, but they served me very well. I’ll use them both again if they’ll have it. 🙂

      Like

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