This will be a long post, so here is a summary: Don’t trust everything betas critique, do take everything they say to heart, and whittle down your beta group to mainly ones who’s feedback is brutal, but rings true.
For anyone new, a beta reader is someone who reads your first shareable draft (as in the draft you think is ready, god bless your hopeful soul).
Almost as an experiment, the first thing I ever wrote that was longer than a short story, I sent to the four people in my life that had either encouraged or pushed me to start writing the year before. The email was vague. “Give it a read, and tell me what you think.” (If anyone is interested, I’d be more than milking to make a post about how I compose my feedback email, what kind of questions I ask, etc… but they won’t be in this post). From three of those four, I got words of encouragement, mixed with code words for bad. Interesting. Unique. Now, alone these words don’t mean bad things, but they all said it was good, with vague mentions of characters, scenes, themes, without a single truly negative word.
The fourth beta reader ruined my month.
He’s also the only person from that group that I still share my work with.
I know I’m not alone in feeling the sting of feedback. It’s fucking awful. Savage. They tell you to put your heart and soul on to the page, then you have to let someone stomp them black and blue. Maybe even break them. But then it heals, and you’re, “… strong at the broken places”.
I was lucky to have someone brutally honest, who wasn’t (drum roll please!) overly critical. This I learned especially from my next work, a full novel I had no intention of publishing. I spread my net much wider, and found a whole new problem with beta readers. Beyond the extra people who had only good things to say (useless), or ones with vague negatives (nearly as useless), I found people who seemed to not read my book, but glare at it across the room before seeing the first word. Knowing I was an amateur, they shit on every single sentence, every single character, the most minute of details. In spite, I sent them all examples of works I knew they enjoyed, pointing at misgivings that they’d “hated” in my own work—a pointless waste of time (especially since they all responded with equally spiteful retorts as to how I’m not said author, or this or that).
But, that same original awesome beta reader, and a new one, both harshly critiqued in ways that resonated with me. Critical, but not to a fault.
Skip a few pages. I have four main beta readers that I religiously attempt to fix their issues with my work. I still have many others, including the overly critical that I’ve grown enough to take their words with a grain of salt. Sometimes what they say resonates. But as much as they are overly critical of my work, I’m overly critical of their feedback. I still have family and friends that merely tell me how amazing I am (which I find useful as a confidence booster when trying not to sob into a shot glass from other feedback).
Skip to the next chapter. I have representation. That’s right. I did it. My book is being shopped around. I attribute this mostly to my best beta readers (quick self pat: I’ve grown a lot as a writer over the years as well). But, even the overly critical ones caught things most readers might not, helped polish nonetheless. And, even the so called useless ones helped to boost my spirits.
You need all kinds of beta readers, but those ones you find who read it as a book, and eloquently show you mistakes (hopefully with the occasional solution), are the ones you want to find and keep. Without mine I’m useless.
So, to all those out there looking for betas or dealing with the claws of feedback, maybe you can learn from my experiences. Learn to spot those that critique from a good place, and an honest one. Learn to sift through the ones who merely can’t critique because they love you too much, or don’t want to upset you. But—the most important but—know that some people will search for the worst in your work, simply because you aren’t a professional. Do the same to their feedback.
Obligatory positive end note: Don’t give up, keep writing, all that Jazz. And good luck.