When to Listen to your Beta Readers and When to Go Rogue

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October 24, 2021

So you’ve written a book, and you’re no amateur; you know the best writers get other eyes on their work, that art is not created in a vacuum. You’ve enlisted the help of beta readers, maybe friends or people in your writing circle, who will give you that valuable feedback you need. But when you finally get your work back, their comments leave you scratching your head.

What do they mean when they say the narrative would work better in third person instead of first?

Why is one beta reader telling you to add more description while another is saying you need less?

Where do they get off calling your characters flat?

And when do you listen to your betas, and when do you go your own way?

Well, your first move when getting feedback should be to sleep on it. I get it, this book represents months, maybe years of hard work, and to have someone casually dismiss a character arc you spent hours painstakingly crafting can leave you feeling less than charitable. Don’t respond, don’t even ask for clarification until you’ve had 24 hrs to think on it. If you’re just as baffled the next day it may be worth pursuing the issue. But in my experience, after giving my subconscious a whole night to chew it over, more often than not my betas’ comments make a lot more sense.

The next move is to contrast and compare. Are all your betas pointing out the same issue? You should always strive to have a few beta readers for this purpose. If everyone is in consensus, it’s likely something you need to pay more attention to. But if the issue only crops up for one or two readers it could signal a pet peeve or personal preference specific to those individuals. Again, a larger sample helps you gather more objective feedback.

Related to the point above, if a beta reader does take issue with something you disagree with, are they part of your target audience? I know how difficult it can be to get anyone to read your work when you’re starting out, but the wrong reader can do more hard than good. If this is someone who primarily reads hard sci-fi and you’ve sent them your cozy mystery, they may not be familiar with the tropes of the genre in a way that is valuable to you. Conventions that your target reader may love or even expect could be completely maligned by a beta reader who doesn’t understand or appreciate them, through no fault of their own. It’s simply not their thing. 

Last, if you decide not to take a beta reader’s advice, please be gracious about it. Whatever the feedback this person has taken time out of their life to read your work. Even if you think their feedback is the most ridiculous thing you’ve heard in decades, simply say thank you and keep it moving, especially as you might feel differently with distance.

At the end of the day, your book is your book, and you need to do what best fits your vision, but betas can give valuable objectivity. Following the steps above you’ll more confidently be able to assess what advice to keep and what to throw away.

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