Writing

Seven Ways Writers Sabotage Beta Reading

Beta reading is a critical part of the writing process. It’s a preview of how real-life human beings will respond to your work, something every author should get before their book hits primetime.

And yet, I keep seeing authors mishandle the beta reading process. Over and over again, they make mistakes that not only lower the quality of their feedback but could potentially drive beta readers away. In retrospect, this isn’t super surprising, since there isn’t a lot of great material out there to teach authors what they should do. That’s why I want to go through some of the most common mistakes I see, so you know what to avoid in the future.

1. Not Formatting Properly

This might seem obvious, but authors don’t always think about it enough: your manuscript should be formatted so it’s as easy to read as possible. The first thing to think about is, fittingly enough, the file format. Always ask what format works best for each reader, and do your best to accommodate them. A Word document is the best default,* as it’s easy to read, navigate, and leave comments on. Don’t try any fancy formatting to keep your work from being stolen. No beta reader will steal your stuff, so all this does is inconvenience people who are trying to help you.

In most cases, posting your work on some kind of online forum or private website will make things harder for your readers. Those systems rarely have the kind of functionality found in a standard word processor, and sometimes they’re not even laid out in a way that makes the text easy to read. If you’re going to use such a system, you should also make the story available as a Word document for anyone who wants one.

If you’re posting your story in multiple parts, it’s really important that you include navigation directions and a clear reading order. It’s easy for readers to see “chapter 1” and assume that’s where they’re supposed to start, missing that there’s also a prologue they should be reading first. This gets worse the more unnumbered chapters your story has.

Finally, once you’ve gotten the file type and delivery method figured out, take a look at the text and make sure it’s as legible as possible. One of the most common mistakes is not marking new paragraphs. Word doesn’t always insert line breaks by default, which can turn your manuscript into one giant block of text. You should use standard fonts whenever possible, and you should read through the document at least once looking for typos. No one expects you to catch them all, but the more you get, the fewer there are for your readers to stumble over.

2. Not Telling Beta Readers What You Want

Different authors want different things out of the beta reading process, and the only way to get that is to specifically tell readers what you’re looking for. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been handed a manuscript with no instructions at all, left to drift helpless in the sea of storytelling.

Fortunately, I know to ask the author what they want, but a lot of readers don’t. And frankly, readers shouldn’t have to ask. The author is the one benefiting from this arrangement, and it’s on their shoulders to provide guidelines. Regardless, without instruction, beta readers will run wild across the manuscript, pointing out only what catches their fancy. This is unlikely to be very useful.

In an added wrinkle, sometimes when I ask what feedback the author wants, it turns out they don’t know. This is another symptom of how bad our society is at preparing new authors. They know they’re supposed to send their work out for feedback, and after that, it’s just a big set of question marks.

That’s why at Mythcreants we wrote a guide on what you should ask your beta readers to look for. In short, the most useful information beta readers can give you is their positive and negative reactions to elements in the story. If readers like something, great, you know to keep that. If they don’t like something, it’s time to consider revisions. Experienced authors may have more specific needs, but those basic fundamentals will take you a long way.

On a final note, I’ve occasionally encountered authors who only seem to want positive feedback, but aren’t willing to say that. If this is your situation, then I’m officially giving you permission to tell your readers to only note the things they liked. Their feedback won’t be as helpful in the revision process, but it will probably boost your self-esteem, and sometimes that’s really important.

3. Sending Out New Versions

Let me tell you about one of the most unsettling things that can happen to a beta reader. They’ve just finished reading chapter 11, meticulously noting their reactions for the author. Then the reader gets a notification: the author has revised the first 10 chapters and posted them for feedback!

It’s really difficult for a beta reader to know what to do in this situation. Should they start over and reread the revised chapters? That sounds like a pain, especially since now they’ll have to be super vigilant for anything that’s changed. Should they just keep going? That’s probably the best course, but now all of their feedback is unreliable. They might think the villain’s heat vision comes out of nowhere in chapter 12, but what if it was actually established in the revisions to chapter 10? Now the reader is constantly second-guessing themself.

From a writer’s perspective, revising before you get feedback on the entire story is seriously jumping the gun. Sure, you might know what’s wrong with the story’s beginning, but any changes you make there will ripple out through the rest of the story, which you don’t have complete feedback for yet.

Let’s say you introduce a bodyguard character at the beginning, and your readers really don’t like them. You get comments like “this character is really boring” and “why is this character even here.” Clearly, something has to be done. But what to do will change based on how readers view the character over the rest of the story.

If readers still completely hate the bodyguard by the end, that’s a good reason to cut the character entirely. But if their feedback gets more positive once the bodyguard becomes a love interest, that could be a signal that you need to start the romance earlier. You’ll never know if you start making changes before the current round of reading is finished.

4. Getting Chapter-by-Chapter Feedback

It’s always been my policy to send the entire manuscript out at once, but a lot of authors post each chapter for feedback the moment they finish drafting it. Sometimes this is a personal preference; other times the author’s online critique groups encourage it. Either way, this approach has a lot of problems.

Most immediately, posting each chapter as you finish it is really discouraging. First drafts are rough, so a lot of the feedback is going to be negative, which is the last thing you need when trying to finish a story. I’ve seen more than a few writers give up on their work because the opening salvo of negative feedback was too much. Unless you’re one of those rare authors with a bulletproof ego, this is something to avoid.

A secondary problem is that having beta readers look at a really rough draft isn’t actually very useful. When a story has deep structural problems, that’s likely all beta readers are going to see, assuming they can accurately describe the issue at all. If your protagonist simply has no reason to go on their adventure, the best-case scenario is that every beta reader tells you that and then nothing else of use. In the worst-case scenario, they don’t actually realize that’s the problem, and they just tell you they’re bored.

This is why we always recommend getting content editing* before showing your story to beta readers, if you have the resources. A content editor will help you fix the big-picture issues with your story, and from there beta readers can help you with the fine tuning. If hiring a content editor isn’t within your means, then you still want to go over the manuscript yourself and fix what you can before sending it out to beta readers. That way, the feedback is less likely to be soul-crushingly negative.

5. Asking for Content Recommendations

Another symptom of poor education around beta reading is that many authors ask their readers for recommendations on how to improve the story. They ask how they can give the climax more punch, which characters should be cut, how to make the villain’s plan function properly, and so forth. In short, they ask for the sort of recommendations a content editor should be giving.

The main reason not to do this is that most beta readers are simply not qualified to give that kind of advice. Storytelling is a craft, and while it’s often undervalued, expertise in it does not come naturally. Most of your beta readers won’t know how to make the story work any better than you do. In fact, they’re probably worse, since at least you understand your own goals for the story. Beta readers should be giving you data in the form of reactions, not telling you what to do.

If you follow a beta reader’s recommendations, you’re likely taking the story off in a random direction that won’t solve the problem. And since beta readers don’t usually consider a story in its entirety, their recommendations are likely to create other problems elsewhere. It’ll become an endless game of whack-a-mole where you put in a lot of work and get little in return.

On the off chance that you do have a beta reader who’s qualified to give content recommendations, you run into another problem: they really should be getting paid. Content editing is a profession, and asking someone to do it for free is no different than asking an electrician to fix your house’s wiring pro bono. It’s always possible you could strike up an exchange – maybe you fix their car and they work on your stories – but in most cases you should be paying in dollars. Not only is the right thing to do, but asking people to work for free creates resentment, and resentful editors do bad work.

6. Assuming Early Reactions Don’t Matter

There’s an attitude among certain storytellers and fans that it doesn’t matter how much people actually enjoy a story’s beginning; the only important thing is how they feel about the end. These are the folks who dismiss concerns about a story’s rocky start because “it gets better later.

That attitude is bad enough when applied to published stories, but it’s an absolute disaster when an author applies it to their manuscript. Not only is it really disheartening for a beta reader to explain why they don’t like something only to be told they’ll enjoy it later, but it shows the author has a fundamental misunderstanding of storytelling.

Let’s assume for a moment that the sentiment is correct, and the beta reader actually will enjoy themself more later on. You should still take their concerns seriously. For one thing, a reader who isn’t specifically going through your story to give feedback might just stop when they hit the unpleasant patch. Then it doesn’t matter how good your ending is, because they’ll never see it.

But more importantly, you’re writing a work of entertainment, so why would you leave part of it unenjoyable on purpose? People will buy your book looking for a positive experience, be that fun escapism, deep catharsis, or something else. You have a responsibility to give them that experience to the best of your ability, not make them slog through the early dreck in the hopes of reaching something good later.

And of course, it’s much more likely that a beta reader who doesn’t enjoy the story’s beginning won’t enjoy the end either. Most stories that start out bad stay bad for the duration. Even if the story does improve, there’s a good chance that readers will simply be too frustrated to enjoy it.

7. Arguing With Readers

I’ll admit, I didn’t expect to cover this aspect of beta reading. Even though material on beta reading is lacking, just about everyone I’ve seen speak on the subject agrees on one thing: don’t argue with your beta readers. And yet, I’ve actually experienced this mistake more often than any other on this list.

To an extent, I sympathize. It can be really hard to accept negative feedback, especially if you’re still in an early stage in your storytelling journey. I vividly remember the first time I gave a manuscript to someone for beta reading. I was so sure they’d love it because I loved it. They really didn’t love it, and I was crushed.*

But no matter how awful you feel, arguing with beta readers is self-defeating. Arguing isn’t going to make them change their minds and suddenly love your story. It’s fine to ask for clarification if you need it, but don’t tell them they’re wrong. They’re giving you their reactions, and no amount of defensiveness will alter it.

On the contrary, arguing with your beta readers is a great way to make sure they never read for you again. It makes the reader feel like they’re wasting their time. Why should they bother reading your stuff if you don’t take what they say seriously?

Phrasing your arguments as explanations, something I see a lot of authors do, isn’t any better. If a reader thinks the hero’s actions don’t make sense, it doesn’t help to explain how everything makes perfect sense because of the hero’s deep backstory or what have you. Even if that material is actually in the text, the reader didn’t pick up on it. All you’re doing is making them feel invalidated. Plus, you might actually be corrupting the rest of their feedback, since now you’ve told them something they couldn’t get just from reading the story.

Here’s the secret: sometimes beta readers do in fact give you bad feedback. Feedback that’s just the worst, that you should never act on. Even when they do that, you shouldn’t argue. You should thank them because they are doing you a favor. Reading unpublished manuscripts isn’t most people’s idea of a good time, but they’ve taken hours out of their day to read yours anyway. Treat them the way you’d treat anyone else doing you a favor.

In fact, that’s the key to pretty much every entry on this list. Respect your beta readers’ time. Make your manuscript easy for them to read, and make sure they know what to comment on. Don’t make them wonder if they’re reading the right version or ask for something they don’t have the expertise to do. Always be gracious, even when they deliver bad news.

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Comments

  1. El Suscriptor Justiciero

    On #1, what about OpenDocument? It has all the advantages you list for Office”Open”XML (easy to navigate and edit, and so standard that even Microsoft software can open it correctly), with the advantages that the standard is actually open and actually a standard, and that you don’t need to pirate the software to create them.

    (Tl;dr it does everything that Word format does, and it has advantages for nerds)

    • Cay Reet

      Personally, I prefer Word, but OpenOffice is a good alternative and, as you mentioned, also free. It’s easy enough to import and save Word documents in OpenOffice, too (at least it was the last time I looked into it).

    • StyxD

      I would like to echo the doubt that Word docs are really the reasonable default. It’s not the 00s anymore, not everyone has a copy of MS Office, pirated or otherwise.

      I would probably stick to online solutions, like Google Docs. I mean, they can be opened and read in any browser. Being accustomed to the tool set has little relevance if all you do is read and comment on the thing.

      I used to do some beta reading for amateurs (ie. not for-profit publishing) in this decade, and nearly everyone was using online docs.

      • Sonia

        I can only beta read during my commute, and my pad doesn’t have internet. So no, Google Docs is not the best option, though it is an option you can offer.

        • StyxD

          Good point. It’s a case I didn’t consider.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Not everyone has Word, but nearly all of the other options can open a Word document with little fuss, while the reverse is not always true. There are plenty of legitimate alternatives to Word, I’m all about Google Docs myself, but if you don’t know what format your readers prefer, a Word doc gives you the best chance of usability with little fuss.

      • StyxD

        Yeah, almost everything can open a Word document, but support for writing to it is shaky outside of MS Office, if you’d like to add comments. And from the article I understood that was the use case.

  2. Matt

    I just want to thank you guys for writing all these articles and answering all our questions. Even when I disagree with you, you usually provide some useful insight. Keep doing what you’re doing.

  3. Mike

    I think that not asking for specific feedback can be useful in the very early stages. I’ve sent a couple of friends my two opening chapters and just asked them to talk about whatever caught their attention. I think it was pretty helpful, but I do agree with you that it doesn’t work for a full novel at all.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That’s fair, if you tell them to talk about whatever catches their attention, then you haven’t left them without instructions!

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