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« Judging Writing Contests (and the Crit Winners!) | Main | Know When to Hold 'Em, Know When to Fold 'Em »

Why Your Mama Doesn't Count as a Beta Reader


As I was watching American Idol this week, I realized that the contestants on the show are much like writers trying to get agents or publishing deals.  We all have a dream, we all believe we have some level of talent, and we want to impress the people that can help us realize our dream.


These people go on the show, wait in impossibly long lines (slush pile) then present what they've got to the judges (agents) for about a 1% chance of being successful.  So when I'm watching the show and see contestants walk in so hopeful only to open their mouths and sound like a dying cat, I always wonder why these people went through so much trouble?  Don't they know they're terrible?  I mean this guy seems honest in his surprise (sorry this is not from this season, couldn't find a good one yet on YouTube).

But time and time again, we see those contestants break down in tears, exit the room, and run into the arms of their genuinely astonished friends and family.  Inevitably, the mother is murmuring, "They don't know what they're talking about, honey, you're wonderful!"

And herein lies the problem.  If the only people you ever sing for are your family and friends, you're not getting any true help.  They aren't lying to you necessarily--they just love or like you and are looking for the good in you.  This is the same thing that happens if your only beta readers are your mom/friends/co-workers.

ANYONE who has any obligation or loyalty to you in real life is going to see things through rose-colored glasses.  You have to look at what the person has to lose by giving you a harsh feedback.  For instance, if you're writing YA and your friend's teen daughter offers to read your manuscript, she is already set up not to give you a negative opinion.  You are her mother's friend and an adult.  She's going to want to please you.

So, I know I'm probably preaching to the choir, but do not send your work out to agents before you've found  unbiased beta readers (including people who are writers, not just readers) or joined a crit group.  (I'm speaking from experience with novel #1 here.)  Otherwise, you may end up getting the same reaction from the agents that the judges gave the guy in the video above.

Yes, there are some people who are born with some amazing innate talent and nail it the first time with no help.  BUT they are the exception--and if you've watched the movie He's Just Not That Into You--remember that most of us are the rule, not the exception.

So give yourself the best possible chance for that agent to fall in love with your work.  Getting a crit can be terrifying the first few times, but wouldn't you rather hear negative feedback from a fellow writer than blow your opportunity with your dream agent or publisher?  Your manuscript might just be a few critiques away from amazing--give yourself a chance to reach that.

*steps off soap box*

--Alright, you only have until tonight at midnight (central) to enter the "win a crit" contest (are you getting tired of me reminding you yet?), enter here if you haven't already.--



I've noticed a few of you have left comments this week that you are looking for a crit group.  So in addition to regular comments, feel free to leave a "personal" ad for what kind of crit group or beta readers you are looking for and leave your email address so that others who may match up with you can contact you.


So am I the only one who jumped the gun on her first novel and queried before I had unbiased beta readers?  When did you decide you needed to join a crit group?  Who would you want as your literary agent--Randy, Simon, or Cara?  


**Today's Theme Song**
"I Honestly Love You" - Olivia Newton-John
(player in sidebar, take a listen)


Reader Comments (26)

It's a harsh truth but a truth none the less. Mom's and family see you on a pedestal. We need them to help our ego but we can't count on them for a real review.

Great analogy with the American Idol show too.

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterquixotic

I used my mother as a beta reader and had a different problem. I didn't give her the credit she was due as a reader (figuring 'She's my mother, not a writer, what can she know?') and therefore didn't take her suggestions seriously. Later, I was stunned to realize I would have saved a lot of time and effort if I had listened to her very perceptive comments. But the other part of the problem was that since she wasn't a writer, she wasn't able to put her issues or suggestions in language that was easy for me to understand.

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDreamstate

I like to use friends in the early stages of a novel to find major plot issues and character problems. And to cheer me on.

But now I've got writers critiquing Novel #1. The differences between the two groups are interesting- the writers find great things I never would have noticed or already discounted as my own neuroses. They're invaluable. In fact, my post last night was all about betas!

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie Thornton

I've always likened the road to publication to American Idol - and in the back of my mind I'm hoping I'm not one of those people who should find another dream! But isn't the road to any artistic endeavor paved with self-doubt?

I have some wonderful writer friends who critique - and I joined a writing group before I started sending out my first novel. But, I still moved too quickly - it's taken me a long time to perfect the query which is now getting requests. I'm just glad I didn't query everyone on my list on the first go.

I would want Simon as my lit. agent. He's blunt, yes, but honest and if you listen closely, has a lot of credible criticism. Great post, Roni!

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJanet

I've never had any of my family read anything I write, but then I never started a novel that I cared to finish so I didn't have a need for a beta reader. XD I guess that's partly why I've never started another novel because I don't have anyone to critique my progress.

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGavin

I thought that exact same thing as I watched American Idol this week! My mom is the same way....she loves everything I write. That's why I had to go out there and find some critique partners.

This is a great post, and I think I'd have Paula as an agent if she were still on idol. Maybe now Ellen since she's gone.

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAubrie

HAHA! I just posted on this same exact topic last night. :) So, so agree with everything you said.

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJulie Dao

I'm not the next Mariah Carey? Wha-a-a-t?? :)

Very true. And I pick Randy. He's respected in the industry, honest--not mean, and he'll sell my work.

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJill Kemerer

Nope, you aren't the only one. I learned that lesson the hard way.

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSusan R. Mills

I've sent stuff out before it was ready, more than once. Gah.

I don't think I sing like a cat, but, I'm not snagging the agent either. I'd be happy to find more beta readers for YA. I write chick lit and historical(ww2).

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElle Strauss

This is the best post I've read today (and I've read A LOT). It's so true!

And don't worry I queried a novel that wasn't ready. That no one had even read. Not even my mom. Le sigh. I learned fast though. Thankfully.

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElana Johnson

WHAT?! crud! my mom isn't the referral I sould be putting on my submissions? What about the next door neighbor teenager who mows my lawn?

not him either? drat!

hehehehehehe. I'm feeling goofy today. sorry.

Seriously, though -- true and good advice here today.

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTess

I've never let anyone in my family read my work. Don't know why, but I'm nervous about sharing with them right now. But I do have a crit group and I value their input so much. They have taught me a lot since I've been with them.

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

What do you mean? Mama says I'm a genius! Hee!

You're absolutely right. And you're not the only one to have jumped the gun. Um, my friend did that. Okay, we're talkin' about me. But I've learned! Really!

Have a great weekend!

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDawn Simon

You're not the only one. Sad to say, I've done this more than once.

Beta readers or critique groups are a good idea for more than the simple fact than they're unbiased. They're also writers. Writers and readers see things differently and usually family members and friends aren't writers. They don't mind so much if you use passive voice or get repetitive in parts, but other writers will notice these things more and help move you in the right direction.

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCindy

My dad, who's read a hundred times more mysteries than I, was an important beta reader for me. I made him swear to be honest, however.

As for Idol, all I have to say is PANTS ON THE GROUND, PANTS ON THE GROUND!!!

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTravener

... lookin' like a fool with your pants on the ground.

I am definitely interested in finding patient betas for my WIP, which is possibly a work of literary fiction and is currently incomplete at 35,000 words. I would love to share the first five chapters. If anyone is interested email me at:


I would love to find someone (or a group of someones) I mesh with and can trade chapters with on a weekly or monthly basis.

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmber Tidd Murphy

I don't have a crit group anymore or beta readers (whaa! living out of the country for a year, coming home and then promptly moving across the country will rather shake up your life). Honestly, I've been querying without having anything read by anyone!

I'm looking for beta readers for a chick lit novel with an extra dose of dark humor and a snarky MC... if anyone is interested in teaming up with me! Feel free to email me.

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGuinevere

great post, as always. what a great analogy. you are so right with that feeling of watching ai and thinking, don't they know they're bad. yikes, i hope my writing isn't in that category.:)

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJenniferWalkup

Very wise advice. Makes me thankful that I am still working up my nerve to send in a query letter. :-)

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January 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWord Designer

Great advice. I'd also caution not to seek a beta reader too soon. I've had friends who weren't ready for criticism (even if it was constructive). Of course, this also means they weren't ready to submit or query.

January 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTara McClendon

Oh, that poor guy on Idol is so painful! Argh! Why did no one stop him!!!

January 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey Himmler

Yep, it's definitely true. I've had a good friend reading my WIP since the very beginning, and at first she'd offer a couple critiques, but she pretty much just begs for chapters now, without offering any advice... I mean, it's nice to have someone loving my story that much, but I know without a doubt that it can stand some improvement! Especially since I've probably given her 15 different versions of the first chapter alone... Still, she just says its great every time.

January 17, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterann foxlee

That first novel is a learning experience in more ways than just "whether we can write". I was embarrassed that I'd queried before joining a critique group and finding the internet to meet writer types.

But, I have to say, at least the experience taught me how much I didn't know about writing. When I read that first submission, I have to laugh at myself. But, I didn't give up; I went out and learned about the craft I wanted to persue.

I liked James' attitude: just because a profession says you don't have it on your first attempt, doesn't mean you can't get better with practice. Maybe not expert - but at least something you can be proud of.

On that note Roni, I'd like to take you up on your offer to let us solicit critique groups/beta readers in this comment section.

I'm not opposed to joining an on-line crit group, and I'm looking for beta readers for my first novel "NOT HER MOTHERS FATE" (working title only as it sounds better than "book 1".)

I write womens fiction, or maybe it's closer to mainstream. Lots of romance, but very dark in nature. My short stories are more along the lines of thrillers. I'm an eclectic reader - but wouldn't know what to make of a MG novel, and read very little YA. I'm willing to reciprocate as a beta reader. My e-mail address is

This was a great post Roni. Reminds me to stop once in a while and see how far I've come since my first wishful thinking to be a published author.


January 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDonna Hole

Brilliant Roni! I love American Idol, but it's always shocking to see how convinced people without talent can be of their "skills." Only my family had read my manuscript when I queried for the first time too.

My brothers write a bit too though, so they were pretty ruthless (for which I am grateful), and that round of querying didn't go as poorly as it might have if I'd only had my sweet, adoring husband read it. :)

But it improved a HUGE amount when my totally unbiased beta readers got it after round 1 of querying, and I am SO thankful that I found them.

And I still need to see He's Just Not That Into You!

January 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie

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