The Thin-Skinned Writer’s Guide to Beta Readers

Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash

Sometimes it seems that there are two opposing feelings fighting to take control of the fiction writer’s head: on one side, we want our creation to get into the world. We want it to be loved and appreciated by pretty much everyone out there.

On the other hand, we’re afraid of the criticism we’re ging to run into as soon as we share it with someone else. It’s inevitable: until someone else reads our words, they’re written by ourselves to ourselves. We usually write what we want to read, and have no idea about what “write with your ideal reader in mind” means. We let words flow from our mind to our keyboard to a document, and the pride we take in doing this blinds our critical eye.

The moment we type the words “The End” and realize someone else has to read our draft is when all our irrational fears get loose and fill ourselves with doubt. We know our story is so good, then why are we so afraid someone will destroy it? As it turns out, they will destroy it for sure, and we better be ready for it.

I remember clearly all those feelings I got a few months ago as the first review ever for We Gotta Get Out came into my inbox. The guy I swapped betas with really hated the few chapters I sent him. I was about to erase the draft from my drive and to destroy his own with salty comments when the realization struck me. I had to hold myself tight and read his critics again, but at that point, I was convinced that he probably hadn’t read the whole document. His comments showed that he just glanced at the opening and for some reason at the chapter’s titles. What if my opening had been too much for him to take?

I had to take a step back and come to terms with the fact that people out there didn’t have to enjoy my work. As much as it hurt, it taught me one of the best lessons about writing and publishing I could ever learn.

Our draft is not perfect (but it doesn’t have to be)

This is the first thing we need to realize if we want to improve our craft. It’s true that we put a lot of effort and a lot of enthusiasm into it, but the problem is that we put too much enthusiasm. For some reason, we tend to be too self-indulgent with our work, but people on the outside are not.

I was so proud of the opening chapters, which I wrote between 2012 and 2013, and I didn’t change them very much in the second draft. But my opening steered my first beta reader away from my draft: it could be that he was an asshole, or that he was right and I needed to make it more reader-friendly. So I calmed down, took a deep breath, and read my opening out loud after reading one of the closing chapters: it was an entirely different league.

The opening I wrote was a shapeless ramble that somehow wanted to present the main character as a disillusioned misanthropist, but it could very well scare an external reader away. Stream of consciousness is not so easy to manage, and I’m no James Joyce.

I closed my eyes and tore down those few chapters, and was surprised about how easily I came up with an alternative and better way to introduce the story and the characters. As if I had been knowing since the beginning that the story needed a reshape, and I was just waiting for something to make me see it.

Swallow your pride and behave like an adult — it pays off

As I said, my first reaction was the urge to crush the guy’s work as he had crushed mine, especially when I became suspicious about him reading only the opening and the chapters’ titles.

Instead, I calmed down and did a fair review of his draft (a YA urban fantasy, a bit cliché-y but enjoyable). I sent him back my comments and asked him to be more detailed about what he didn’t like about my story. I don’t know if he read the story at that point, but he answered the questions in a more constructive way, and his comments helped me in the process of re-writing the entire thing.

I sent back to him a revised copy of the first few chapters and this time around he actually read it and provided useful feedback. He disappeared again after the first bunch of chapters, but his contribution was priceless. Needless to say, I’m so glad I actually took that deep breath.

There is no law engraved in the stone

This is a realization we get only after we have a few more people reading the draft. Aside from the clear mistakes, every one of our beta readers will have their own takes on our story, and they will point out different things in different parts of it. Sometimes they’ll even tell opposite things: one of my betas told me I should shorten the introduction chapter, while another one wanted to know more about the character’s background and story premises.

Aside from typos and huge mistakes, we don’t have to change everything in our draft according to each comment we receive (either positive or negative): just read all the feedback, weigh every comment against each other, and try to figure how to incorporate them into the story.

It’s our story, after all, not theirs.

Betas will let us down (they’re people, after all)

The problem with beta swaps is that it’s all a big do ut des, and unfortunately, we have no guarantee that the des part of the deal will ever happen. Chances are quite high that we’ll set up with someone who reads our draft only if they think there’s something in it for them. Someone will disappear right after we give them your feedback and we’ll never hear from them again, someone will lose interest even earlier than that.

Either way, we can still try to squeeze out something from each interaction we have. Review after review, we’ll get a better idea of where we got room for improvement.

At some point, we will have to give in and contact a professional editor to really polish our draft, and knowing in advance which ones are our weakest spots will help us save both time and money. If our English is perfect but we’re not sure whether the characters are fully-fledged and believable, we won’t need a proofreader as much as we need a developmental editor.

With enough money, it doesn’t hurt to have both, but usually, first-time authors (especially indie authors) are on a budget.

Long story short, let’s not be afraid to send our story out in the world. The sooner we accept that not everyone will enjoy it, the better. It will be hard at first, but our skin will grow thicker in a very short time.

Oh, by the way, do you know someone whose skin is even thinner than mine? It’s Lorenza, the protagonist of my first novel. Let’s keep in contact if you want to know more

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