Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

An Open Letter to Beta Readers

The main problem with beta readers is their impulse to lie their asses off. Their inclination is to react to our books like we handed them a ceramic handpirnt on Mothers’ Day and tell us how beautiful they think it is without even wondering whether they do. There can be other issues, too. I’m ridiculously bad at beta reading. I can’t even read published works the way I want betas to read mine. The last time I offered to beta read a novel was a little less than a year ago. If that experience was any indication, I should call myself an omega reader or something, because the beta thing certainly didn’t stick.

What follows is the first draft of an open letter to REAL beta readers — nonwriter acquaintances we somehow cajole into reading our stuff like they bought it at the airport and try like hell to keep from lying to us about the content:

Dear Beta Reader:

Thank you for agreeing to read my manuscript. There is also a chance you think you’ve agreed to force yourself to get through it and tell me how good it is, like it’s some godawful casserole your Grandmother made. If you approach it that way, I’d be a lot better off not asking you to read it. You’d sure as hell be better off not spending your evenings clawing through a heaping plate of mashed turnips and spam that reminds Grandma of her childhood; an era historians call the “Great Depression,” because it was so, well, depressing.

It is entirely possible you’ll get a page or a chapter or five chapters in and, if you’d just borrowed this book from a friend, put it down. THAT is valuable feedback to me. In fact, there is no more valuable feedback you could give if that happened. “I lost interest after Chapter Two,” is something I can use. “I love the way the saltiness from the stale potato chips offsets the blandness of the turnips,” is not.

My keyboard will not be awash in tears because one person lost interest in or didn’t enjoy my book. The two books I most recently started and couldn’t bring myself to finish were the second Hunger Games book and that Da Vinci Code meets Dante thing by Dan Brown. Both were wildly successful, and me not being the target audience for them doesn’t change that. You not being the target audience for my book won’t define my own opinion of it either, but it would be useful information. Useful information is all I’m asking for.

How much feedback or what form that takes is totally your call. I am not asking you to proofread this for me, and it’s no accident the file extension is “Final 27.” I find typos in published books, so I’m certain there are still a handful in here, but proofreading is the one thing I’m specifically NOT asking for. What I really want is for you to read some or all of it, and talk to me about it like you would if I had nothing to do with it. I work with a couple of people who look very closely at every tree and pine cone, and I’ve had a lot of that type of feedback already. Now I want to see what someone thinks of the forest.

This is a form letter I use whenever I send my manuscript to a beta reader. My total investment in you reading my manuscript is the thirty seconds it took me to cut and paste this into an email and attach a .pdf file. By the time you’ve read this email, you have expended more effort in being my beta reader than I have in getting you to be that, so you don’t owe me a thing. Now you have a free book you may or may not like, and I consider it a favor that you’re willing to read the first page. If you read the second page, do it because of that first page, and not for any other reason.

Thanks again.
/mjm

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10 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Beta Readers

  1. Welcome back to blogging! Love your open letter to Betas. Might have to use it myself later this year.

  2. Happy new year! Great post, and I wish every beta knew this.

  3. So am I allowed to copy and past that letter into a word doc and then alter it? Because it’s f**king awesome…

  4. I don’t consider any person I know with facial recognition a beta. They are too invested in me emotionally to be invested in my career in any real aspect . The amount of helpful notes I’ve gotten from “known” betas is miniscule, to the point of annoyance. In fact, I will never ask a friend or relative to read for me again. If they insist, I’ll comply to keep the peace, knowing full well the time it takes to send them the file will be worth more than the feedback. They just aren’t writers, and they don’t know how to give me useful feedback. Plus, like you said, they’ll say they liked it even if they didn’t. They’re kind of like pity dates. You take pity on them because they really, really want to read your book. And they take pity on you by completing something that isn’t their type of book and then telling you how great it is. No, I’ll stick with my fellow writers I’ve met online. Much better ass-kicking feedback there. And that’s what we writers need.

    • Thanks for commenting, Jennifer.

      That’s a tough issue for me (well, tough enough I burned three long blog posts on it, discussing ABC Relationships). Writers you don’t know provide great feedback, but I think there is a hell of a lot to be said for getting a mix of nonwriter opinions in there, too. You’re right, though, the closer the person is, the less valuable the feedback. Those second-degree relationships, can be gold, though. My most recent beta is a friend of a coworker of mine — the coworker is also a writer, his friend is an avid reader he uses as a beta. I doubt the feedback he gives my friend is worth a damn, for the reasons you identify. Jury’s still out on what it will be for me (he’s sent a few emails along the way, but he’s still reading).

      This is TOTALLY a matter of opinion, though. I’ve seen published writers talk about betas as a must have, and I’ve seen (more, tbh) equally successful authors say avoid that kind of feedback at all costs. Which, I guess, puts it in the same category as pretty much everything else we do.

  5. This is an awesome letter, bro.

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