Sunday, March 26, 2017

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 37: Two (or three or six) heads are better than one.

There’s a term in vogue among writers these days: beta reader. I don’t know where the phrase originated or why (or what they used to call it), but all it means is that someone (or several someones) is reading a manuscript you intend to publish, or submit to a publisher.
Sometimes a “beta reader” is a spouse or another family member. Sometimes a friend. Sometimes a colleague from a critique group or other writing organization. Sometimes all of the above, or someone else altogether.
The idea behind beta readers is the notion that two heads are better than one—that they will point out pitfalls in your plot, cracks in your characters, lapses in logic, problems with prose, and so on, and perhaps offer advice on repairs.
Things, it seems to me, a writer ought to find and fix while writing and rewriting.
But many writers find beta readers helpful. On occasion I have been asked to be a beta reader but I doubt I was of much use since all I can offer is my opinion, which may be at odds with what the writer thinks.
In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that I don’t use beta readers. Here’s why. First of all, the people I want reading my manuscripts are publishers and editors. People whose opinions really count, in numbers preceded by dollar signs. 
Next, as mentioned earlier, any glaring weaknesses in a manuscript should have been found and fixed already, by me. (Or not, which may well be the case.)
Sometimes, comments and criticism are more related to style than substance, and style ought to be the writer’s province.
The advice offered may not be bad—but it may not be good, either. You could do something a different way based on their advice, but different may just be different—not better.
Also, readers have differing opinions, so the advice of one is sometimes at odds with the advice of another—even downright contradictory.
Most of all, I suppose, there’s the question of who’s right and who’s wrong. Criticism from beta readers may lead to your doubting your work, even your ability. When you set out to write this thing, you must have believed you could do it. You can’t let someone who has no horse in the race convince you otherwise. As the late, great author Kent Haruf once said: “You have to believe in yourself despite the evidence.”
It’s all up to you, of course. Use beta readers if it helps. Maybe two heads are better than one. On the other hand, it could be equally true that too many cooks spoil the broth.


  1. Tolkien, who was supposed to be C.S. Lewis' friend, severely criticized "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." On the other hand, I had a friend tell me, "You've got a saddle on a horse that was pulling a buggy earlier." Oops! But on the whole, I agree with you. Trust your instincts.