Thursday, January 10, 2013

When Beta Readers Disagree

I have said it before, and it merits saying again - I love my beta readers. They give up vast chunks of their free time to help me make my book better. They are awesome.

But as each one is awesome in their own way, sometimes they give me very different opinions.

Usually this is fine. If I give my new novel to four people and they each highlight four different flaws, I spend some time thinking about each of them and ultimately I change what I feel like changing. No giant flaw has stood out to everyone.

However, sometimes there is a problem that could be fixed in one or two different ways. I'm working on a few of those at the moment - making the main character more likeable in the early chapters (apparently she's a bit of a whiny cow) and upping the stakes in the earlier part of the book. There are dozens of ways to fix those.

And in the case of my stakes problem, I came up with a solution I liked, which I felt would boost the drama and the conflict and the peril for my main character. I asked two of the beta readers what they thought.

One loves it. One hates it. Both had excellent reasons and made strong points.

I tore my hair out for a while and then consulted a third beta reader, who diplomatically agreed with both of them but eventually came down somewhat on one side. A fourth refused to express an opinion. A fifth was only in the country for a couple of weeks and I had so many better things to talk to her about than my book (namely: Italian chocolate - any good? and Your couch - may I sleep on it?).

So what is a writer to do?

In this case, I'm very fond of my suggested fix - it ups the stakes effectively and it allows me to make a point about something on which I have strong views. I believe it has a good chance of improving the book. So I'm going to do it.

I am, however, going to do it while keeping the other beta reader's comments in mind. The beta reader who hated my solution made excellent points about why she feels it may not work, how she feels it may damage the book. Knowing these in advance, I hope I can write the new chapters with those pitfalls and mind and construct the story in a way that means they're not an issue - and if I can't, I'll be aware of the pitfals as I write and can scrap them if they become overwhelming.

Have your beta readers ever disagreed? What did you do?


  1. You just have to go with your gut instinct. I had a similar situation with one paragraph of my latest manuscript. One critique partner said nothing, one said it read very awkward, and one said it was one of the best written passages in the story. I decided not to change a thing.

    1. Dead right, Alex - when they can't agree, you get the casting vote!

  2. I don't think my betas have ever disagreed on something. I've had agents do that, and in the end I ignored them both and went with my gut feeling.

    No one knows your ms better than you.

    1. That's true, Donna - we have to stay with our own vision of the book above all.

  3. I think obviously you should pay attention to any problems with things that don't make sense, but when it comes to opinions like these, things that you should change won't just make logical sense, you'll feel it. Not just 'it might not work' but that resonating chime with a concern you had in the back of your head already. Otherwise I would suggest going with what you came up with.

    That's not to say it will definitely work, but even if it doesn't you're bound to learn something from it.


    1. Yeah, the gut feeling on it is very important. I think writers generally have a good sense of what will and won't work for their books.

      Agreed, though, even if things don't work, we learn something!

  4. The gut feeling is best.

    My beta readers went over everything, found mostly small glitches.

  5. I agree with William. It's your story, all the way to completion and through the rewrites, but Betas, if chosen well for your voice and genre can be really great for polishing down your own feelings and ideas. I usually try to get at least five different ones, which allows me to toss out those on both ends of the spectrum and concentrate on the overlaps, even disagree and ignore!


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