Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Harsh Does Not Equal Honest: Pick Your Beta Readers Carefully

By Dario Ciriello, @Dario_Ciriello 

Part of The Writer's Life Series

JH: Feedback doesn't have to be mean to be useful. Dario Ciriello shares thoughts on dealing with beta readers, tough crits, and the struggles of new authors just trying to get help. 

I’ve seen more than one new author crushed by tactless or even downright mean feedback from beta readers, and I don’t like it. So a couple of weeks ago, I tweeted the following as a simple PSA:
Too many writers upset by overly harsh feedback from betas. PICK YOUR BETAS CAREFULLY. They should be people you know well, who get your genre, whom you trust, and who are experienced, secure writers. Don't just let anyone read your draft.
Surprisingly, this got pushback from a few people who insisted they wanted and welcomed harsh feedback, didn’t want to be coddled, didn’t want to use people they knew as betas because they wouldn’t give honest feedback, wanted people who didn’t read their genre because that would let them appeal to a wider audience, and yada yada.


Here’s the deal: harsh does not equate with honest. Even when you have bad news to deliver, it can and should be done tactfully and with compassion. All of us have been beginners, and just because some of us have thick skins doesn’t mean everyone does.

Unfortunately, new writers typically don’t have a large network of author friends or a great understanding of the beta reading process. As a consequence, they often offer up their firstborn to anyone who’ll read it, and sometimes get savaged. The majority will be hurt. Some may never write again.

Yes, one does need to develop a thick skin, but very few writers start off with one. Harsh feedback isn’t defensible on the grounds of being honest, it's simply thoughtless and sometimes mean; and the people who deliver that sort of feedback are typically insecure writers themselves.

(Here's more on Why Writers Should Want Nitpicky Critiquers)

Let it Cool

It’s true that sometimes the beta reader may have been frustrated by having to plow through a badly flawed work and just didn’t let their angry words cool enough, then re-read and revise, before sending them off to the author: I’ve been there and I get that. But dash off that feedback raw, and the anger and frustration comes off the page like gamma radiation. Or the beta reader may simply not be in the author’s target audience: give a hard science fiction reader a romance novel to beta and I guarantee you the outcome won’t be pretty.

(Here's more on The Difference Between a Writing Problem, and a “Not For Me” Issue)

I’ve had a couple of these poorly thought-out or downright angry beta reads myself over the years and, thick-skinned as I am, vowed to never show that person anything of mine again. For feedback to be useful to an author, it needs to be presented with equanimity, objectivity, and at least a modicum of tact and sensitivity.

Beta Reading is not Critique

There’s another issue here, a problem of common misconception: beta reading is not the same as critique. Don’t believe me? 

We can clarify this with a simple look at the words’ origins: the etymology of critique goes back to the Greek word, krites, a judge, and tends to slant the process towards fault-finding; whereas a beta reader can best be defined as a test reader, someone who will look at the work from the standpoint of an average reader. The whole point of beta reading is to help the author end up with a publishable piece of fiction which readers will enjoy, not one other writers can’t pick holes in. The difference is very real.

(Here's more on The Difference Between Critique Partners and Beta Readers)

So yeah, your betas had better be people you know and trust, and also people who enjoy and read your genre. If your beta is an experienced writer or even an editor kind enough to offer a freebie read (as I more than once have when I see a new writer with obvious talent), they’ll also be able to suggest fixes to any issues – but, understanding as they do the difference between critique and beta, they’ll read as readers, not as writers.

And that makes all the difference.

Have you ever had what you saw as unnecessarily harsh feedback from beta readers? How do you choose your betas?

Dario Ciriello is a professional author and freelance editor as well as the founder of Panverse Publishing.

Dario’s fiction includes Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller with a shimmer of the fantastic; Black Easter, a supernatural suspense novel which pits love against black magic and demonic possession on a remote, idyllic Greek island; and Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short science fiction work.

Dario’s 2011 nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Sk√≥pelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK travel bestseller. The Fiction Writing Handbook: The Professional Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules (Panverse, 2017) is his second nonfiction work.

In addition to writing, Dario, who lives in the Los Angeles Area, offers professional editing, copyediting, and mentoring services to indie authors.

Website | Twitter | Goodreads | Panverse Publishing

About The Fiction Writing Handbook

A Unique Approach to the Craft of Writing Fiction

The Fiction Writing Handbook*
 is a complete guide for the fiction writer who wants to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing. Although a few rules really are necessary, the vast majority are either dogma or passing fads. Worse, so much advice like “show don’t tell” and “open with action” is often poorly explained and entirely misunderstood, causing writers no end of problems. Similarly, the importance of both character and narrative voice, as well as tone, cannot be overstated.

Drawing on twenty years of writing, critiquing, editing and mentoring experience, Dario Ciriello explodes writing myths, shreds conventional wisdom, and dissects the often misleading advice and diktats shouted at writers by books and blogs, agents and publishers. The Fiction Writing Handbook gives authors the necessary tools and insights to retake control of their story and make it unique.

Other topics covered in The Fiction Writing Handbook include external and internal dialog, writers' block, traditional vs. indie publishing, PoV (point of view), creating suspense, and much more.

Whether your interest lies in short stories, novels or screenwriting, The Fiction Writing Handbook shows you how to tell your story in your voice and place it before your audience, eschewing novel plotting formulas and cookie-cutter fiction to remain true to your own, exceptional vision while adhering to the few rules that actually matter. Because writing isn’t about prose wonks and industry insiders: it’s about the reader, and most of all it’s about telling a story. Your story.

*Originally published in 2017 under the title, "Drown the Cat"

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | | iTunes | Indie Bound | Kobo | Panverse


  1. Good points. It's too easy to forget the line between catching a few (debatably) weak elements in a story and comments that might stop the writer from writing at all. Especially since by the time someone becomes a beta or critiquer, they're often more experienced than the writer, and lose track of how it feels to be new and nervous.

    And, a good point about the difference between beta and critiquing. Critiquing has some room for harshness because it's after the story's released and meant to help write the next story, or it might be done early when a story is still taking form. Beta work happens once the story is mostly settled, and a beta should focus on what it's trying to do and what improves that.

    1. Thanks for weighing in, Ken, and a good extra distinction. :)

      Strictly speaking, I'd call that post-publication commentary criticism rather than critique, but your point is well made. But everything up to publication, whether critique or beta reader commentary, needs to be constructive, even if difficult issues are raised. Most writers, especially newer ones, aren't going to be very receptive to overly harsh or ill-presented feedback, their shield go up. It does no good to upset or even crush someone who's taking the huge chance of showing their work in the hope of getting helpful input.


  2. Maria, thanks for taking the time to comment, and I'm so glad you enjoy my posts; since I'm typically the resident contrarian here (LOL!), I'm especially grateful for the feedback. :)

    You put it very well. I think your closing point about knowledge serving as both power and shield is very true. I have a chapter in my craft book about this whole issue of critique and beta, and I think it's an essential part of a writer's education.


  3. Hi Dario

    I just recruited a handful of beta readers from my newsletter. It only took 24 hours for one to bow out as they 'weren't overly fond of middle-grade Magical realism'.

    And given how they signed up after reading several synopses and exerpts,it made me realize that even a keen reader can miss the point of a book clearly labelled a time-slip fantasy for middle-grade.

    Keep posting. You always give great advice.


    1. (whoops, my reply posted on your second comment below, rather than here. Blogges IS buggy! LOL)

  4. This really hit home for me. In my first critique group experience, most everyone made helpful suggestions, except for one person who started out by calling me a "natural" and then proceeded to shred every chapter I submitted. It was very disheartening, but since I'd heard writers need a thick skin, I sucked it up and made the changes, and by chapter five, I had learned to jump through all of her excessively nitpicky hoops. She then insulted my main character and quit the group not long after.

    My ego had taken such a beating, however, that I retreated into fanfic, and I didn't pick up that manuscript again for another ten years. It took me a further ten years for me to realize it might not have been about me at all, but rather her own insecurities as a writer, and maybe she felt threatened because everyone else in the group seemed to like my story. But the experience put me off critique groups for good and even beta readers for a long time. I'm slowly recovering now, though.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. Oh, Shiva. That really saddens me, and I'm only glad that in time you saw the truth of the situation and circled back around to writing. FWIW, consider picking up my craft book (details at the end of the blog post above): there's a whole chapter on critique groups and beta, including how to start and run your own group.

      I should also say I never let anyone read a WiP, though I've been in groups which do, and I know many people who seem fine with it. I'm with Stephen King though, the first draft needs to happen with the door shut. WiPs are far too plastic and evolving to allow into others' hands, IMO.

      Best, and thanks so much for commenting!


    2. Oh, it's wasn't a WIP, as such. It was a (mostly) completed first draft. The convention for the group was just to post one chapter a week for feedback. I think I did have one scene I'd decided to re-write from another POV later on, but obviously, I never made it that far. Not for another decade, anyway.

      I already have Drown the Cat, so I may just have to check this one out too, even if I don't envision myself joining another critique group any time soon, let alone running one. Cheers!

    3. Oh Got it! :)

      (Shiva, just a heads-up: The Fiction Writing Handbook is actually a re-realease of "Drown the Cat" with a new title and some light eidts... so don't buy it again LOL. And I'm honoured you have the book! ♥)

    4. LOL! Yeah, I saw the footnote after I posted, but I seriously considered buying it again anyway, for two reasons: 1) the beta/critique group section might be new (I honestly can't remember) or updated, and 2) my previous copy is packed away somewhere (so I couldn't even check). But I will take your word for it and spend some extra time this weekend looking through unpacked moving boxes instead of shopping online. ;-)

  5. Replies
    1. Vero, thank you so much! And... *facepalm.* WTH is wrong with everybody?! LOL. I sympathize, and hope that you find your good betas. Your work is first-rate, and deserves first-rate readers.

      (BTW there was no deleted reply: I only just returned to the thread and saw these. Very likely a glitch in blogger. xo)


  6. Thanks Dario. I agree... glitches abound.

  7. As someone who didn't start writing until retirement, I love this post. Tactfulness is an art. We can always be honest and communicate without going out of our way to hurts someone's feelings. As a former elementary school teacher for thirty-one years, I got plenty of opportunities to practice this skill during parent/teacher conferences.

    I also appreciate the honesty and forthrightness of my critique group. They are helping me become a better writer without crushing my spirit to try something new.

  8. My first beta loved my novel and found a few helpful suggestions. She was a great one! My second was more critical, but she truly took time to read through my entire novel, point out what she liked and didn't like and I have really valued her feedback because I see it as highly helpful. She is also an editor. The third beta was the BAD ONE. She called my story a "Mary Sue" story based on the prologue alone, then claimed she read the rest but couldn't give ANY specifics (beyond the prologue) and claimed it only proved to her that her impressions were correct. She offered only vague feedback or none at all other than to tell me I needed to understand the basics of writing a story (I do??? After 2 creative writing courses and an English Lit degree??). And then, she's friend with my writing coach, and the writing coach, who neither read my story NOR her feedback, agreed with her. So I'm a bit frustrated to say the least, nearly quit writing. If I hadn't already developed a network of author friends, I probably would have, too. I think I just found a lazy beta who apparently dislikes me (she probably had seen the post an author friend made praising me when THIS SAME NOVEL moved up to the second round of a contest).... so I think this beta was/is jealous on top of everything else.

  9. I recently had a nasty bit of feedback from a beta. My writing coach actually paired us off, too. She wrote a scathing criticism of my novel telling me my main protagonist was a Mary Sue. After showing the book to other betas and two editors, everyone else assured me that wasn’t even the case. This beta just apparently hates strong female characters (even though she’s a female). Then after I told my coach, he gave me the same advice you just did in this article. Choose betas carefully. I wish he’d warned me about this friend of his. I nearly gave up writing. Now, 3 months later, I’m finally incorporating the helpful beta feedback I’ve received. And things are coming along again, though not without a large amount of hurt. I’m so grateful I quit relying on my coach’s team and found my own editor. She’s An amazing lady and someone I consider a friend, though we also have a business relationship too. If it wasn’t for her and my good betas, I probably would have given up. I’m an HSP and not innately prone to thick skin either. Oh. And that nasty woman knew my cat had died and still sent me that feedback the very next day. I can’t second this advice enough!!!!

    1. I'm so sorry you had that experience (and so sorry about your cat). That sounds horrible! Some folks just prefer to be mean than constructive, and not just writers. It's hard to just let it roll off you. Glad to hear you're back to writing and found a supportive group!