Appreciation for Betas (or Readers Rock!)

Question: If a book falls in the forest and no one’s there to read it, does it still stink?

Answer: Most likely.

Reading Girl on a Sofa, by Isaac Israels (1920)

Perverse Process: I know I’ve been lucky. I’ve had fantastic beta-readers throughout my journey. Not everyone has such good fortune. In my role as a moderator for the Writer Unboxed online community, I see it often. Writers are looking for readers. For what is a story without someone to tell it to? The problems come when writers seek said readers too early. No reader deserves to slog through first draft material. And let’s face it, early drafts typically suck. And yet novice writers almost always subject some poor undeserving reader (usually a close friend or a relative) to work that’s not ready to be shown. It’s part of the process. I did it too.

How those early readers of your amateur drivel handle their role can be critical, especially if the writer is sensitive, emotional or has a fragile ego. Feel free to laugh. Of course it’s a joke. (For those who aren’t writers and didn’t get it: We’re ALL sensitive, emotional, fragile souls—why else would we spend most of our waking hours exploring the emotions of people we’ve made up and then hope that others will connect with what we’ve found?)

Honesty Ain’t Easy: I said I’ve been lucky and this includes my draw of early beta-readers. When I finished my first draft, I didn’t belong to any critique groups and I didn’t really know any other writers. And yet some friends and family kindly offered to forge into the murk. A few gave up. A few avoided me afterward. A few pretended it had never happened (“Manuscript? What manuscript?”). But several brave souls either made it through or had the courage to tell me they’d stopped reading and why. To the reader, those who made it through were kind and insightful in telling me it needed work. But more importantly they also showed me there was promise. I continued to work because they kindled hope. It was a special gift.

B-Company Betas: Over the course of seeking a second round of betas, I had no idea how much farther I had to go, and for that I am grateful. After learning there was work to be done, I set about studying the craft and I joined an online writing community. Then I tackled revisions. I did fare much better with the next round of betas (as did they—the work was evidently and necessarily much more palatable). I learned from the first group that I might actually have something. From this next group I started to gain some insight into genuine reader expectations, as well as a bit of traction and enthusiasm for continuing to work (rather than just hoping everyone would say they loved it). I learned something unique from each reader in Company B. They were critical not just to moving forward, but to knowing I could improve it and being excited about it.

Brass Tacks Betas: I’ve written about how fortunate I feel to have connected with my editor/mentor Cathy over on WU (read it here if you haven’t). Because of Cathy and my evolution as a writer, the books all underwent significant revision before this next group of betas, particularly book one. Now we were starting to make them into what felt more like real books. Among the next wave of readers to hit the beaches were my writer friends. Now I was getting real critique (of the variety many of you receive in critique groups as you move along). Telling rather than showing, poor grammar mechanics, adverbs in dialog tags, and just plain clunky writing were all noted and polished.

Right Reader Revelations: After the Brass Tacks round of readers, I did another total rewrite and went into submissions for the second time. Throughout the process I’d been zeroing in on my Right Reader, and providentially I found several readers at this point to fit the bill (females—often younger/new adult females—who are voracious readers and favor epics with romantic elements). Now I felt like I was swinging for the fences. Although the submissions did not yield an agent, I did get a few requests for pages and some encouraging feedback. So no home run. However, the feedback I was receiving from the Right Reader betas made it clear I was solidly connecting with the ball. I felt more certain than ever that this was a story that would find an audience.

Inspirational Beta: One of the Right Reader betas actually inspired this post. She’s an acquaintance I see a few times per year. Several months ago we got to talking at a party about our mutual love of Hunger Games and George RR Martin and she asked if she could read. I sent her book one, but rarely saw her afterward and only in mixed company. All I really knew was that after each of the first two books, she requested the next. What more could I ask? I just ran into her the other night at a chamber of commerce meeting. During the keynote presentation she saw me outside the dining hall at the bar (where else?). Her smile would’ve been enough, but she ran over and gave me a hug, and gave me one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received: “I can’t wait until these books are popular so I can tell everyone I read them first.” I’m still smiling about it.

Let a Beta Be: If you’ve never used beta readers before, a bit of advice (besides striving to offer them work that’s ready to be read). Offer as few guidelines as possible. I usually say something like, “Just read it for flow and for feedback I’ll happily take whatever you’re comfortable giving, even general feelings.” Every beta reader I’ve had has given me something different.

I’ve had betas point out plot inconsistencies, help me change a few names, offer suggestion to keep elements in greater suspense. Betas have helped me make my MCs more likeable and my antagonists more despicable. I’ve even had a former teacher who did a complete line edit of the entire trilogy, meticulously marking and noting every single typo and grammar error (thanks Aunt Cindy!). A few have mostly offered enthusiastic encouragement—which is vitally important, believe me!

The Road Goes (Ever?) On: I’m not sure what will happen with the trilogy, but I am absolutely certain the books are vastly improved and that they continue to be a viable possibility because of my beta readers. I’m thinking most have honestly enjoyed being a part of the process. I’ve been amazed by the uniqueness of their perspectives and I love the process of distilling their various opinions to plot a course forward. I dare say a few of the earliest readers would be a bit shocked by what the books have become.

Couldn’t Builda Betta’ Beta Team: In the interest of personally and publicly showing my gratitude, here is a list of my fabulous Team Beta (I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone—forgive me if I have!): Dan Brake, Marsha Carroll, Tawn Horton, and Amy Murray (Early Readers); Cindy Deane, Jenn Gardner,  and Colleen Murray (B-Company readers); Kim Bullock, Valerie Chandler, and Heather Reid (my Brass Tacks/Writer Team, aka The WU Mod Squad); Keaghan Cronin, Laura Kieda, Eileen Kochanny, and Deb Wagner (Team Right Reader). And last but oh-so-importantly, my lovely wife Maureen Donnelly Culp, who inspires and supports me every day, and without whom the trilogy would not exist.

I cannot thank you all enough for your gift. Whatever comes of the trilogy, you have not only helped to improve my manuscripts, you’ve made me a better writer and have brightened my life.

Your turn. Have you been a beta reader or had beta readers for your work? How has it affected you?

38 comments on “Appreciation for Betas (or Readers Rock!)

  1. liz says:

    Vaughn, I’m so glad you received such a great compliment on your writing — and I think your knack for finding great betas is also a reflection on how much you support others.

    I have two beta readers for my current project, and they both have been wonderful in different ways. Both are writers themselves, and they write very different stuff from me, which has been extremely helpful because they bring a different balance to the manuscript. I’m lucky to have them.

    • Isn’t that just the coolest compliment? I actually thought of you when I wrote this, knowing you have some betas who you work with in different ways and how important they are to you. We are lucky, aren’t we? Thanks for sharing, Liz!

  2. Natalie Hart says:

    This post made me smile this morning. I’ve had a number of beta readers for earlier projects, only a few of which gave me specific feedback, which is, of course, what I crave more than a “what fun” or “I enjoyed it.” So for my current project, I got a lot more organized. This project is for middle schoolers and it so happens that I and my friends have middle school aged children. So I put out an offer that any kid who read the ms. and answered a 9-question beta reader report would get a $10 honorarium. I’ve gotten 6 so far, and each one has been invaluable.

    • Wow, beta reader incentives! Why didn’t I think of that? ;) I always say that “I enjoyed it” beats the heck out of a kick in the pants, but I’ve been lucky, and even my non-writer betas have often had such insight. I’m awed and humbled. Thanks for sharing, Natalie! :)

    • That is a masterful idea! May I ask what questions you ask? I write for grade school and middle school age and would love to use your idea.

      • Hi Stacie, I’ll pass along a note to Natalie (I don’t think her blog is on WordPress). Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • Thank you for your help Vaughn! Natalie and I are in contact!

        How would you recommend finding a group (or even a couple) good beta readers? I find myself in need.

      • It can be tough, I know. On the Writer Unboxed group page, we have a doc for critique partnerships, where you can peruse the others already signed up in your genre as well as leave your own name. Are you a member there (you can check out the page by clicking on the icon to the upper left on this page)? It’s free, and you can lurk for a while to get comfortable (I did).

        It’s tough to find folks you can trust, but I’d start by getting involved in a community–somewhere you feel comfortable. It could be genre based, or local, or online only. Besides Writer Unboxed, I’m involved with Backspace, Grub Street, and a local writers’ group in my area. Good luck, Stacie!

  3. gaele1 says:

    I fell into beta reading, initially using the opportunity to see a work in progress and what that really meant. What I have learned in the process is invaluable to me as both a reader and a reviewer. And, hopefully will allow me to better present work when I finally sit down to pen my own book.

    I’ve been really fortunate with the authors I have read for to this point. I tend to read the whole submission first – and get a general impression – then I go back to places I’ve marked with a little ? and see if I still find it worth mentioning. Then I start the sentence by sentence (or word to word) reading, make my notes and try to explain when I think something doesn’t work, or needs a change.

    I’ve been involved in the first round, after it’s gone to publishing team for changes, and as “polish’” on an ARC. What I think some authors miss is that it is an extraordinary amount of time expended when it’s done well – and no one who beta reads is looking to destroy your dream. I truly want every book I pick up to read to engage me, transport me and treat me to a new perspective: because if it can do that for me – it WILL do that for others. I’ve heard of other beta readers who have had authors refuting their comments, or flat out dismissing them – what I’ve seen is books that weren’t put out to a beta reader, or comments ignored, being rife with issues and usually torn apart by reviewers – or just languishing on a shelf somewhere because the simple fact of someone (other than a family member or best friend) telling them “X isn’t working for me here because __”.

    • Great points! Having been a beta-reader, I totally appreciate the time and energy it takes. And, as much as it sometimes stung, I’m grateful for those who were brave enough to tell me when they thought it sucked, and later what parts of it weren’t working. And I also appreciate the support offered by those who offset their negatives with praise. It can be a tricky line to walk. As I say, I wouldn’t be here to tell without them!

      Thanks for reading and for enhancing the conversation from the reader’s point of view! :)

  4. Eileen says:

    Thanks for this… (look at FB and you’ll see why). I really needed this note of appreciation today. And I also needed to know that I’m doing something for someone else that’s not only vital, but really does make a difference. Oh, and thanks for making me chuckle a few times, too! :D

    I REALLY enjoy your writing and I’m honored that I made the team!!!!!

    • It really is vital and makes a difference. I’ll never forget the night you sat with me and went through the short about Brin line by line. That short never saw the light of day, but it turned into a whole manuscript (the prequel). Thanks for your praise and for being on Team Right Reader! :)

      Chin up today, E! Hugs to you.

  5. kimbullock says:

    Awww, thanks Vaughn! It was my pleasure, and I’m glad I was able to provide some help. I should be thanking you, too, for your wonderful comments on my book! It’s fantastic to have writer friends, because no one but another writer will understand the blood, sweat and tears that go into creating a book, or the ups and downs of the submission process. I’m so glad you are one of my tribe!

    • I still felt that you got short-changed on our beta-swap, Kim. Yours was so much more polished when we did it, and I really did just fall in love with reading The Oak Lovers. I kept having to remind myself that I was supposed to be working as I read. Back atcha on being my tribe mate! Best of luck! I’m so excited about your future, my friend!

  6. vpchandler says:

    Aww, you’re welcome! It was such a joy to read and it was more polished than you think. I kept thinking I was reading a book and not a manuscript. I love these friendships we’ve developed, honest relationships.

  7. Dan Brake says:

    Wow, what an honor. I really didn’t realize
    all those characters were new-borns when
    we met!! I probably would have been more
    frightened than you to discuss such freshly
    minted family members. All I can really
    say – again – is thank you for inviting me
    onto that private island that is your brain.
    Congrats on your accomplishment.
    Dan

    • Ah, the alpha-beta chimes in. :) Can you believe it’s been three years since you read? I can honestly say, Dan, without you I may not have continued writing regularly. And even if I had, I almost certainly would not have continued trying to develop the trilogy.

      Outside of my immediate family, you were the first person to finish reading all three manuscripts. When you told me how various aspects applied to your own life, and how parts had created an emotional response, I was not only moved and honored, I realized this writing thing might actually be my life’s calling.

      Thank you for your perseverance and for the kind of honesty–positive and negative–only a true friend can deliver. You kept my journey alive, and I’m so very grateful.

  8. Jink Willis says:

    Ah. So lovely! You are such a winner!!

  9. karenselliott says:

    You are so fortunate to have good beta readers, your gifted tribe, Vaughn! As a writer and editor/proofreader, my opinion may be skewed. I have had prospective clients come to me with a “beta-read novel,” thinking it’s publishing-ready. These clients had the Mom or English-teacher-sister read the book and, “They Think It’s Awesome!” I truly believe people-that-want-to-be-published should read more and study the art of writing instead of banging out a novel to be published next month. And mind who your beta readers are. Fragile souls – I can dig it. If you think you are ready to be published, you should be ready for an edit. If you are lucky, like Vaughn, then you are in the gravy.

    • I can see your point, regarding the false sense one could gain from a small, select group of betas. It’s one of the reasons I started out with fairly large and varied groups. I think I read in Stephen King’s On Writing that you should shoot for six, so that’s what I started with. I was lucky on the first round, not just to have several who pushed through, but even by one who stopped reading and took the time to write me a nice scolding email, spelling out her reasons. I say nice because she could’ve just made an excuse or said nothing (we rarely see one another). She was a genre fan, so her note really struck a chord with me, and made me work all the harder. I really owe her a debt (this was three years ago, but is one of the reasons I list her above – thanks, Amy!)

      On the other hand, I really love the readers (especially the more recent ones) who write me to mostly say they “Think it’s Awesome!” That’s been really important to my journey as well.

      Thanks for weighing in from an editor’s perspective, Karen! And also thanks for sharing and for all your support. It means a lot to me. :)

  10. Nicole L. Bates says:

    I have been a beta reader and received the gift from others as well. It truly is a gift. I was so anxious to have someone read the story when I thought it was done that I practically forced my dear mother-in-law to read through in one sitting (she’s a very fast reader and very sweet). She was encouraging and had wonderful suggestions that helped me flesh out the story. From there I have had a few more friends and family members, a professional editor, agent, and now two on-line writer friends read and give invaluable feedback. I am forever in their debt. Each person has seen something different in the story and given a unique perspective.

    I’ve found with writer friend’s it’s always important to offer to read in return, and in some cases to wait and see how detailed they are in their feedback so that I can gauge how detailed I should be in return. Some people want you to catch every missed comma, others simply want to know if there are any major holes in the plot. I’m learning from every experience and it’s been so much fun!

    • Wow, one sitting, your mother-in-law is a fast reader. :) I’ve really enjoyed the process so much. Your story has had some high-level vetting, too. So awesome for your journey forward. I agree, with writers it should be reciprocal. I’ve learned so very much from my writer friends (the Mod Squad), and another benefit has been their willingness to lend an ear and offer support when I need it since.

      After my last round of subs, I wondered about rewriting the opening. I asked Cathy and the Mod Squad, and their input into the decision and the process has been huge! I ended up doing it, and with a lot of help. I feel really good about my new opening, so whatever happens, I’m feeling so blessed.

      As Karen said above, I really am lucky to have so many wonderful tribe-mates, including you, Nicole. (Isn’t it cool that we can totally picture talking in real life now? I love that I can hear your voice in my head when I read your words now. :) ). Thanks for sharing your remarkable experience with betas, my friend!

      • Nicole L. Bates says:

        It is pretty cool to be able to put a real person with the virtual persona! I’m so glad to hear you’re feeling positive about the new opening. It’s a hard thing to do, I know! I hope you have a great weekend.

  11. elissa field says:

    Vaughn, what a great breakdown of the whole experience of sharing unfinished (whether we know it or not) work with readers, in all its value and pitfalls. A lot of writers may never have such a wealth of betas as you have (for many writing without a strong writing community, it’s genuinely lucky to run across even a handful of likeminded or insightful readers, isn’t it) — but whether a person has a few readers or a full dozen or more, your categories really highlight different approaches and outcomes. I think that’s great! Now… you’ve guilted me into being more timely in responding to a great writer’s story. Hopefully I’ll make it into right-reader status and the feedback I give will be useful — as she has been just that for me! Thanks for the post.

    • Hey Elissa! As I said, I know I’ve been lucky. I think in the early stages my genre (historical fantasy) was a hindrance. But later it became a boon, as I narrowed in on my Right Readers. And pleasing them is what it’s all about, right?

      I’m so glad the post inspired you. Good luck to you and your writer friend! May you both find Right Readers aplenty! :) Thanks!

  12. ddfalvo says:

    For any writer who has ever embarked upon the author’s quest, your blogs are a compass rose that keep us headed true north.

    You just have a knack for striking the center of each issue, and each time the anvil rings with compassionate honesty, relatable trials and always hope for the weary.

    My beta readers have followed the same course except I haven’t had Brass Tacks or Right Readers yet– I wish I was ready for this step.

    What I love about this post so much is that it tells me your journey is about to venture into new territory–the landscape we are all pursuing, and the one with the most dangerous pitfalls.

    If there be dragons, slay them. If there be steep inroads, climb them with steady feet. Push hard, but feed your hope daily. In every story there’s always a character with the fortitude, skill and fortune to succeed well. Believe you are that character because the rest of us already know it.

    • I had to switch from AE to Chrome, but I finally got this comment thingy to work, D. I think that our community is all about collaboration. I’ve been lucky enough to receive much guidance and support to those further up the hill than myself. It’s only right that continue the process. I doubt you’re very far behind me, D, and I’m so glad for the company. When you’re ready for Brass Tacks beta reading, give me a shout. I want to help you slay your dragons.

      Thanks so much for your ongoing support and friendship! :)

  13. Story Addict says:

    Haha: what manuscript? Great post, Vaughn. I definitely feel you. It was a great struggle at first, but I also discovered some unexpected support. We could all use an ounce more, of course, but often have to deal with what we have. I think as a rule for an author, if another author beta’d your work, you should expect to return the favor in some way. And that’s not always easy because there’s no guarantee you’re going to like their work. Turning them down is tough and often rubs the relationship the wrong way. On the other hand, if you do critique it and give feedback that might send them off a cliff or into a blinding rage, that’s also tricky. I’ve definitely had to deal with my share of “tough love” feedback, but I took what I could from it, realized I wasn’t going to see eye-to-eye with every person, and improved on what I could. It’s a risky, tricksy, and sometimes uncomfortable thing to do, but I love helping other authors and would never turn away the feedback I’ve received. Especially the encouragement, which is just as invaluable as the critique.

    • I totally agree, Margaret, that it can be risky, tricksy, and sometimes uncomfortable (LOVE that phrasing!). I’m still in awe over some of the people who’ve volunteered and have done a great job. I’ve not only learned a lot about my own writing from my betas, but they’ve also taught me to have patience and find the good in the work. After all, a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down. ;) Thanks for reading and sharing your experience and insight! :)

  14. Hi Vaughn,
    I’m late for the party here, behind in my blogs. But I love reading about your journey with Beta readers. I’ve been lucky as well. It’s so terrifying and rewarding to hand the paper baby over to someone you know is a careful reader. After this brutal round of revisions, I’m going to need another line of willing souls. Here’s to the Betas!

    • Hey Lisa! I’ve been behind on reading blogs and such lately, too. It is tough. I’ve been holding my breath and hitting send in the last few days. That’s tough enough, but then, as Tom Petty so aptly put it: “The waiting is the hardest part.” :) Good luck powering through revisions, my friend! Here’s to Betas, indeed!

  15. I stopped asking friends to read because they never want to hurt your feelings.

  16. elissa field says:

    Vaughn, a friend was just posting about her uncertainties over feedback she was getting on her memoir… and I have to say, this post jumped instantly into my memory! I just searched to find it again so I could share the link with her and others at Wordsmith Studio, who were discussing the ins and outs of beta readers. I hope some of them come read your post! Best to you!

    • It can be a bit crazy-making. Diversity is important. And giving yourself the freedom to reap only what resonates with time and let the rest go. I’m so glad the post made an impression, and hope your friend and the others find it useful, Elissa! Thanks so much!

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