How to Avoid Burning Out Beta Readers

Beta readers are an integral part of the revision process for most books in both the fiction and non-fiction fields.

A beta reader is “a non-professional reader who reads a written work with the intent of looking over the material to find and improve elements such as grammar and spelling, as well as suggestions to improve the story, its characters, or its setting. Beta reading is typically done before the story is released for public consumption.” (Wikipedia entry on Beta Readers)

Beta readers are important because they provide authors with a unique opportunity to get actionable feedback from real readers prior to finalizing and publishing a book.

(If you are wondering where the weird term “beta” comes from, it started with those wacky engineers. When software is developed, the initial version is called the “alpha” version. The “beta” version is the version people start using to test functionality and seek out bugs in the software. Hence, the moniker “beta readers.”)

When to Give to Your Manuscript to Beta Readers

In my role as a writing coach, I recommend my clients engage beta readers at the later end of the revisions process.

And I mean the way later end.

I’m talking once they have completely exhausted their own best efforts to improve the manuscript on their own.

Unfortunately most people make the major mistake of seeking feedback way too early on in the revisions process – often after writing just a first draft.

I understand why writers make this mistake. They’ve worked their ass off on something for a long time, and they want external acknowledgement and confirmation that all the work was worth it.

But this is where things can get dangerous.

First off, if you’re so eager for feedback that you’re giving readers a first draft of your book, there’s a good chance you’re confused about what you really want from your beta readers.

If you’re going to them that early on in the process, you aren’t actually looking for actionable feedback. What you are looking for validation. You are looking for someone to say, “Great work. I loved it.”

This is fine, if you are clear with yourself and your reader your goal in handing them those three hundred or so pages is validation.

As I discussed in my article, “How to Get the Reader Feedback You Really Want,” I often give my first draft to my wife with the clear instructions: “Read it and then tell me it’s good.” I’m completely up front with her regarding what I need from her. I’m not looking for constructive feedback. I’m looking for validation, and she and I both understand that’s what the process is about.

Unfortunately, a lot of writers looking for that same type of validation trick themselves into believing they’re actually looking for constructive criticism, and are thus disappointed with the feedback they receive.

The other major danger with going to beta readers too early on is you risk burning them out by giving them a crappy piece of writing.

Last year, the great Stephen Pressfield published the book, Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t, and Pressfield’s title is spot on. You’re lucky to have beta readers at all, so don’t punish them by asking them read a shitty draft. (And that’s what the first two or three drafts of your book are going to be: shitty.)

When I consider giving a manuscript to someone to read, I often think back to the movie, 8 Mile. In the film, Eminem sings a song featuring the lyrics, “You’ve only got one shot, do not miss your chance to blow. This opportunity comes once in a life time.”

That’s what it is like with your beta readers.

You have one shot with them.

Virtually no one, even your spouse or best friend, is going to be willing to read the same manuscript more than once. So choose wisely when to give it to them.

For the most part, it’s down to you to do the hard work of revising your manuscript.

You need to figure out ways to take what you have already written and make it even better.

Do not burn out your beta readers by giving them a manuscript to read before you’ve given it your own best effort.

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1 Comment

  • Peter Kennedy MD

    Reply Reply February 21, 2018

    That precisely reflects my own limited experience. My first manuscript was sent to a team of editors in New York City. I paid for their services; there were three of them. Each had a unique approach. Individually, they were pleased with the same things in my book, pace, chapter flow, imagery, and plot. But they scoured every word, paragraph, lexicography, and punctuation.

    I followed about 97% of their recommendations. They improved what I was trying to say. And except for a double negative in the last chapter and a couple of typos supplied by the printer (gr-r-r %*&+@!) the product was improved.
    pk

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