Beta readers: When to Ignore Them
Writing by Committee
When betas take control of your novel and how to get it back
Beta readers are one of the biggest issues beginning writers have. Either they don’t have any, or they have too many. Having too many beta readers swamps the new writer with advice, and that isn’t always helpful. Too often the new writer will become trapped in an endless loop of rewriting by trying to incorporate every piece of advice. In this process, the writer loses her own voice and ends up with a bland mess. While getting some feedback is a crucial part of revisions, don’t let your novel get stuck in this phase.
How to know you’ve lost control
Endless revision loop- While it may seem like revisions take forever, there is a point where they need to end. If you have been revising for a year or more, then you may need to reevaluate your process.
Eventually, you will reach a point of diminishing returns. If the novel still isn’t working after several rewrites, then you may need to scrap the idea.
Conflicting advice– The problem with beta advice is that it is just advice. I always tell clients that half of what I say will be helpful and half will not. It’s up to you, the writer, to decide which pieces of advice will help you reach your story’s goals. Everyone has their own preferences. Can you think of a novel that everyone else loved, but you were just so-so? Because preferences vary, you will get conflicting advice. This does not mean that one is right and one is wrong. It is simply subjective.
Lack of interest– This is a symptom that you are getting frustrated with your process. If the prospect of getting feedback from a new beta is more dreadful than exciting, then you may need to move on. Once you begin to lose interest in a project, this is your warning that it may be time to either put this project on hold or abandon it.
Changing something “because a beta said”– As an editor, I have frequently seen the same manuscript in various stages. Almost every time I see a revision, something that I really loved from the previous version is gone. When I ask about it, the conversation usually goes,
Her: “Oh a beta said I should change it.”
Me: “Did they give a reason why?” (pacing, plot, foreshadowing?)
Her: “They didn’t like it.”
The problem with this scenario isn’t because the author didn’t follow my advice, but because she didn’t follow her own. The author created the original version the way she liked it. There was nothing actually wrong, but the moment someone else criticized it, she gave in just to please a beta. Surrendering your story to beta readers will not get you a story that you love.
Evaluating Writing Advice
There are three types of writing advice: correct, subjective, and wrong
Correct advice is anything that fixes a mistake. Plot holes, consistency errors, POV errors, etc. These are things that can objectively be considered wrong.
Subjective advice is anything that falls under personal taste: pacing, levels of description, overall narrative distance, likability of a character, etc.
Wrong advice is anything that conflicts with the writer’s intention or is simply wrong (for example, never use “was” is a great example of terrible writing advice.)
How to evaluate writing advice
When you get feedback from a beta, you need to decide what advice to use in your revision. Yes, you can (and should) ignore some advice. Not all advice is good.
Question 1: Who is giving the advice?
Even if your beta is a published writer, that does not mean she is qualified to give you writing advice. Imagine a horror writer giving you feedback on your middle-grade feel-good adventure. Or an erotica writer giving advice on a Janette Oak-style Christian romance? All writers will have preconceived ideas about what makes a good novel based on their preferences. So try to get feedback from writers who read what you write.
Secondly, try to get feedback from another writer over a family member or friend. The average reader will be able to say whether they liked something, but won’t be able to articulate specific issues as well as another writer.
The friend: This part was boring
The writer: The pacing in this scene begins to drag. There is too much backstory that isn’t relevant to the character’s current conflict. Also, the stakes aren’t clear. Tighten up the sentences by eliminating extra description to increase the tension.
Which feedback would you prefer?
Question 2: Does the feedback match your vision?
Your beta says the main character should be nicer so she’s more likable, but you were planning a redemption arc. Following this advice would weaken your character arc and take your further from your story’s goal. When you decide which advice to implement, make sure you keep your personal vision of the story as your goal. If the advice is counter to that goal, it won’t help your story.
Question 3: Does the feedback improve the story?
Too often writers change things and the results are no better than the original. Before you make a change, decide if the new is actually better than the old. Positive changes are those that increase tension, clarify characterization, clarify motivation, increase the stakes, fix mistakes, etc. Switching the setting from the football field to the soccer field does nothing. Make sure you can identify a reason for the change.
Question 4: Am I chasing trends?
Nothing will date your story faster than writing to trends. So if you are making a change because something is more popular, think twice. There are certain exceptions. Genres like romance and urban fantasy have conventions that readers have been trained to expect. For example, many romance lines are written in 3rd person point-of-view, while urban fantasy is almost exclusively written in 1st person deep. There are exceptions, but if you are expecting to write for a specific publisher’s line, you will have to follow the conventions of that line.
Taking back control
Before you make any change ask:
- Why am I making this change?
- How is it improving the story?
- Do I like this version better?
If you can’t answer these questions, then reconsider whether you really need to make the change. Change for the sake of change isn’t progress.
Writing is subjective. No two people will agree on what makes it great. Don’t let beta feedback trap you in an endless editing loop. Learn to evaluate writing advice and take back control of your story.
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