Dean Wesley Smith is a prolific fiction author. He’s also a prolific blogger, and spends a lot of time sharing his observations about the craft of writing. Some of his advice is helpful, but in one of his recent posts (a chapter from one his nonfiction books) he takes aim at the practice of using beta readers. Some excerpts:
Beginning writers have a belief that the more people who read their work, the better their work will be. Of course, that flies in the face of any creation of art by an artist. But the fear is great among young writers, most of who are indie writers these days.
Long term pros? What do they do? Maybe have one first reader, maybe not. Most not.
Why? Because creating original fiction is not a group effort, that’s why.
Thinking you need beta readers is one of the deadliest myths that has come about in this new world.
Dean has decades of experience, and undoubtedly has some sound advice to pass to other authors who are just getting started. In this particular area, though, I believe he is wrong.
The fundamental problem with Dean’s argument: He conflates peer workshops with beta readers. He had negative experiences with the former, which understandably turned him off (“Very seldom did this sort of committee writing turn anything into anything more than a pile of mush”). He hasn’t tried the latter, yet he dismisses them out of hand and suggests that the people who use beta readers are cowards who don’t trust their own vision (“Grow a backbone and believe in your own writing”).
As many professional authors have noted, beta readers can help identify problems that may not be apparent to the author. They are used by many authors to improve their manuscripts and validate some of the ideas, characters, and concepts within. I would also say that beta readers should be in the target audience, although feedback from others (including peers) may also be helpful for working through certain elements.
Quoting Stephen King, who shows manuscripts to a small group of people, including his “ideal reader,” the novelist (and his spouse) Tabitha King:
How to evaluate criticism
Show your piece to a number of people–ten, let us say. Listen carefully to what they tell you. Smile and nod a lot. Then review what was said very carefully. If your critics are all telling you the same thing about some facet of your story–a plot twist that doesn’t work, a character who rings false, stilted narrative, or half a dozen other possibles–change that facet.
It doesn’t matter if you really liked that twist of that character; if a lot of people are telling you something is wrong with your piece, it is. If seven or eight of them are hitting on that same thing, I’d still suggest changing it. But if everyone–or even most everyone–is criticizing something different, you can safely disregard what all of them say.
Using beta readers or other types of audience feedback during the development process is not handing the reins of creativity over to the mob. It’s a tried-and-true method many media creators use to understand audiences, gain insights into their work, and focus their creativity. Stand-up comics are pros at this; by the time the show gets to NYC or LA their gags and timing has been perfected, thanks to the audience feedback in smaller venues earlier in the tour. Musicians and video game creators also use feedback to improve their works prior to the official release, and some movie and video producers do it, too.
I talk about these issues at length in Lean Media, but the following section from Chapter 8 may help illustrate the dynamic, using the example of a hypothetical band discussing the next album with a few fan club members:
The goal is not to determine how many fans give their stamps of approval. As creators, you are not looking for permission from fans to move forward. You are also not looking for specific song ideas—that will come from the songwriters on the team. Rather, the purpose of talking with audience members at this early stage is to try to understand where they are coming from vis à vis the band’s music and the next recording project.
The qualitative feedback will be varied. It will probably include unusual observations, repetitive praise, and contradictory advice. But you will also hear some useful insights that the team can bring back and discuss. Some insights may even lead to innovative ideas that allow the band to steer the creative focus in a new direction.
Seeing the last line, I am reminded of Metallica’s use of early audience feedback to write the black album (also known as “Metallica,” but when I was younger I heard it called “Coily,” a reference to the snake on the cover and perhaps its similarity to the character from the 80s videogame Qbert. But I digress …). The first insights came during the tour for the preceding album:
While the members of Metallica largely felt that they’d taken their progressive-thrash concept as far as they could with 1988’s …And Justice for All, they’d also realized that they’d been testing the patience of their live audiences with epic, convoluted songs like the album’s nearly 10-minute title cut.
“We realized that the general consensus was that songs were too f—ing long,” lead guitarist Kirk Hammett told Rolling Stone in 1991. “Everyone [in the crowd] would have these long faces, and I’d think, ‘Goddamn, they’re not enjoying it as much as we are.'” Hammett acknowledged that the band was becoming bored with the songs’ intricate arrangements, as well.
Certainly, any author or artist has the right to filter the feedback and decide what (if any) can be used to glean insights about the intended audience or the work itself. As Dean says in his blog post, “Maybe have one trusted reader and then ignore anything they say that doesn’t fit with your vision.” I agree, and would further argue that this can be expanded to a larger group to better identify patterns or get different points of view. If the feedback doesn’t jive with your vision, then by all means, disregard it.