by Kelsie Engen


It’s a truth universally acknowledged that beta readers are the best and worst thing to happen to an author.

On the one hand, it’s fantastic that you have readers already willing to read your work–and it’s not even published yet! That’s amazing. Be sure to send them a thank you.

But then the feedback starts rolling in. And all of a sudden, you’ve got conflicting opinions. One reader adores your main character while the other hates everything about them–could hardly get through the first fifty pages, the mc was so bad.

Or there’s the feedback that directly contradicts each other. A teenager in this situation would never ever act like this. Followed by: My teenager acts exactly like this!

So what do you do? Do you just not change anything and assume some readers didn’t–and never will–get it?

No. Probably every one of your beta readers is very right in one thing: something about your character is not working.

But how to tell what that “something” is is the true challenge.


1. Contradicting opinions

So what is it–good or bad? Every reader you get has a different opinion about your mc. She’s too snarky. She’s not smart enough. She’s not decisive enough. She’s not . . . whatever.

So are they all right? Should you even attempt to address all their issues?

First off, you must understand the underlying issue at face here.

When a reader tells you that a character wouldn’t do something you have them doing, what that most likely means is that you haven’t developed the backstory of the character enough to make their actions believable.

Almost anything can be believable if you give your character the right backstory. Does your mc have an unrealistically difficult time sleeping at night after the birth of her child? She can only sleep in 15-minutes increments and wakes to check on her baby. In all other ways, the mc is a level-headed, normal woman, but when it comes to this, she is ridiculously worried.

Did you tell your reader that the mc lost her first child when he was two months old to SIDS? And now she’s so worried about losing another child that way that she cannot sleep or function as a normal mother?

A reader needs to know–or at least suspect–an mc’s past if it affects her decisions in the book. (P.S. An mc’s past should affect her decisions in the book.)


2. Hated it and loved it

One reader hated everything about your book, while the next loved it. Change everything versus change nothing.

Is it bad to have such a divisive book? No. Not necessarily.

Beta reader feedback is one of the best way of revealing your target audience.

There are some books out there that I hate. And yet I jump online to read other reviews and find other people gushing about how it is the best book that they’ve read in a long, long time. And suddenly I start questioning my own sanity. Did we read the same book?

People are various, diverse creatures with myriad of opinions, likes, and dislikes. Some will love the character but find the plot unlikely. Some will hate the character but perhaps love the plot.

I’ve heard this comment from other writers: if you’re getting half love-it and half hate-it on a matter, don’t change anything.

For some things, that may be true. If it’s something that is a matter of taste instead of factual discrepancy, you certainly have more leeway in that choice. But if you’re getting such a mixed bag of feedback, I still venture there might be something wrong that you should address. Before you discount the feedback as useless, ask yourself a few questions about whether you should discount it or not. For example:

Here’s the rule of thumb I use:

  • Do I agree with the comment?
    • Yes: Do I then agree that the issue needs to be changed/addressed in some fashion?
      • Yes: change it.
      • No: keep it until further feedback makes me question it again, then repeat questioning.
    • No: Why do I not agree? Am I being defensive?
      • Yes: write it down, give myself time off the manuscript, and come back to it later.
      • No: I don’t agree because a) they’re factually wrong, or b) they’re the only one saying this, or c) they aren’t my target audience and confirm through other comments/opinions that they are not my target audience.+

This line of questioning may not work for you, but it’s helpful to evaluate if you’re being honest and distant with your manuscript or whether you’re being defensive and refusing to listen to a valid opinion.

Remember that every beta reader’s opinion is valid, even if they say they hated your story. While the latter may not be helpful, it is valid.


+(A note about target audience. I realize that the above comment about ignoring something from a person who is not my target audience could be misconstrued. I am not saying to ignore everything from a reader who is not your ideal reader. However, there are times where I would not give good feedback regarding characters, plot, or believability depending on the genre of a book.

In those instances, a reader may not realize this, and may not say, “Hey, I’m not the type of reader who enjoys these kinds of books. I thought I was, but I’m not. So I can either continue reading keeping an eye out for SPaG, and keep my comments to factual mistakes, or else stop reading right here.”

In fact, this may be why some beta readers never get the manuscript back to the author, which happens frequently depending on where you find your readers. So I do try to take “ideal reader” into account when I get feedback from a reader. However, don’t discount a reader’s feedback simply because they aren’t your “perfect” reader; they should still offer valuable feedback, even if it’s just on prose.)


3. They tell you want you want to hear

This is a challenge for the author. And honestly, the beta who tells you exactly what you want to hear is worth far less than the one who is truthful with you and actually criticizes your work.

A beta who tells you that the book is great, pointing out only the spots where you thought you already had issues, and otherwise leaves the book alone says one of two things: 1) they were probably influenced by you when you gave them the book, or 2) you only need to listen to your gut and don’t need beta readers. (I’m betting it’s the former reason. A writer is always too close to see all of their own faults, even if they can see some.)

To be fair, the reader that says “I loved it” may be just as honest as the other, but . . .

with beta readers, the more specific a beta reader can be, the more helpful that reader is to the author.

So while a reader who says “I hate this mc” and another who says “I love this mc” may be equally right, the one that is going to be most helpful to a writer is the one who is more specific and gives reasons why they loved or hated the mc, story, events, etc. Again, that doesn’t make one more “right” than the other. It shows the diversity of your readers and humankind. It shows that you need to take your target audience into consideration when offering your book to beta readers.


Beta readers can be wrong and right at the same time

Yes, it’s true. Beta readers can be absolutely wrong in telling you how to fix a “problem.” But they are usually right in identifying the problem itself. As I said before, if all your beta readers have a different problem with your mc, chances are that something needs to change–but no reader may be able to tell you exactly what it is.

Never throw out an opinion. Each is worth its weight in gold.

So next time, before you discount a beta’s comments because they aren’t your “ideal” reader or because they disagree with everyone else or because they simply aren’t telling you what you want to hear, reevaluate how your betas may be wrong and right at the same time.




Guest post contributed by Kelsie Engen. Kelsie loves to read and started her blog to share that passion with others of like mind.