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Beta Who?

May 10, 2010

Last week several people asked what a beta reader is after a social network shout out for help with a work in progress. This included a Mum from school yelling out across the car park, “What’s a beta reader? Is it something special? Can I be one?” It also coincided with announcing my series of articles on the benefits and pitfalls of participating in the beta reading process.

I felt rather than launch the first of the six lessons promised last week (which  I’ve just spend four hours writing!) – I  should do the right thing, introduce this mythical sounding creature… the beta reader.

Good friends Annie Evett and Chris Chartrand also share their reflections on dipping their toes in the beta reading pond.

Beta Who?

A beta (test) reader is someone a writer asks to read, review and make critical comment on their work.

This can happen with any type of work – short stories, poems or longer pieces works. It happens at any stage of writing depending on what is going on between the writer and their work. Some writers choose only one beta readers and others may rely on the feedback from several. Some may consult their beta readers once, other several times across the rewriting process.

All writers should provide a brief for his/her beta reader. What is in the brief will differ depending on what stage the story is at, varying from “Does this story/premise work?” to help with line editing. I strongly suggest writers utilise their beta readers to mirror the three stage editing process: structural editing, copy editing and proof reading.

Work slowly to broaden your circle of readers, if possible. Different readers have different strengths, which you will come to know over time. Also don’t discount the insights of from non-writers. Some of my most profound manuscript changes came from people who are passionate about reading and able to be honest in their reflection.

“One of the biggest benefits is simply having the story read,” says Chris Chartrand.  “Having a story read and critiqued by a trusted beta reader is a comfortable way to get constructive criticism since you know it’s coming from a place of helping and hopefully friendship.”

But I Can’t?

Many writers resist sharing their work due to the fear those who read it will undermine their writing. Less evolved people will – I won’t lie – because there are those out these who revel in being destructive. You can get around this by choosing your beta readers carefully.

A professional beta reader will only ever critique the writing and the story – never you as the writer. A bad critique is one which is vague, with broadsweeping comments, which provide you with no framework on which to work from or apply to your writing. Additionally critiques which includes comments on you as a person or writer, should be immediately ignored and discarded.

There is more than a grain of truth in the saying, “cruel to be kind.” Just ask any writer who has undergone the process of beta reading. Begin with just one or two trusted people and remember they are on your side. Even the most seaonsed writer will sometimes feel as though the beta reader is the enemy kept close.

“Asking for beta readers to read my work often makes me feel physically sick,” Annie says.  “I pray that *certain people* will be too busy to take up my call. However, I continue to ask as I know it’s the only way I will toughen up, learn and hone my craft as a professional writer.

I get on a high when I send out my work. It is the thrill of finishing a story and knowing something is good enough to show. But within a few hours I start to regret it, as doubt and double thinking of my abilities and the strength of my story set in. So it is a double edged sword when a critique is returned with the thumbs up for a story, but the manuscript is obliterated by red pen or lost in the plethora of tracked changes. The best beta readers will pick your work to pieces, and from this, a new, stronger version of your story will emerge.

It is always important to remember critiquing is a two-way dialogue. As a writer you have the right to ask questions of clarification from your beta readers. I have seen some of the best work come out of a passionate dialogue where the two parties looked like they could not agree, and through the email exchange the missing link in the story was found. It is rare I’ve ever read a story which is devoid of anything useful or worthwhile. Sometimes it is a brilliant premise which is poorly executed in its current form.

Value Your Beta Readers

Make sure you show your appreciation to your beta readers. You can do this by:

  • Giving them a brief – this controls the sort of feedback you get. This can be as basic or complex as you wish. At the very least you should provide them with information on where you are submitting the story, the deadline for submission, the word count and the premise the story was written on (especially for competition based on a prompt). It is also good etiquette to provide a deadline for the return of the feedback.
  • Upon receipt of their feedback – thank them for their time.
  • Ask them questions to clarify their comments. Remembering critique is a dialogue.
  • Send them the final version of your story.
  • Acknowledge their efforts in shaping your story when it is published – either in private via email, on your blog, in the author’s notes of the published story or thanking them via your social networks
  • Offer to beta read for them. This is perhaps the best thanks any beta reader/writer can ask for.

My Personal Take

The discovery of beta reading process was the beginning of the next stage of my writing career. It came at a time when handing my work over to a third party wasn’t an if but a must. I believe, it was when I got serious about having my work published, rather than just seeing if people liked what I wrote on the internet. It coincided with several of my other writing friends moving into this stage and evolved very quickly into a tight knit group of writing encouraging and supporting each other.

In November last year I was forced to move outside my regular group of readers to ask for help, because of the demands of NaNoWriMo and other creative projects which were going on at the time. I took a chance. I asked via Facebook and Twitter if anyone would be interested in beta reading. I was confident I would be able to deal with inappropriate feedback which may have come my way.  As it turned out, I welcomed several wonderful new  regular beta readers into my midst. Now on average I beta read four to six stories a month (sometimes more) and have around a dozen writers and passionate lovers of literature who I can call on to do me the honour of  beta reading.

I understand now why across history groups of writers, poets, performers, artists and thinkers came to prominence together, because creative evolution doesn’t happen in isolation.

Is beta reading a regular part of your writing schedule? Do you rely one, several or a larger group of beta readers? How did you choose them? What do you “go through” in the lead up to releasing your work and in the time before it is returned?

Jodi Cleghorn believes all writers should adopt the phrase, “Just say yes” when it comes to sharing their work. And on that note, she’s now returning to her back log of beta reading, accumulated in the face of looming competition deadlines and end of course assessments. You can find more of her musings at Writing in Black and White.
4 Comments
  1. May 10, 2010 3:48 am

    This is the place where I got to know the term – ‘Beta readers’. And that is why I love the place and come here time and again.
    Hey Jodi, if blogs are Betaread, can u do it for me. A few hours would be enough to finish the task………

  2. May 10, 2010 5:42 am

    Brilliant post Jodi… nothing like airing ones insecurities in front of everyone you respect though…🙂

  3. May 11, 2010 8:49 am

    Great explanation and couldn’t have come at a better time — I started sending out requests for beta readers yesterday (and didn’t see this post until this morning). I really appreciate this. Now I’m feeling empowered to reach out to beta readers, AND I’m taking the appearance of this post as an omen that the time is right for me.

  4. May 11, 2010 6:16 pm

    Very informative post, thank you. If you don’t mind my asking, how do you reach out to beta readers outside of facebook? Blog requests? I’d love to receive (and give) input, but not sure how best to go about it. Maybe a future post can answer this?

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