This chapter came from me just hearing over and over about how writers are using multiple beta readers. And I honestly just got tired of shuddering every time I heard that stupidity.
Beginning writers have a belief that the more people who read their work, the better their work will be. Of course, that flies in the face of any creation of art by an artist. But the fear is great among young writers, most of who are indie writers these days.
Long term pros? What do they do? Maybe have one first reader, maybe not. Most not.
Why? Because creating original fiction is not a group effort, that’s why.
Thinking you need beta readers is one of the deadliest myths that has come about in this new world.
Where Did This “Beta Reader” Concept Come From?
The easy and honest answer is fear.
But I need to do a little history as I normally do in these chapters.
Back in the pulp era, writers wrote on typewriters. Almost all did single draft and gave the story to their editors at magazines. (A few book houses, but not many. Most novels were published in magazines in the pulp period. Most novels from that period have never seen a hardback or paperback reprint.)
The editor might mark the manuscript up like a copyeditor, adding in directions for layout and such, then send it for typesetting and the story would hit print.
(In case you didn’t know, this marked-up manuscript came to be known as “Foul Matter.” I got many of my “foul matter” manuscripts back after publication over the years.)
As time progressed into the second half of the 20th century, this practice continued. Sometimes a writer would have a trusted first reader, but the longer-term professionals did not. They continued to write clean one draft and give it to their editor for print.
They trusted their own skill and art. And they didn’t allow their editor to touch their stories and most editors didn’t.
But then in the late 1960s and booming into the 1980s and forward came the peer workshop, where a bunch of writers at the same level of skill and lack of publishing credits sat around and critiqued commas. Sometimes at horrid length.
This started to give beginning writers the feeling that if they pleased their workshop, they had a good story. Or even worse, if they took all the suggestions from their workshop and incorporated all the suggestions, they would have a good story.
Nope. Very seldom did this sort of committee writing turn anything into anything more than a pile of mush. But it sure answered the fear of the young writer.
And this kind of thinking (along with the myth of needing to do many rewrites) became part of the culture of publishing, taught by English classes and pushed by writers who had a few sales and thought it was the only way.
Then in 2010 along comes the indie movement. And beginning writers, being afraid, very, very afraid of god-knows-what, decided that they needed a bunch of readers to make sure their manuscript was a very, very smooth and smelly pile of mush. So they roped in friends and other writers to be “beta readers.”
In other words, they copied the peer workshop experience right into the middle of their own publishing work.
Often a writer could have up to ten “beta readers” on a book, the best way to guarantee that the book will be not only dull, but boring.
But the typing would be perfect. God help a poor typo that slipped through that gauntlet.
And now here, in 2017, as I write this, the concept of “beta readers” makes me shudder every time I type the phrase. I had hoped for a few years it would die off as the really bad idea it is. But nope. It has gained myth status, sadly.
And it now is hurting some really fine writers.
Fear and the Lack of Art
As I said above, this concept comes out of fear. All of us starting off, and I was no exception, had massive fears of not doing something correctly. And, of course, our storytelling skills sucked. Why? Because we all had a lot of techniques to learn.
The ability to code these little black marks in a way that tells a story to a reader is a learned skill and it takes time to learn. And it takes practice, a word that is alien to all beginning writers because to beginning writers all words are golden. (That’s why they must be polished.)
The old system, if you were to get through it, forced writers to practice. We wrote stories and got them to editors and they either bought them or rejected them. As our skills improved, editors bought more than rejected. But it took years and years of practice.
But now, in this indie world, writers have lost the courage to just put a story out there and see how it does. Now the story must be pounded into mush by a half-dozen beta readers to make sure the writer’s fear is controlled. Kind of sad when you actually think of it.
A Personal Story
I started two peer workshops and taught a few here on the coast until a decade past we stopped the practice and moved on.
So if I came up through peer workshops, why am I telling people they are a waste of time and to not use them?
Simple: Writers are using them wrong, just as they use a first reader wrong.
So in 1982, with a number of other writers, I helped start a peer workshop. It met every week and since I was writing a story per week at that point, I made a point to turn in a story almost every week to be read for the following week’s workshop.
But what the workshop didn’t know was that on the way to the workshop, I mailed the story to an editor I was going to turn in. What I cared about from the feedback in the workshop was what I could learn FOR THE NEXT STORY.
Not once, in all my years of peer workshops, did I ever take anyone’s suggestion and try to FIX a story. Nope.
But I did take comments and audience reaction and try to learn for the next story I was going to write.
So what happened to all those stories I had mailed out without even a first reader on them? Well, they started selling. And over the years a great number of them sold to professional markets.
And after the first two or three sales, I stopped telling the workshop I had made a sale because most of them were not making any sales. Why? Because they were writing by committee and I was writing my own voice and story, untouched by anyone else.
Did this take courage? Yes.
Did I have my doubts at times? Yes.
Especially one day when the group totally hated one story. Totally. They tore it apart and almost had me convinced it was complete garbage. If the story hadn’t already been in the mail, I never would have mailed it.
The story sold ten days later, the first time out to a top horror magazine of the time. And after that I never doubted again. I learned a lot from the comments of other writers. And that learning I applied to the NEXT STORY.
But never once did I use the comments to “fix” a story because, to be honest, I didn’t want a collaborator on any of my work.
Now Comes “Beta Readers”
Again I just shuddered typing that.
Just a few days ago a wonderful writer who I have seen some fantastic work in online workshops, (where I get to see first draft stuff) told me that her most recent book was at her beta readers. Seven or eight of them I think.
I wanted to say that it wasn’t her book anymore, it was “their” book. But I said nothing, just as over the last years since this horrid practice started I have said nothing.
Writing by committee makes dullness. It takes out your writer voice, and often your character voice.
And I honestly have no idea why writers don’t have more pride in their work. That is the aspect of all this that bothers me. No one touches my work. It is my work. Period. Good or bad.
And I am proud of that fact. Good or bad.
Just stop. Go cold turkey.
Grow a backbone and believe in your own writing.
Maybe have one trusted reader and then ignore anything they say that doesn’t fit with your vision.
Get a copyeditor who will only find typos. Ignore anything the copyeditor says if they try to change your style or writing in any way.
Think how much easier that will be.
Keep learning skills and craft and applying it to the next story.
Bad grammar be good in right times and right places. Toss out the Chicago Manual of Style unless you are writing nonfiction.
Toss out the window your copy of Strunk and White unless you are writing nonfiction.
I am talking fiction here.
You are an artist. Allow your characters to live on the page. Allow your own voice (which you can’t see) to be there for your readers.
Always focus on the next story, not the last story.
Just stop even thinking of using beta readers to destroy your work.
Because that is what beta readers do.