What is a beta-reader? Why do authors need them? What makes a good one? These questions I will answer, from both a reader and a writer perspective.
The purpose of a beta reader is to help the author write the best story they can, by pointing out the weaknesses in the story, and telling the author they can do better than that. The latter is aided by leavening the negatives with positive encouragement, and there’s two good reasons for that:
- to spur on the author to enthusiasm by encouragement. Different authors vary in the amount of positive feedback they need, and different betas vary in the amount they can give.
- Pointing out the good bits so that the author doesn’t unknowingly remove them!
Beta readers provide another set of eyes to look over a story. I’m pretty sure that the term “beta-reader” comes from the software industry term “beta-tester” — someone who takes a working piece of software, and uses it in an ordinary way, and points out the bugs they find. The reason it’s called “beta” is that it is the second lot of testing of the software: the first lot of testing, the “alpha” testing, occurs in-house. (Yes, I am a software professional!) Speaking as a software professional, the reason why beta-testers are so invaluable is that the alpha-testing is done by people who know the software, know how it is supposed to be used; so they may end up unconsciously avoiding actions which could trip undiscovered bugs. Whereas beta-testers come at it without assumptions, they come at it like a user, and find things the testers miss.
The same with beta-readers. When the story has passed its “alpha-test” and the writer thinks it’s more or less ready for consumption, then the beta-reader comes at it like a reader, without knowing what the author meant to say, just reading what they actually say, and are able to see things that the author has missed.
Different beta-readers are better at noticing some things than others. Me, I’m a whiz at spotting plot-holes, but don’t ask me about grammar! And I don’t think someone who is a beta-reader needs to be brilliant at spotting everything; that’s why one uses multiple beta-readers for one story, if need be.
As an author, it’s tricky to find a good beta-reader, because it isn’t just a point of finding a “good” beta-reader; one needs to find a beta-reader who matches one’s work, on several levels.
- If the beta-reader has a radically different view of the characters than the author does, it won’t work, because they will be pointing out “out of character” bits that aren’t out of character from the author’s point of view. (I remember a friend talking about a problem she had with a story, the person who was going over it had tons of objections… and she finally figured out that it was because the main character in the story (one of the supporting characters on that show) was a character that that beta-reader really didn’t like — so of course she couldn’t like the story, because it was about that character!) One possible tip on finding a character-compatible beta-reader is to look at the stories of authors who also beta-read, and see if their characterisations are ones that you can agree with.
- If the beta-reader has a much lower standard than the author does, it won’t work, because they won’t find any weaknesses in the story, and so the author won’t be able to find anything specific to work on. IMHO, the purpose of a beta-reader isn’t to be a one-man cheer squad, it is to light the way to a better story. Again, looking at the stories of an author-beta-reader may tell you if they are a good enough writer to be able to improve your writing. That may not always be a good indicator, though. Sometimes it isn’t the case of a lower standard, but someone who is too similar to the author, and therefore fails to provide a different enough perspective. The other problem is, that someone may be a good beta-reader without being an author at all, or may have a writing style that you don’t care for, but are good at picking up particular kinds of mistakes.
- If the beta-reader has a much higher standard than the author does, it won’t work, because the author will end up wanting to rip up the manuscript instead of working on it. Mind, it’s good if they have a higher standard than the author, because they will find weaknesses that the author didn’t see, but it can’t be tons higher or the author probably won’t be able to cope. That probably also depends on the diplomatic skills of the beta-reader. (I remember one marvellous beta-reader I had in a particular fandom, who pointed out flaws in characterisation in the one story I wrote for that fandom, where she said “I know you can do better than that!” in a very positive encouraging way, which was really good.)
Tips for good beta reading:
- Be specific. Point out the exact spots where things don’t work, not just vague generalities.
- Make suggestions (which are free to be ignored) as to how the problem can be solved.
- Point out the good bits too. I know as an editor, I tended to be oriented towards “fixing the problems”, but I realized that one needs to point out favourite bits not only as a leavening of encouragement, but so that one doesn’t end up losing those bits in the rewrite!
Tips for authors:
- Thank your beta-reader(s) even if what they said wasn’t helpful. After all, they spent their precious time reading your story and thinking about it, that should be thanked.
- Remember what your beta-reader said is only their opinion, it isn’t gospel. This is your story, you have the say. On the other hand, do listen you your beta-reader, because what was the point in asking them to beta-read your story in the first place if you don’t?
- If a suggestion is made that you can’t agree with, explain why. It may be that when you explain your reasoning, or the intent of that bit of the story, you may be able to figure out between you something that works for both of you.
I haven’t done any writing tip posts for a while, and considering NaNoWriMo is nearly at an end, I’m sure there will be a number of writers looking for beta readers at the end of the month. If you haven’t heard this term before, a beta reader is someone who reads your work prior to posting it publicly or publishing it, and gives you tips on how to improve it. Note that beta reading is done as a courtesy and a way to build relationships with fellow writers—it is not a service that should be charged for unless you’re looking for a professional edit or critique from an established company (for example, from The Visions Group). Be careful if you decide to receive a professional critique, as there are a number of scam agencies out there. Remember, too, you get what you pay for with a beta read.
I have beta read in the ballpark of 50 novels and short stories. Sometimes it was only a chapter or two, sometimes it was an entire book. Plus I have been on the receiving end for a few projects, so you can take that into consideration when reading my advice on the subject.
I’m not going to go into the mechanics of what to look for, but rather, how to maintain a happy beta relationship from both sides of the equation.
Top 5 Tips for Giving a Beta Read
1. Tell the writer what they are doing right—not just what they are doing wrong. A little ego stroking can soften the blow of any harsher criticisms of their work or give them hope that not all is lost.
2. If something isn’t working for you, don’t just say “this doesn’t work”. Tell the author why.
3. Temper your comments. Remember, no matter how much you may dislike what you’ve read, this is something the writer worked very hard on. Be honest and truthful, and don’t hold back on pointing out what needs to be fixed, but do not slam them personally or word your critique in an insulting manner. If necessary, write out exactly what you are thinking, read it from their point of view, and then rewrite as needed. (This is where #1 comes in handy.) Remember, your goal is to help the writer improve the manuscript, not tear it down or showcase your wit.
4. Do not insert your own beliefs, opinions, prejudices, or style into the author’s work. This is their manuscript—not yours. Of course you should point out technical imperfections, but the point is not to make the story “yours”. Look for and point out places where the author can improve it, but do not rewrite it for them.
5. Do not confuse the content or characters of the work with the writer or their beliefs.
Top 5 Tips for Receiving a Beta Read
1. Always thank your beta reader for their time. Even if you don’t plan on using a single suggestion, be polite and courteous at all times.
2. Don’t take anything they say personally. If they do bring personal comments into the matter (something to do with you that is hurtful, rather than your writing—realize the difference, as some comments about your writing might sting, but should still be taken into consideration), then this is probably not a good match. Thank the reader for their time, and look for someone else to read for you in the future.
3. Do the best job you can of cleaning up your manuscript before you give it to your beta to read. It helps them enormously if they aren’t spending time correcting your grammar and spelling instead of deeper issues, like plot and continuity. Accept that no manuscript is perfect the first (or, in some cases, the second, third, tenth, twentieth…) time through. Golden Word Syndrome—the attitude that your work is perfect and the only reason you’re having this person read it is to validate that thought, any criticisms be damned—is not allowed. Of course, you don’t have to use every piece of advice you are given, but genuinely and honestly take all beta reader comments into due consideration. Chances are, your writing needs work, no matter how much you’ve polished it. Even pros make mistakes.
4. Unless you have a deadline, don’t push or pester the person doing the beta read. They are doing this for free, after all. If you need the feedback by a specific date, tell them that up front.
5. You can give up on a manuscript, but do not give up on writing if it is what you love to do. Even if it turns out this manuscript needs a lot of work, the practice that goes into fixing it can be very worthwhile. If there are some fundamental flaws which require an entire rewrite, do not despair. You will have a stronger manuscript for it in the end. If you must, set it aside and work on something else—bearing in mind how you can improve the new story by incorporating any useful advice you received from your beta reader.
Some places to find beta readers:
- Absolute Write (via the Beta Readers section)
- Check online for local listings of writers groups meeting in the area
- Check with your local library and/or bookstore to see if they have any writer group meetings
Know of any other useful beta tips? Any other websites or other places where a writer can hook up with a beta reader? Let me know in the comments!
Online peer critiquing has many advantages to an aspiring author. It’s accessible, it’s relatively easy, and it allows criticism to take place in a more neutral, more impersonal setting, which to a degree lessens the strong emotional impact that criticism of one’s work can have. While most peer critics lack the experience of a professional editor, they are free, willing to spend some time on one’s work, and capable of articulating a response more complex than “it’s pretty good, I guess” or “I liked the guy with the moustache,” which is more than one’s friends and family can usually muster. All in all, in can be a good way to get a second opinion on one’s writing.
A major part of peer critiquing is reciprocity. One could say that human civilization runs on this idea, so this should come as no surprise. The primary reason people spend their time reading and responding to other people’s work is that they themselves would like other people to spend a little a bit of time reading and responding to their own work.
It’s as simple as that: a cooperative effort at mutual skill improvement. You scratch my back, I’ll check your 1000+ page epic on anthropomorphic tree-sloths for typos.
To maximize the benefits of these exchanges, it is important that everyone involved learn proper critiquing technique and etiquette. Here are some guidelines:
1. Be Professional
Something to begin with is the idea of maintaining a professional tone, a tone that conveys respect for both the other person and their work. In order to maintain a professional tone, consider these points:
- Thank those who give reviews, and review them in return.
- Be respectful of the other person’s time, and be certain to return reviews in a timely manner.
- Jokes and off-topic anecdotes aren’t really appropriate things to include in a review. A small joke, avoiding sensitive topics and more risque humour, at the beginning may be appropriate to set a light mood, but afterwards it is best to focus on the matter at hand.
- Frequent references to the author’s ethnicity or gender are highly inappropriate, especially since tone is easily misunderstood through text. It is best not to refer to these things at all, unless it is pertinent.
- Whenever possible, do not address the other person directly during a critique. This includes the pronoun “you.” It may come across as aggressive, again due to the ambiguous nature of tone in text.
- When addressing the other person, do not do so in an informal manner. One may call them by their first name, but do not give them nicknames or anything of the sort unless a more friendly relationship has already been formed.
If one is uncertain what divides a professional tone from one that is inexcusably lax, consider what would be an appropriate way to address a stranger or a professional such as a doctor or a university professor as compared to a friend or a classmate. Consider the following exchange:
Interacting with a buddy after a game of American football:
Buddy: “Hey man, you did real good today. Way to go!”
Correct response: “You too, man!” *Platonic butt grab*
Interacting with the Dean of a university:
Dean: “You have made a great choice in pursuing higher education, and I am proud of you all.”
Incorrect response: “You too, man!” *Platonic butt grab*
An important thing to remember is that this is not a personal relationship. One has certain obligations to the other individuals that are different from if one were communing with close friends. The other writers are not one’s “pals.” I say this not to discourage fraternization and friendship, but to emphasize the following: treat the people being critiqued as fellow professionals, people deserving of respect and regard.
2. Be Polite
Good manners make one welcome everywhere one goes. Peer critiques are no exception. Say please, say thank you, perhaps introduce yourself. Remember that a critic does not have the authority of the author in the creation of the work. It is inappropriate to demand the author change anything; instead, one must make suggestions. If one does not understand why one must be polite (after all, I, the almighty critic, am clearly right and the author should just do as I say), consider this: how would it feel if some looked at your work and said, “This is wrong, and this is wrong. You did this wrong. Change this immediately.”
It’s very hurtful. Not only is it hurtful, it may make the author reject the advice or turn away from writing entirely. One shouldn’t discourage others in this way. It is lacking in empathy and human decency.
Instead of bringing the author into the conversation, focus on the work being dissected. Instead of saying, “this is wrong,” try, “this doesn’t work.” While generally unwanted in fiction writing, the passive tense may be of use here.
A redirected, passionless tone can be all the difference between saying, “This isn’t working” and saying, “You suck.”
It is not simply enough to say that something isn’t working. Try to explain why something is an issue. For example:
Good: “This thing with the sloths and the bears doesn’t make sense.”
Better: “This thing with the sloths and the bears doesn’t make sense because inter-species copulation cannot produce viable young. Also keep in mind that the world is probably not ready for a sloth/bear love scene, no matter how understated and emotionally moving.”
It is also highly important to give context for criticism, such as excerpts of relevant text, so that the author knows exactly where the problem area is located. Remember, there are a lot of barriers to communication found in text that we take for granted in face-to-face contact. Try to be very clear in what is meant.
- Give the review a structure rather than having it be stream of conscious blathering.
- Don’t be afraid to tell the author what is good, what’s working and what’s working well.
- Know the difference between what is “good/bad” and what one “does/doesn’t like.” These are different things. Just because one likes something, does not necessarily mean that it is good; conversely, just because one hates something, does not mean that it is bad. I hate scotch and listen to Katy Perry when no one can catch me at it, but that doesn’t mean scotch is bad, nor does it mean Katy Perry’s work has any artistic merit whatsoever.
- The critic is here to critique the writing, not the content. One may not like romance/swearing/drug abuse/sloth-on-bear-erotica, but that isn’t really the point. The point is whether it’s well-written romance/swearing/drug abuse/sloth-on-bear-erotica.
Well, those are tips on how to be a good reviewer, but how to get good reviews in return? That’s a tough one.
My first suggestion would be to create a small group of trusted connections. Go to people who will accept one’s advice and give good constructive criticism in return. It may take some time to find these people, but once they are located, take time to build a relationship with them, and pay special attention to reviewing their work. That’s smart social interaction 101: Spend more time on people who are worthwhile and less on people who aren’t willing to give back or are insufferable about the whole thing.