beta wisdom

Why use Friends and Family as Beta Readers

New authors often ask us for help finding readers. Consequently, Andrew and I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help people find readers, reading articles about finding beta readers, and asking authors where they found theirs. (We've also written a handy guide with what we learned.)

One thing that happens a lot when people ask us for help finding readers, is they tell us that they need strangers to read their books. The justification is usually that they want “brutal” or “harsh” feedback. We also hear "I don't want to share this with my friends, they'll be too nice."

Oh wow, do I disagree with these notions!

If you have no beta readers, what are you doing casting about the cold expanses of the internet without having tapped those closest to you? Ask them to read your book!

The whole idea that family and friends aren't good beta readers is baloney, for three reasons:

  1. Family and friends will give you incredible feedback.
  2. A nice beta reader is better than none.
  3. Nobody actually wants a harsh critique.

Let's break those ideas down a bit:

Objective Feedback from Family and Friends

First, you want to know how to get objective feedback from a “nice” friend or family reader? Ask them to read it, once, and see what happens.

If they get through chapter one and “never quite have time” to finish the book, guess what? Your book stinks. There you go, I made it harsh for you.

On the other hand, if they finish and actually say the words: “you should totally publish this!” Well, that means it was probably pretty good, and you should keep working on it. 

Pay attention to the level of enthusiasm your friends and family show, and grade them on a curve. You know these people, so you know how much they'll try to protect your feelings, and it's not that hard to interpret accordingly. If your writing is good you're not going to have to push them to read it or beg for feedback, they'll read eagerly and enjoy discussing it with you. If not, well. You know what that means.

The value of nice readers

If you’re new, your author-armor probably isn’t as strong as it needs to be. If you make it as a pro, you're going to have people who hate your books. HATE them. They're going to destroy you on, and it's going to hurt. You've got to get ready.

The thing is, you don't want to throw yourself in the deep-end on day one. It's like training for anything else, you need to build up your endurance and your ability to handle rejection.

Starting with the people who are going to be nice to you is still going to be hard. Start where it's easy, build your skill and your armor over time, and then when your books are actually good and trolls on the internet still hate them anyway, you'll be able to handle it.

What people mean by "harsh critiques"

Like I said before, nobody wants a harsh critique. NOBODY. Here, let me give you a harsh critique for free:

"Your prose is bland, your characters cliche, your plotting predictable, and your story has no potential. Your writing is a waste of time, you should quit and find a hobby you're better suited for."

Now go paste that on your fridge and get ANGRY every time you see it.

Is that what you want? Because if it really is, you can literally just take that text and pretend it was applied to your book, it'll do just as much good.

No, what people really want is a glowing critique from someone they perceive to be harsh. They want the validation of effusive praise from a stranger. Or, even better, they want validation from someone they respect and perceive as successful, someone who can "spot their talent" and help them launch their career. People want to win American Idol.

What you need is normal feedback from normal readers. You're going to get feedback you feel is harsh whether you seek it out or not, it happens to everyone. So, when it comes you want it to be from a normal reader, someone who entered the process like everyone else.

If instead you do go find a bunch of readers who pride themselves on being brutal and harsh, your work is just going to get harshly brutalized. The world isn’t perfect and if it is your goal you can find flaws in anything. The value of being demeaned is questionable and those "objective" critics have little or nothing in common with the normal people who you hope to sell your book to and make fans of.

As an author, you should have hard conversations about you work, but these should happen with trusted people, with critique partners, writer’s groups, or a development editor, NOT your beta readers.

Now vs Later

If you're going pro, you need to be working on your author platform. You need to be finding fans and selling them books, and as you do that you're going to find an easy and eager pool of readers ready to give you feedback. At that point you may decide to stop asking your friends and family. Fair enough. Though keep in mind, even Steven King says his wife is the first person he turns to for feedback.

There's nothing more exciting than your friends and family sharing something you love. What more could you ask than to have the people close to you become big fans of your work? So if you are without beta readers, take a second look at who is around you and consider asking them to read.

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