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.