One of the more amusing (also, damning) cognitive biases described in psychological literature is the Dunning-Kruger effect. Described in Advances in Experimental Psychology under the subtitle, “On Being Ignorant of One’s Own Ignorance,” the bias holds that the vast majority of us think we’re better at tasks than we actually are. (Darkly) hilariously, our misplaced confidence makes us blind to discovering the weakness.
It’s delightful because it’s true, or it at least has the ring of intuitive truth (to use the friendly hedging words of a former philosophy professor).
Because 75 percent of us cannot avoid the Dunning-Kruger trap (and wouldn’t know it if we could), we must work—and hard—to put in place the external checks that will expose us to our own idiocy. Only in this way can we be tricked into recognizing that no matter how far we’ve come, we probably still have a ways to go.
Enter beta readers.
When we last discussed beta readers, it was in the context of business or nonprofit communications. Beta readers are essential to this work (especially when the work includes telling a story to external audiences or stakeholders).
But beta readers may also be essential for books.
It’s hard to solicit outside opinions when you’ve put in months, or maybe years, on an argument or story that has lived in your mind or heart for so long that it feels indistinguishable from you. The distance to a publisher, even when a publisher means potential rejection, can feel safer to travel.
But your manuscript isn’t you, and appropriately guided beta readers can provide valuable insight into how well a book is explaining its concepts, backing up its argument, reaching its readers, and persuading its audience. This is especially true of nonfiction genres, where reaching and persuading readers is contingent on elements of language and argumentation that can actually be isolated and improved.
Of course, your work is probably excellent. But because you likely wouldn’t recognize if it weren’t, you should save your future book’s reputation (and your own) by recruiting a few beta readers to tell you what’s weak and what needs improvement before sending that work off into the world.
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, mom to three troublemakers.