Critters: The Sad Hearts of Damn Good Beta-Readers, and Where to Find Them.

Written by D.C. McNaughton. Illustrations by Bela Ordas

I admit it. Today, I feel like a very lucky, very horrible person.

Why do I feel horrible?

Let’s start with that. You and I both know that horror is more interesting than luck. Truth is, earlier this week I had to leave a lot of negative feedback on a peer’s manuscript.

I feel horrible because I’m honest.
Every day, I spend a little time beta-reading. I provide honest feedback, both good and bad. I never hide my feelings because I wouldn’t want someone to lie to me about my book. I treat my peers’ manuscripts like they are my own. I nurture them. I have passion for them. I want them to succeed.

(TLDR ahead. Curious about how to keep the best beta-readers and CPs? Scroll down to the bullet list)

Honesty and passion…

…it’s the beta-reader or Crit-Partner every writer wants, but is too afraid to ask for. If you’ve finished a manuscript, you know the feeling of wanting an honest beta-reader as well as you fear an honest beta-reader.

After finishing something you’ve worked on for years, you have to find someone to sit and judge it. “What if the beta reader loves it?” You might ask. “If they love my book, then I have nothing to earn from their opinion. Nothing is perfect.”

But what if they hate it? If they hate my book, I’m a failure. I’m an idiot. I’ll never be published. Damn shame, I thought my book was pretty good.”

Most writers want a beta-reader in the middle. Someone who can love a book but dislike aspects of it. Someone who can believe in a book, even after finding a ton of mistakes inside.

Finding such a person sounds easy enough, but it’s not. Why can’t we just find a smart person on Twitter who knows how to write, knows how to crit hardcore and love our books at the same time?

Believe it or not, there’s a reason we are so elusive. It’s because we’re scared to death of you.

It might surprise some writers to know that honest, good beta-readers and Crit Partners hurt deep down when they suggest major fixes to your beloved manuscript. It’s difficult telling a fellow writer that major sections of their manuscript aren’t working. It makes us feel like horrible people.

Don’t get us confused with those who enjoy inexplicably berating the living snot out of manuscripts just for fun… I’m talking about the ones who explain every single correction, who take hours to comment on errors, as well as offer ways to fix those errors.

I’m not talking about those people who merely fulfill the obligatory goal of a compliment sandwich, either. I’m talking about the people who bleed and sweat real emotions for your book. The sort who will stick with you through the whole process, until the book is published.

I am Lucky…

… because, as an incredibly honest person, I have learned to take honesty as easily as I dish it out. It makes me an incredibly easy person to beta-read for, because I never take offense and never take things personally. I make certain that my beta-readers never feel bad for giving me the truth that’s necessary for the success of my stories.

Finding readers like this starts with not giving my books to people I don’t trust. I look for credentials — Have you beta read before? Can you write? Do you read a lot? Do you have typos and grammar errors in your tweets? 
Are you useful to me, at all, or am I just grasping at straws? This all might sound very arrogant and judgmental, but you worked hard on your book and it means the world. Don’t just hand it out because you’re desperate for eyes. You’ll only cause yourself harm.

I have several beta and alpha-readers in my life, and they help make my manuscripts better, every day (I would LOVE to have more, but I’m picky.) They are reliable, quick, excited, harsh, enthusiastic, awesome, and smart.


How to get Beta-Readers, and Keep Beta-Readers, as awesome as mine:

Such goals are in no way simple. First, you have to be lucky enough to find an honest person. Which means you’re going to have to go out of your comfort zone a little bit and get to know people. But here are step-by-step bullets that can help you on your journey, and help you keep the person once you find them.

  • Do the research. I know it’s very enticing to get just anyone to read your book, but really stop to think about it first. Once you find a person who might interest you, don’t get too excited. Step back and watch them for a while. Watch their feeds, watch their opinions, look at their website. Get in their head. Make sure you jive with them. Don’t even let them know you’re watching.
  • Once you think you’ve found someone who is cool, start responding to their tweets or what-have-you. Try to get to know them, show an interest in what they do. Beta-reading and CPing requires good communication. If you can’t communicate with someone, don’t even bother. It’s not worth the heartache.
  • Bring beta-reading up to them privately once you think you’ve found a person you like. Talk about it. Feel your way around it.
  • Start with something small. I know it might seem exciting to send them your full manuscript of the thing you care about most right off the bat. Don’t. Give them a taste of you — a short story, a side project, or just a prologue or first chapter if you have no other options.
  • Once you get their first set of feedback, review their comments. How do you feel about them? Are they offering you anything? Are they making suggestions that seem stupid to you?Ignore the compliments during this phase. Anyone can kiss ass. Focus on the critique.
  • So you like it? The person is amazing? They have a lot to offer you? Good. Give them more stuff, do your typical exchanges. This may seem very easy and exciting at first, but there’s some upkeep you need to do if you want them to stick around.
  • When your new awesome beta-reader gives you bad feedback for the first time, let them know right away that you appreciate their honesty. Otherwise, they might walk around their house for hours, worried about your feelings.
  • Continue this act. Always thank them for their honesty. They will grow more and more trusting of you, and their feedback will become even better.
  • Never tell a beta-reader you like that you’re angry with them. They have feelings, and do often feel bad about having to point out great mistakes. You can argue with them — sometimes arguing is good and can be very revealing. (In fact, if you get a beta-reader you can comfortably argue with, you’ve struck gold.) But don’t ever tell them you think their opinions suck, or tell them you’re pissed. Just keep it to yourself.
  • This next one is personal, and maybe not for you. I never tell my beta-readers explicitly what opinions of theirs I like, and which I don’t like. I never tell them what I’ll use or what I’ll throw away. This provides a neutral ground between us, so they can’t figure out what I’m looking for and start to dress their opinions to fit me. Let them notice your changes on the second read-throughs. Half the time they won’t notice which opinions you decided to ignore.
  • Always, always, say thank you. Always make sure they consistently know they haven’t hurt you. Ask them questions that make them excited to help. Do your upkeep. Don’t let your beta-reader feel like they are a horrible person.

Yes, but, Darren… a lot of people are going to read your book when it’s published, and sometimes they might be people you don’t like.
You need people you hate to beta-read your books, so you can make sure everyone will like them.

No. You don’t.
You’re writing is never going to please everyone.

Your job as a writer is to write a book. When the book is finished, and you’re querying publishers and agents, let them help you decide if people are going to hate it or like it. It’s not your job to trample yourself before you even have a manuscript that’s query ready. Beta-reading is about staying in the game and getting a book ready for the market to decide on its own.

For beta-reading, collect yourself a mix of people who write, don’t write. Collect normal folks, but make sure you jive with them all the same.

That’s not to say it’s a bad idea to find a reader that may not like your book. Those can be good readers too. Just make sure their dislike isn’t inexplicable. Have them help you understand why they don’t like it — it will help you sort your audience.

I hope this helps those of you who might not be lucky enough to have the perfect beta-readers yet. In that same vein, everyone is different. If you’re reading this article right now, shaking your head because you think I’m stupid, that’s a sign. Embrace the disagreement, and don’t ever ask me to beta-read, because I’m just not your person.

Same goes for anything, really. ❤


3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Thanks so much for this! I have a first novel in the works (who doesn’t these days?). I also have a lot of writer friends, and was wondering whether or how to approach them to beta-read for me (I’ve beta-read for a few of them). Several have already volunteered, but a few may be of the love-everything type, so this is helpful.

    Question: how many beta-readers would you recommend for a book? It seems to me that too many would generate too much confusing feedback, and too few would run the risk of not enough points of view.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is just an opinion, because I don’t think there is a right answer…

      It depends on the person. If you’re a person who is good at shrugging off ‘negative feedback’ that you don’t agree with, you can probably take as many beta readers as you want. But if you’re someone who is more sensitive, less might be better, at first.

      I think it’s definitely one of those situations where you have to test yourself, try a few things out, and see whats right for you.

      I have 3 non-writer betas and 6 writer betas. I would like more of each, but the right people have to come along. I would like 15-20. It’s really all about how big you want your sample size to be.

      Patrick Rothfuss, who wrote Name of the Wind, has admitted to having over 250 beta readers. I’ve heard of other big name authors having only 15-20.

      If you’re starting out, maybe start with 1-3, and then if you like the direction your book is going with the feedback, up the number to 10.

      It’s so hard to answer this question- – I think the most important part is to learn to shrug off some of the contrasting feedback. No two people are ever going to have the exact same opinion, so one has to become a pro at thumbing through conflicting feedback, and finding the crit that will help your story shine the brightest.


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