Know Your Reader: On Beta Readers, Critique Groups, and Your Mom

Every day, I work with authors on the road to publishing their books. I love the entrepreneurial spirit that you find among successful writers; almost every writer I know—whether they’re self-publishing or honing their work to pitch traditional publishers—has had their manuscript read by other people to glean valuable feedback. After all, one of the golden rules of writing is to “know your reader.” I often hear these early readers referred to as beta readers—a bit of a catchall term that can mean anyone from an anonymous online reader to your writing critique group to your mom.

I wholeheartedly recommend leaning on your beta readers to help get your work to the strongest place it can be before you hire an editor. But you’d be doing your book a disservice if you stopped there. Ultimately it will be time to entrust your work to professional editors. Imagine you had cancer: you could get a lot of value out of a support group of fellow cancer patients, but you wouldn’t want them doing an operation on you, would you?

Here are a few things to keep in mind to make the most out of the beta-author relationship:

1. There is no correlation between anonymity and expertise. What is it about anonymity that makes us trust people’s opinions? Like how seeing dozens of five-star reviews on Amazon makes you think you’re putting the best version of this thing in your cart. It’s entirely possible that all of those reviewers are the author’s friends or people with totally and completely different tastes and values than yours, yet you spend your money because they recommend that you do. Often, you will not personally know your beta readers, and somehow that gives authors a false sense of the authority of the readers’ opinions. It’s important to recognize that, while their feedback is a valid reaction to your work, it’s their personal opinion. They could be a Harvard professor in literary fiction or a voracious mystery reader with a lot to say and no filter. Or they could be like your mom, and just not that into sci-fi. You don’t know. But if you did know, you’d probably calibrate your acceptance of their feedback accordingly.

2. Beta readers are not editors. You might think that beta readers’ feedback sounds a lot like an editor’s review. And it’s true that your editor, like your beta reader, may comment on plot holes, problems with continuity, believability of character, or overall clarity or organization. But the extent of what a beta reader will react to is more limited in scope than what an editor will address as he or she thoroughly combs your manuscript over several passes with a well-worn copy of The Chicago Manual of Style close at hand. That’s not to say that an editor will necessarily have more feedback than a beta reader; the best editors know when to leave well enough alone and use the scalpel rather than a butcher knife. Classically, very green editors, and certainly many beta readers, feel the need to do something, so they will often overwork your prose. A beta reader is as informed as any other reader—and a fresh read like that is certainly valuable. But a professional editor is more than a lay reader and brings a much sharper, more visionary eye to your work than beta readers are generally capable of.

3. Bedside manner matters. The art of critique is found not only in the places identified for improvement, but also in how that feedback is presented. Editors are professional feedback-givers; we not only identify the problem but also can envision solutions and communicate changes in a way that respects your work. It makes me sad when I hear from disheartened writers about beta readers or critique-group members who tear apart their writing. Especially if you overvalue those readers’ opinions, this experience can be very deflating. The last thing you need when birthing a creative “child” is for someone to stand around loudly criticizing how it looks. What feels much better and more productive is having a reviewer who can illuminate the areas for improvement and suggest achievable routes to get there while also highlighting the many areas of your work that are brilliant. A good professional edit will inspire and equip you to do your best writing.