Oh God Not In The Face: Beta Readers

Beta Readers are the people that we hand out an unfinished draft of our manuscript to with the expressed desire for them to read it, then beat the hell out of us. We ask them to be brutally honest. Actually, we just ask them to be honest, but somehow, the brutal part always manages to sneak its way in.

We listen. We weep and cry uncontrollably. Then we change things.

They are the most powerful, most efficient, most trustworthy way our stories get better. And if you hadn’t guessed, we love them a lot.

Elinor, or, A Reaper of Stone (the official title!), is finally in the hands of our Beta Readers. And as the time for our requested beating draws near, I wanted to talk about how exactly these magnificent people turn our cow dung into beautiful life-giving fertilizer. Or.. err, you know what I mean.


First off, we complete a certain number of drafts of our manuscript until we feel like it’s solid enough to show what we’re trying to accomplish. The draft we gave out on Friday was number 3.

Second, we decide on how many betas we want. Conventional wisdom would say more is better. And I don’t think that’s wrong. We went with 12.

Then, we let our readers know how long it is – Elinor is about a 2-hour read. And we put a deadline on finishing it, because, honestly, if someone picks it up and can’t finish it in that deadline, that tells us enough about how good our work is anyway. So why prolong the misery, right?

Once we get the thumbs up from our Betas, we send out the manuscript and a questionnaire.

The questionnaire has all kinds of questions (duh!), but the main one is usually – what sucked? Here’s that question from the current Elinor questionnaire:

  • Any deal breakers? As in, was there anything that was too inconsistent, confusing, lame, or surprising that turned you off (in a serious way)?


So that’s only half the fun. The best part comes with the responses.

One thing we’ve really come to realize is how different people really are. Even with the same bit of prose on a page, the same exact words read by four different people can have four very difficult reactions.

Reading is a personal thing. Each word or idea or description invokes something different in each of us. It plumbs the depths of our own personal memories and histories, and it colors everything with the lens of our individual experiences.

So does that mean the personal opinion of each of our beta readers is not important because it’s so subjective? Not at all. Because let’s face it, stuff that sucks really just sucks.

And that takes us to our most powerful quality assurance tool, the SUCK FACTOR. The suck factor is a threshold. For Elinor, it’s 4/3/2.

It works like this. We compile each thing that didn’t work or jive or feel good to each beta reader. When readers complain about the SAME thing we add it up and if it hits the threshold numbers, we do something about it.

4/3/2 means:

If 4 or more people said they didn’t like the same thing, then we change it. Full stop. No decision making. No excuses. It’s no longer about IF we fix it, and the discussion then becomes WHAT we need to do to make it better.

A suck factor of 3 opens a discussion on changes. And for 2 or less, we let it go.

Let me tell you, Mark and I have spent a lot of our lives trying to make everybody happy. And while I still think that’s a noble pursuit, it’s a horrible way to get a book finished.


This system was a long time in the making. The hardest part? The getting punched in the face part.

It’s not a fun thing to know you’re wrong, and it’s way less fun to have someone, let alone 12 people, tell you that.

But here’s the hard truth. I don’t know everything.

I don’t even want to.

I just want to do this one thing well. More than anything, I just want my stories to work.

And if taking a couple punches is what it takes to learn how to make them better, then I’ll step up every time and take my beating.

Just hopefully, you know, not all in the face.

Be back next week. Til then.

Stay tuned. Stay Frosty.



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