Who Should Read Your Unpublished Work?

ReadingOne of the most common pieces of advice writers are given is: Get outside feedback. Published or not, writers typically show their work to beta readers, critique partners, friends, family members or anyone who will read it, to get feedback before submitting to an editor, agent or publisher. I’m one of those who frequently gives this advice.

But here is a caveat:

All readers are not created equal.

Getting feedback from the wrong readers can be more than simply unhelpful — it can steer you in the wrong direction. Worse, you may not even realize the input you’re receiving is bad. I can’t tell you how many times authors have lamented about the contradictory, unhelpful or confusing feedback they’re getting from readers, only to unpack it and realize they’re simply not showing their work to the right people.

So how can you determine who should read your unpublished work prior to submission? Here are a few questions you can ask yourself, keeping in mind that qualified readers should probably fit at least one of these criteria:

1. Is the reader an experienced writer or editor who understands the requirements of your genre?

2. Is this reader a member of your target audience?

3. Is this person well-read in your genre?

4. If you’re writing non-fiction, is the reader an expert in the subject of your book, or does he/she at least have significant familiarity with it?

Recently an author told me that one of her readers suggested a major change in her memoir, but the change seemed completely wrong. Trying to figure out why the reader would have made that suggestion, we figured out that the reader never read memoirs and wasn’t in the target audience for whom the memoir was written. In other words, she didn’t get it. The suggestion she made would have been exactly wrong for the intended audience of the book. This led to a terrific conversation with the author about carefully choosing those beta readers (and this blog post).

A couple of notes:

• If your reader is related to you by blood or marriage, proceed with caution. Even if they fit one of the criteria above, their ability to give you valuable feedback may be compromised. Don’t allow them to be your only reader until their input has been proven reliable.

• If you’re contracted with a publisher and your habit is to use readers before delivering manuscripts to the publisher, ask your in-house editor if they want you to do this. Some editors would rather see your own original work rather than a workshopped manuscript.

 Do you use beta readers or critique partners? If so, how do you choose them? Do they fit the above criteria?

 

 

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  • http://www.morgantarpley.com Morgan Tarpley

    When I completed my first manuscript, I was concerned about this exact issue. All my beta readers do fit at least one of your guidelines above.

    Several of my readers were family members and I did not want to receive the standard “It was really good” or something similar.

    To try and determine if my readers “really” liked the book or not, I had them fill out a questionaire about my book. I asked them to name the strongest and weakest moments of the book and what surprised them. I also asked if the ending satisfied them.

    In using the questionaire, I found that when you ask specific questions people are more apt to tell you the pros and cons of your work.

    • http://www.morgantarpley.com Morgan Tarpley

      In fact, I think I will post my questionaire on my blog soon, so others can use it too.

      If you are interested in having a copy, check out my blog in the near future for a post about questioning our readers. :)

    • Jeanne T

      Morgan, I like your idea of a questionnaire. I’m glad you mentioned it. :) You thought of some good questions to help you gauge how your book comes across to readers.

      • http://www.pensonaworldmap.com Morgan Tarpley

        I’m glad the idea helped you, Jeanne! I’ll try to let you know when I post it on my blog. See you at Books & Such blog! :)

    • http://talesfromtheredhead.blogspot.com Jennifer Major

      You are brilliant, Morgan!!!! What an excellent idea.

      • http://www.pensonaworldmap.com Morgan Tarpley

        I try, I try…lol. Thanks, Jennifer! :) I just got to thinking how can I gain insightful feedback from people who care about me.

    • http://www.morgantarpley.com Morgan Tarpley

      Hi everyone!

      I did post my reader questionnaire on my blog. Here is the link.

      http://www.pensonaworldmap.com/2013/02/get-to-readers-heart-what-to-do-with.html

      Hope it helps someone as much as it helped me! :) Happy writing!

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  • http://grapevine.com.au/~nataliem Natalie

    I was forced to read my father-in-law’s novel (at guilt-point) and although I am an editor and very well-read in that genre and a member of his target audience, I ended up just saying, “Yeah, it was good…” I gave a few waffly suggestions that didn’t come anywhere near addressing the scope of the work that needed to be done.

    Because it was my father-in-law.

    I was definitely the wrong reader for that author.

    Family and friends are unlikely to say what needs to be said.

    • http://susanfoybooks.blogspot.com Susan Foy

      That is a really good point. I guilted my husband into reading one of my books and when I asked him what he thought, received a comment like, “You should have written about a different topic.” I was really hurt but realized I had asked for it by pushing him into reading it in the first place. Lesson learned! Now I only show my work to people who show a voluntary interest.

    • http://www.rachelneumeier.com Rachel Neumeier

      That’s probably true a lot of the time, but my brother is an excellent reader and has no trouble telling me what doesn’t work in my books. He’s fabulous for spotting plot holes.

      I wouldn’t be able to do that myself, though, not for a friend or family member. It takes a special kind of person.

      Probably helps if the book is pretty solid to start with, too.

  • http://www.gabrielle-meyer.blogspot.com Gabrielle Meyer

    For my first manuscript I had a wide variety of readers. Some were relatives who read my genre, some were good friends, who also read my genre, and another group were fellow writers. For the non-writers I included a questionnaire and then we went out for coffee as a group to discuss it. I told them, before I handed over my manuscript, that they weren’t doing me any favors telling me they liked it if they didn’t. On the contrary, two of them couldn’t put it down and two more told me, through tears, that it touched their hearts. Just last night (eight months later) one of them brought it up again and she said to me: “I’m so happy I loved your book – because I was worried about what I could say if I didn’t.” Yes, it’s important to find the right group of beta readers, but I think if we’re being honest with ourselves, we can figure out immediately if they’re being honest, or if they’re just being kind.

  • http://www.megansayer.com Megan Sayer

    It also comes down to how well your readers can think outside the box, and see holes. This isn’t always easy, for a number of reasons.
    I’ve been very blessed in having a couple of published author friends who write in my genre read my manuscript, and they responded very positively, which was awesome. One reader though pointed out a hole that everyone else had missed. I was so glad she had, because fixing it made the story so much stronger, and I’m sure the others would agree. However, the fact that only one of them picked it made me realise that just because people can tell great stories themselves doesn’t mean they’re the best people to critique.

  • http://blessed-are-the-pure-of-heart.blogspot.com/ Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    For me, the most important feedback is that of a very rough qualitative sort:

    “I loved it!” says it’s at least readable.

    “It’s an interesting story” means that the emotional hook wasn’t set.

    “I haven’t had time to finish it” sets it right up there with “The History Of The Communist Party” as a doorstop.

    I’ve acted as a Beta reader, but I limit what I’ll do to a couple of things (which I try to make clear beforehand): 1) technical verification in my areas of personal expertise; 2) continuity

    It makes things a lot easier for me, and for the author, since he or she will know exactly what’s coming.

    The chance of hurt feelings is also removed, since I’m not making a value judgement. I usually refrain from giving an overall impression because the cultural background in which my psyche was steeped would be quite foreign to most, and would therefore be of questionable merit as an evaluation paradigm.

    • http://einefeistyberg.wordpress.com Cherry Odelberg

      Andrew, this strikes me as sound wisdom; both how you interpret the feedback and your limits on what feedback you will give.

    • http://talesfromtheredhead.blogspot.com Jennifer Major

      Oh my word, if I didn’t have my technical advisers, I’d be up the creek!!Although,one in particular has been nagging me like an old lady at bingo about the amount of shots fired within a short time frame. Whine, whine whine.
      But he saved my glutes on a very serious cultural point, for which I should be nice to him and lower my ammo count.

  • http://www.lettersfromvalentinahepburn.blogspot.com Valentina Hepburn

    Having others read our manuscripts before submission is essential. My CPs have often picked up typos and mistakes (like using the wrong name for someone which would have made no sense whatsoever), so they are completely necessary. My rule is to not allow their comments and suggestions to change the voice or the premise of the story. I read each suggestion and give it a fair outing, determining the impact it will have on my story. If, in my opinion, it improves it, I’ll use it, but in my own way and in my own voice. Often their suggestions will lead me to decide on something else, something perhaps they did not initially intend. I try to keep in mind that they are ‘readers’ which is essentially what I’m looking for – a cross section of readers. I’m not even sure that choosing readers only in our own genre is the way forward. I’ve read many books that aren’t in the genre I write in and loved them.
    When I critique, I try to be constructive and measured, which is all I ask for.

  • http://jomurhey.blogspot.com Jo Murphey

    I use both critique partners and betas. My critique partners aren’t always are great as grammar Nazis, but may lack the genre experience. My betas, which I have several categories of, are excellent in telling me what is far fetched and will not work.

    As for major changes, I take all responses with a grain of salt.

  • Catherine Hudson

    I cannot agree with this post more. I have read books that drove me up the wall with small details that were out of place – and could have been easily fixed by using a well chosen reader.
    On the other hand, I use them myself and find that the opinions – weighed, sifted and added together, have made my project so much better I cannot imagine NOT using them.

    Thanks for the heads up that some editors may not want me to do so.

  • Jackie Ley

    I think there’s a fine line here that only the writer can make a judgment about. I have a critique partner who’s a published novelist, fits my target market profile and is a trusted friend, ie I can trust her not to flatter, let me down too lightly or let me away with anything but my best effort. She gave me very valuable input on my recently completed novel and subsequently I made some extensive revisions, cutting one main character in the process. The revisions felt totally right, but I’m also aware it’s my novel, not my critique partner’s. She fully agrees with me that any further feedback or tweaking at this stage could have a negative effect and that I’m now ready to throw my baby to the wolves – eek!

  • http://thewritingplace.wordpress.com/ Carol Benedict

    I’ve used my children as beta readers for my nonfiction. My son diligently picks out grammar issues or areas that need further development. His suggestions have been very helpful. My daughter offers encouragement when appropriate, but is brutally honest. One article I thought was brilliant elicited ths response after she read the first few paragraphs: “OMG, this is the most boring thing I’ve ever read!” She refused to finish reading it. I didn’t bother submitting it.

    I was a beta reader for a relative’s YA novel. It was a difficult task to balance honesty with encouragement.

  • http://coffeecupsandcamisoles.blogspot.com Anne Love

    I rely most heavily on my critique partner. I have paid for a crit of the first 50 pages from a published author in my genre. I am working on some good beta readers.

    I love your advise about spouses being beta readers. My spouse says he will read it when it’s published. Seems fair.

  • http://www.fromthemommyfiles.wordpress.com Maria A. Karamitsos

    Choosing readers wisely is so true! I’m writing a book about molar pregnancy.
    After I finished the manuscript and had it edited, I sent it out to be reviewed. I sent it to doctors, experts in the field. I sent it to women who had experienced molar pregnancy, who are the target market for this book. I also sent it to a friend who is a breast cancer survivor, who now is doing a lot if advocacy work in that area. The result? You guessed it, mixed bag.

    The women who’d experienced molar pregnancy were full of praise and encouraged me to go unleash it as an e-book–without delay! There are precious few resources out there for women going through this. The beginning is my story, with journal entries. They liked reading the raw emotion and my reactions to things at that time – it made them feel like they weren’t crazy and validated their journey. The second part looks at what to expect, and covers topics like grieving, cancer, what’s next. They found this helpful as well. Ditto the breast cancer survivor.

    Now to the doctors. A specialist thought it was pretty good, but needed to be tightened up. He pointed out a few factual errors. He praised my efforts, wished me well, and immediately agreed to write the forward. Another specialist was complimentary, set the record straight on a few things. Suggested I tighten it up and wished me well also.

    An OB-GYN gave me significant feedback, and helped to correct medical facts. She had some great suggestions and helped me see some things from the doctor’s perspective.

    Another specialist took significant issue with things that I wrote. I even got a lecture about “what in the world are you trying to do?” kind of thing. Her initial critiques were so positive–she thought this would be tremendous for doctors, because they would normally not have as intimate a look into a patient’s journey. Then at our last interaction, she ripped the whole thing apart and basically attempted to get me to scrap the whole project. It seemed she felt this was an indictment on the medical community (not to mention that all the women I’ve communicated with have had issues with their medical providers, more than likely because this is so rare, plus doctors interpret research differently and have varied experience. Then they have to develop an individualized plan of care, because what worked for me could kill you.) She felt that no doctor would ever recommend the book, they might even tell patients to stay away from it. I want doctors to embrace it and recommend it, because they currently have nothing to give or recommend their patients.

    It took 6 months to gather all the feedback, but I was still reeling from that one doctor’s critique. Now what? I had to take some time away from it.

    I’ve decided to rework the entire manuscript, because the goal is to collaborate with doctors, to become an advocate for women going through this. I’ve decided to take some of the more sensitive issues out (or just approach them differently) and use that in articles, blogs, and go to medical associations and speak to them about patient advocacy and more general awareness of the patient’s perspective. A lot of soul searching, and now to find the time to do it!

    It was a long and complicated journey, but I’m glad I did that. I gained some new perspective, garnered some great feedback and learned a lot about the treatments of this malady and more.

    Good luck all!

    • http://einefeistyberg.wordpress.com Cherry Odelberg

      So hard to “first do no harm,” when the writer feels the days sliding by on a time sensitive subject. Best wishes as you continue to perfect your information and put it forward the best possible polish.

    • http://Dinosaurmusings.wordpress.com DinoDocLucy

      That one doc sounds like she had a real bug up her ass fir sone reason. Suggestion (from another doc here; primary care instead of OBG): don’t make major changes based on a single strongly emotional response.

  • http://theotherstephenking.com Stephen H. King

    Beta readers, yes. Critique partners, no. I’ve found that maintaining critique partners, either online or in person, is a clunky arrangement with novel-length works. That said, for Book 1 I approached well over a dozen people to beta read; most agreed to. They were all friends, and like most of my friends they fit your categories 2 and 3. Results were frustratingly mixed; the devout guy got upset that I’d written a book featuring a Greek god, etc. Then I paid an editor for both story and line editing, and her feedback convinced me that I needed to listen more closely to the (free) feedback from the beta readers.

    I’ve since winnowed the list down quite a bit to just those who get back to me quickly with substantial feedback. It’s a small list now, but it’s extremely valuable to me.

    I see what you’re saying about the “related” issue. Some of my ex-wives I’d’ve never, ever wanted to beta-read my stuff (heck, one of them was sort of written into my first book as the antagonist). My current wife, though, is the best reader I have, in particular for helping me understand more about my female characters. I make a point of reading the work out loud to her as one of my final revisions (which, incidentally, happened yesterday for book 3 of the series).

    – TOSK

    • http://einefeistyberg.wordpress.com Cherry Odelberg

      May I borrow your wife? I have had a couple of husbands and I see your point.

      • http://theotherstephenking.com Stephen H. King

        Depends on what you wanna borrow her for. In some states, some of that would be illegal. :-)

        But she loves to read, especially romances (which I don’t really write) so yeah, I guess so.

        • http://einefeistyberg.wordpress.com Cherry Odelberg

          You are too kind.

        • Sidney Ross

          naughty, naughty stephen

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  • http://www.danerickson.net Dan Erickson

    My primary reader is my editor, but in the past I’ve posted my books on my blog with a password and allowed some of my followers to read them live. The reactions I get from both critical readers and average readers has always been positive. The same thing has happened with my first published book. I’m not sure if that’s good, but it’s my experience.

    • http://einefeistyberg.wordpress.com Cherry Odelberg

      This is at least an interesting, if not great, idea. I am interested to see what Rachelle thinks about it.

  • http://poetrypatio.com Lori Lipsky

    Marvelous post. Thank you for the wise advice.

  • http://thecapillary.blogspot.com The Capillary

    I have a couple of friends that are also writers and it has been a tricky balancing act because obviously we want to maintain our friendships.

    They do meet at least 2 of your outlined requirements and we have an understanding that it’s better to highlight what bothers you than to keep quiet. It’s a bit of tough love but we’re also aware that we don’t have to change anything another person indicated doesn’t sit well with them.

    I’d like to branch out and get more input but as someone not with an agent or publisher (aka just starting out) I find it hard to network and make contact with people who will have the time to help me out.

  • http://www.adirondackediting.com Susan Uttendorfsky

    Great information! I copied the link to a LinkedIn discussion on beta readers that just happened to be going on at the same time! Thanks for writing this.

  • Jeanne T

    This post makes a lot of sense. In picking a beta reader, I asked three women I know who read a lot, and are in my target audience. Only one has stuck with it, and her feedback has been invaluable. As a reader, not a writer, she gives me a good perspective on what is/ins’t working for her in my story.

    I have two critique partners who I met through a mutual friend. We all write different genres and bring different strengths to our group. I’m learning a lot from them, and they help me add depth to my story.

  • http://www.CreativityUntamed.com J. M. Tompkins

    Thus far finding the right readers who can dedicate the time is one of the hardest bumps in the road. I would love to have at least two more readers (that I, of course, would love to read for as well).

    • J Henderson

      I’m also struggling with finding extra beta’s away from family and friends. If you want to swap novels my email address is juliettehenderson@hotmail.co.uk. My book is womens fiction, and very English (so you might want to think about how much “English” you can take before you make a decision on my offer :))
      I read a very mixed bag of fiction so am open to anything.

  • http://www.danarosebailey.com Dana

    One thing I have found key with beta readers is being very specific in what you’re looking for and like you said ask the appropriate person. I have a friend who is a grammar queen, so I’m going to ask her to proofread. I don’t want to bog her down so I didn’t ask her to read for content, I had someone else do that.

    It takes someone a good deal of time to read and give you good helpful feedback. So I try to have a couple of people to help so I spread it around, instead of asking the same person to read each draft. It’s also good to hear if several people notice the same issue. If so you definitely know you need to rework that part.

    Beta readers are awesome, but remember what one person doesn’t get, another will love. You are the writer. Don’t do anything to your manuscript that doesn’t feel right.

  • http://bansheeweaver.blogspot.com Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts

    This is fantastic advice, Rachelle. I started out with a critique group composed a)mostly of people writing memoir and b) mostly were writing memoir as family heirloom and had no interest in being published. Soon I also learned that they weren’t very well-read. At first, I shared an adult psychological novel with them, but after some really poor advice (for example, insisting that I needed to have the narrator tell what each character in a scene was feeling / thinking and telling me to eliminate all foreshadowing and, instead, just explain things upfront, e.g. “David reacted this way because he has a jelly phobia as a result of having been tortured in childhood.”) I realized they could not understand my novel, let alone give me helpful feedback about it. I tried a couple other pieces of fiction with them, but finally gave up. Thankfully, because now I’m with a critique group that is composed of readers who not only are literate, but most of whom are well-read in the genre of the novel I’m currently writing (YA fantasy). Their critiques are excellent: observant, well-thought out and insightful. And when they affirm my writing, I know it isn’t just that they “liked” it; I know that I actually wrote well. Also, most of the members of this group are writing towards publication, traditional publication in most cases. The right critique group makes a tremendous difference!

    Blessings! :)

  • http://einefeistyberg.wordpress.com Cherry Odelberg

    When I was young, I dreamed of going to the mission field, but found it awkward and impossible to minister at home – to those in my own sphere. So it is with writing. I am driven by the need to know and be known – but that means out there somewhere, anonymously, not at home. After all, “a prophet is not without honor save in his own country.”

    Never-the-less, when I finally finished 200 pages, I followed good advice to let friends or family read this offering from my deepest heart. One friend said, “Publish it!” The close family member cautioned me. She was unable to finish the manuscript. “Too unrelentingly sad, too much information (too like a memoir ).” I was devastated. I went to work on something else and returned 18 months later to the original manuscript which is now shaping up beautifully.

    Meanwhile, I have another novel on the back back burner. This one is more delightfully fiction and I will be happy to send it for review from the same cousin.

    Yes, we need beta readers. My challenge lies in where to find readers that are willing, have the time, interest – and match #2 or #3 or your criteria.

  • http://julienilson.wordpress.com Julie Nilson

    I’m part of a critique group that is a nice mix of genres and talents, so it has worked out pretty well. I’m working on a YA fantasy, and one of the members is an avid reader and writer in that genre, so in terms of fantasy story structure and tropes, she’s an excellent resource; however, she sometimes may not notice certain flaws just because she’s so familiar with the genre that she mentally “fills in the blanks.” However, we have another member who mostly writes memoir, but she’s an outstanding storyteller and she notices little things about character development that others don’t. Or another group member who is great at writing about setting will point out where I need more of that.

    Sometimes it can be a little much, if my friends’ advice runs opposite each other, but most of the time, the diversity of the group is a real benefit.

  • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com P. J. Casselman

    I don’t have the luxury of perfect fit readers. Instead, I ask honest people to give me their opinions. Those who have been “qualified” never got around to reading my MS. I suppose they were busy and that’s understandable. So, I rely on friends who will give me constructive criticism. One day, I hope to change this, but, in the meantime, I try to keep putting words down for the few who will ever see them. At the moment, I’m at the bottom of a the proverbial deep well. My fingers bleed from trying to climb out, so I find myself sitting here shouting for help whenever someone passes by. Fortunately, this is only true in my writing. Joy remains strong in other areas of my life, so I pray that recharges my desire to climb again.

  • http://vinobaby.blogspot.com Kerry Ann

    This is the tricky stage I am at now. I never imagined finding qualified critique partners and beta readers would be so difficult.

  • http://www.meghancarver.blogspot.com Meghan Carver

    I have used beta readers, and they fit some of the criteria. Their comments have been vague but helpful. My biggest problem is getting the book back from them in a timely manner. I can’t get them to commit to reading it in a week or two and then giving me specific feedback. For the next book, I’m going to ask for some specifics before they commit. Thanks for the specific criteria, Rachelle.

  • Jerry Eckert

    I’m working on a novel set in South Africa and focused on racial tensions and how everyone had to rethink their attitudes toward each other if this “democracy” thing was gonna work. While I lived there for 10 years, my handicap is that I am white and pretty much unaware of how intra-familial dialog/behavior works in a black house hold in a shanty town or among farm laborers. Fortunately, I’ve found some educated beta readers who came from that background who will keep me culturally honest. They will be well thanked on the Acknowledgements page.

  • Jen

    I decided to use both my target and non-target audience to read this time. I do not know most of my readers, and selected them from around the world out of my FB business contacts. I specifically asked several non-target readers who would never normally read a period/romance style book, to see if it could it hold their attention? For non-target audience I sent them only the first few chapters, and told them if they liked it to let me know I would send more. They appreciated that easy non-commitment. I found all asked the rest of the book. If I could gain their attention, then it gave me a better idea if my plot was at least interesting enough to pull even them in.

    I asked them only to read it, if it truly interested them, then to give me their thoughts. When I was in school we did not always have a choice in assigned reading material, most were books I would have never picked up. Some I found dreadfully boring and some actually surprised me, because it was a style I never thought could hold my attention. Even if it was not my usual book choice if it could my hold my attention, I felt it did a good job. I looked at my non-target audience the in same way.

    While the majority of my readers were those who did read this style of book, I tried to select honest people with high expectations. I found avid readers, who like to give book reviews, so I would not get sugar coated replies.

    Both groups of readers were able to give me good insight to how the story made them feel or think.

  • http://cyndiperkins.com Cyndi Perkins

    Timely blog and helpful comments: I just shipped off thumbdrives containing the manuscript of my novel “Loop Dee Doo” to six beta readers. One is an author and English teacher with several children’s, middle grade and non-fiction coffee table books to her credit. We agreed on a swap: I read her book and she’s reading mine. Another is an editor/journalist/friend in her 50s. One is another 50-something female friend living the single life in Florida. She’s probably the closest fit to my target audience. Two readers are male: my 30ish nephew, a film addict who works in book publishing/library services and the YA Fantasy author I have known since he was a little boy and played with my kids. I edited his book, which is being published this spring. The last two beta readers are interested in mystery writing, based out of Los Angeles. One works in the TV industry, the other is a teacher. In addition to the pitch, I sent the readers one of the photos that inspired the novel and 13 Reader’s Guide/Book Club questions. I told them to take their time and to not feel roped into line-editing or other unpaid duties. Did ask the editor/writers in the bunch to send up red flags for any continuity or tense issues. I refrained from requesting “brutal” honesty because I don’t know if I can use it constructively. Everyone on the list except for my nephew (we are not particularly close) volunteered to be a reader. Now I have a request for Rachelle: A future blog that further addresses what to do/how to analyze beta reader feedback. Please post before the reactions to “Loop Dee Doo” arrive :)

    • Rachelle Gardner

      Thumb drives? Why not just email it?

      • http://cyndiperkins.com Cyndi Perkins

        One of my beta readers (the established author) said it was her preferred method for handling large files. My nephew librarian roves from computer to computer. Ditto the YA Fantasy novelist. All six readers are keeping the drives as a token of my appreciation, so I’ve saved on thank you notes. :)

  • http://makingbabygrand.com Dina Santorelli

    This is an excellent post. What’s interesting too, is that this comment rang very true for me: “I can’t tell you how many times authors have lamented about the contradictory, unhelpful or confusing feedback they’re getting from readers, only to unpack it and realize they’re simply not showing their work to the right people.” The funny thing is, though, I had gotten those comments from editors — not readers — which was one of the reasons I chose to self-publish. :) Actually, I’d love to see a post dedicated to that topic, Rachelle: What to do when you get confusing or contradictory feedback from editors.

  • http://tjbronley.wordpress.com T.J.

    I use a critique group. We met at a writers workshop where we were a group put together and given one of the editing group’s authors as a leader. We fit well together and formed a critique group after that. Gotta say, best money spent on a workshop ever.

  • http://www.rebastanley.com Reba

    Thank you for the helpful advice.
    I have self-published 3 books and my 4th one will be going to my editor in a few weeks,but unfortunately I am still afraid to give my manuscript to anyone to read before giving it to my editor.
    Silly, yes I know, but will I ever get past that??

  • http://www.rachelneumeier.com Rachel Neumeier

    5. Is the person analytical?

    A good way to tell: Is this someone who ruins movies for you by saying plaintively, “But why didn’t they just do This Really Obvious Thing? Wouldn’t that have worked?” — and is right.

    This kind of person is just right for spotting the stupid plot holes you have missed.

  • Nancy Petralia

    Rachelle I have a question (or maybe it’s a pet peeve).

    Whenever I see advice to writers of non-fiction, or comments about what it should contain I get the distinct feeling the commenter is talking about “how to” books or business pubs. Why is that?

    While a great many books of that type are churned out each year there are so many OTHER forms of non-fiction. Biographies are non-fiction (at least they should be). Travel narratives are non-fiction. Histories are non-fiction. Books like Civil Action (the story of toxic waste, its impact on a NJ community, and the long legal fight for justice), The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lax (how cancer researchers have used a specific cell sample strain for nearly every experiment and the source that was never acknowledged or compensated), and The View from Lazy Point (an environmentalist’s tale of how all things are connected) read like great novels. A new category called Creative Non-Fiction seems to capture this point.

    As a writer of creative non-fiction, I’m not looking for a subject matter expert. I want the same criticism as a novelist seeks–that would be #1-#3.

    • Rachelle Gardner

      By necessity, we are always generalizing in these types of forums. We assume each writer will pick what works for them in their own situation, and discard the rest. That’s what you’re clearly doing, so no worries!

      It’s pretty much accepted that memoir and narrative non-fiction usually have requirements more similar to fiction than non-fiction, but we normally don’t split hairs in a post like this.

  • http://www.write4reel.com Peter Frahm

    Rachelle- Your comments about family beta readers is spot on. My wife has a BA in English, would have been insulted had I NOT had her read my first draft, but she is a CEO and works 60+ hours a week. She started to read my first draft, but never finished.

    I suppose the fact that she was able to put it down should tell me something… :)

  • Ilana Weiner

    Great post! Thanks so much Rachelle!

  • Sidney Ross

    I believe Kurt Vonnegut said it best in the book ‘Armageddon In Retrospect’ and in the chapter “Guns Before Butter” with these words “In taking down recipes in his notebook, Kniptash was inclined to regard the potions as niggardly, and to double all the quantities involved.”

  • http://www.janthompson.com Jan Thompson

    Thanks, Rachelle, for this helpful warning.

    “If your reader is related to you by blood or marriage, proceed with caution. ”

    I agree with this. Especially if the relatives don’t read the genres I write in at all. Like you said, they might not “get it.”

    Just because a relative reads a lot doesn’t mean they’ll make good beta readers. The last thing a writer needs is to destroy a friendship — or marriage — needlessly.

    Opinions are, after all, a dime dozen… in my opinion anyway LOL.

  • http://chariseolson.com Charise Olson

    This is a great post and lessons I’ve learned by experience. I have one critique partner. We started by emailing sections of the manuscript at a time. This way we were able to gauge each other’s “style” and not feel overwhelmed with a whole manuscript all at once.

    I have taken this approach with other readers- just send the first 50 or so pages- to see how it goes.

    I’ve had a few lovely well-published authors read my book and try to make it a romance, a suspense thriller and the like.

    So it’s important to not be dazzled by credentials.

  • http://www.jenniwiltz.blogspot.com Jenni Wiltz

    I gave up on beta readers during grad school (for English, creative writing). I turned it a story about Louis XIV’s sister-in-law (in love w/him, but married to his homosexual brother), and got responses like this: “Greyhounds hadn’t been invented yet. You need to take out the dog.” From that moment on, I decided to go it alone.

  • http://www.peterdehaan.com/ Peter DeHaan

    I saw unhelpful or confusing feedback played out when my friend shared his poem with our critique group — with nary a poet in attendance.

    They didn’t “get” his work and he didn’t receive any useful feedback.

    Now he shares his memoir and leaves his poems at home.

  • http://queendsheena.blogspot.com/ Sheena-kay Graham

    Thanks for the advice. I’m using both beta readers and editors. I use a critique website with experienced writers. Can’t afford to get bad advice.

  • http://whiteminolta.blogspot.com Minolta White

    Thanks for posting this blog on feedback. I used to write short stories and post them to my FB page. I received great reviews and comments from my friends. However, I became leary of people stealing my work or borrowing my ideas. So I rarely post to FB anymore. However, I do post my recent shorts on my blog or send them to a friends personal email.

  • Tom Kirkbright

    I recently sent the completed second draft of my first MS to about 5 Beta readers – all people I know, all whom I trust to be truthful, honest and professional and who more importantly are within the target audience. I gave them specific guidelines on what I wanted feedback on such as: pacing, plot, characters etc.

    Most of the feedback I have so far received is very useful however I have noticed most feedback is what is relevant to them, for instance one of my readers suggested changing what one of the characters was drinking in a scene – the drink in question was irrelevant either way.

    So what I’m saying is, some feedback will be invaluable and others will be utterly useless. Look for trends and take irrelevant one off remarks with a pinch of salt.

    Always save copies of different edits too. Just in case like…

  • http://michaeljcoene.com Michael J. Coene

    I have a question that sort of falls under the umbrella of this topic: when is a good time to read an excerpt your unpublished manuscript at, say, an open mic event? Or is it never a good idea? From an agent’s perspective, is this jumping the gun, or is more exposure always good exposure?

  • http://www.marypaine.com Mary Paine

    Rachelle, you hit the nail on the head! I switched from equestrian romance to YA fantasy a couple of years ago and I’ve been struggling to find readers for the genre. I have two wonderful readers who are lower school librarians and one is a technical writer who loves to look for syntax problems & fact checks all my mythology references to see if he can find a flaw. : )

    I am so grateful for them, but agents told me my last version read ‘too young,’ so I need to find someone versed in YA to also look at my manuscript. There’s an example of why you’re absolutely right!

    Thanks for the great advice!

    Cheers,
    Mary

  • http://Terryshames.com Terry Shames

    Rachelle, great topic. I’m just editing my second book and miss having a mystery writers’ group. Makes me nervous to send it off to my editor not having my former group members read it. Not sure how to go about finding good beta readers, although I am in a writers’ group with two non-mystery readers who do very good editing. Thank goodness my sister honors me enough to tell me if something isn’t working. She’s a good, close reader. But I would like to find some objective readers.

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  • ChrisB

    Orson Card, in one of his writing books, describes teaching his wife to give him feedback by telling him where she gets bored, whether she likes the characters, and other things that aren’t so genre specific.

  • http://www.nataliesharpston.com Natalie Sharpston

    I just spent a year in a critique group with my first novel (Christian fiction). The group included a witch (wicca practitioner), stay at home mom, retired international ad man, and a PhD in English. All non-Christian, unpublished writers reading my Christian fiction. I appreciated the broader worldview feedback, especially when it came to parenting and logic – the “if, then” issues with my plot.

    However, they also wanted me to over explain everything— advice I turned down.

    When the witch asked, “Do people really pray that much? That’s just weird.” And when the retired ad man said, in response to a little girl being abused by her older brother, “Well, If it’s right there in front of you, why not?”

    …I finally realized the cons of the group outweighed the pros and extricated myself. (Note to self: have an exit strategy in place if I ever join a critique group again!)

    Now writing novel #2 but will use 1-2 beta readers this time!

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  • https://accounts.google.com/ServiceLogin?service=blogger&passive=1209600&continue=http://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID%3D7501976031752046617&followup=http://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?bl Karen Brittle

    I’ve written a memoir that depicts practicing professionals in my field (Equine Assisted Activities & Therapies). In some cases, I use pseudonyms but in other places the person’s actual name and credentials. Does anyone have advice for when/ how to approach these “characters?” I have mainly chosen to include them by full name because I respect them and their work and feel they/ it should be better known. Does it make sense to approach them as “expert” readers of a draft, or rather wait until there is representation and discuss with agent or publisher. Thank you!

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  • http://elissafield.wordpress.com/ Elissa Field

    Rachelle, this is great advice. Last summer, a writing group I participate in was debating just this subject — with writers wanting to gain the value of a beta reader’s insight, but discussing among ourselves how to proceed in order to be respectful, give useful commentary and support the writer’s intended goals.

    I shared a link to your post in my Friday Links for Writers on 2.22.13: http://elissafield.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/friday-links-for-writers-02-22-13/

    Thanks, as always, for the fabulous advice you share with writers!

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  • http://kirabudge.weebly.com Kira Budge

    I spent a great amount of time, as I wrote my books, having others read and work with them. I’ve finally settled on a particular group of beta readers and critique partners, all of which bring something new to the table. After I first finish a draft, I have two or three close friends read it. One I go to because she will look at it exclusively as a reader, with emotional feedback, and another I choose because she is also a writer and is very good at pointing out fallacies. Then I have my mother listen to a tape I make of the book because she is a picky reader who will say what she thinks. Then finally when I get to the point of sending it out, I have a critique partner whose books I greatly admire who does a final readthrough or two for me. It’s a good group to work with, I think.

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  • almondbranch61

    Thank you for sharing this topic. Your blog is the first place I look for information and finding a “reader” has been on my mind for a few days. I’m wanting to go outside my circle of friends and family but I’m afraid to send my “baby” to the internet world. Does anyone have experience using a Beta Reader group like the one I found on goodreads.com?

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