What is a Beta?

((Cross-posted at On Literary Intent))

Since I announced that I’d finished Book 3 a few weeks ago and turned it over to my betas, I’ve had several questions that I thought deserved bigger answers than Twitter or Facebook would allow. So here we go.

No, a beta reader is not an overly aggressive fish with a love of literature.

Nor is it a person who divines the future by reading the entrails of said overly aggressive fish. (though a part of me now wants to put such a person in a book of some kind)

And please realize that if you ask a dozen different writers what a beta reader is, you’re likely to get a dozen different answers. (And if you ask the Leaguers, not all of those answers will be safe for work.) So what follows is really just a small example of what my betas do for me.

First, I have what I call my Alpha-Betas. This is a grand total of two people who read every word almost as soon as I set it on the paper (computer). Their purpose is to help me during the writing process. They work me past sticky plot problems, murky character developments, and guide me when I take a completely wrong turn. One of them is a high school English teacher, and the other has a Masters of Information degree (I think here in the States, it would be a Master of Library Sciences, but his way sounds cooler) and has read more classical literature then I even knew existed. They bring a wealth of knowledge and writing skill to the table. They’re the ones who get to put up with me whining “It’s not working and I just don’t know whhhhhhhyyyyyy!”

Once I have the first draft completed, I then send the book off to my regular betas. They come from a zillion different backgrounds. They are a web designer, an IT consultant, a bouncer, a factory worker, a theology student, a doctor and half a dozen other authors in various genres. But they all have one thing in common. They are readers. Like me, they read anything they can get their hands on.

When I send them the book, I give them instructions. Usually saying things like “Chapter 16 sucks, but I don’t know why.” Or “I’m worried that the first three chapters are too slow.” And very often “Did you follow event XYZ okay? I’m not sure I was even making sense at that point.”

They read for flow, for pacing. They read for continuity. They read to find me the places where I just didn’t explain myself as well as I think I did. They read to locate the points where my characters just aren’t acting like themselves. They tell me what parts they want to know more about, and what parts just stuck out because they didn’t belong.

It’s not fun, beta reading. It’s actually hard work. The easy part would be to read the book like a book, getting lost in the story. It’s much more difficult to read and deliberately hold yourself out of it, searching for the chinks and flaws between the words. But they do it for me every time. In fact, this crop of beta readers has been with me through four books now. Some of them have even read pieces of more books than that. I ask them to read for me over and over again because I know that they take it seriously, and because I know what kind of feedback I will get from them. The things they tell me are important. Even if I don’t agree with it all, it always makes me think and that’s the key part. If one person finds something wrong, others will also find that same part, and I need to decide how to address that.

Often, I get people asking “Can I be your beta reader?” Most of these people ask because they’re super excited about my writing, and they just can’t wait to see what comes next! They want to help! And that’s awesome. It makes me feel good that there are people who are so in touch with my characters that they’d volunteer to work on a book instead of just enjoy it.

Most of the time, though, I turn them down. It’s not because I don’t like them, or because I don’t think they could do the job. But really, the crew I have is enough feedback for me at the moment. I get a variety of opinions and notes, ranging from plot progression to grammar and syntax, and they’ve never failed to point me in the right direction.

Occasionally, one of my betas drops out due to time constraints. (Contrary to my own belief, they have lives/jobs/writing deadlines of their own, and they can’t always drop everything to read through my drivel) In those cases, I will sometimes reach out and try to find a new reader. If that reader provides helpful feedback, then I’ll usually keep them on for the next one. But more often than not, I choose a new reader and then I never hear back from them. Sad, but true. Those are the ones who just want to read a book before it comes out, but they don’t want to do the work to help make it the best it could be.

So for those who would love to be a beta reader (not just for me, but for anyone), remember that it’s work, and that the writer is relying on you. Simply telling them “It’s great, I loved it!” – while wonderful for the ego – is actually not as helpful as one might think. We need to know the parts that aren’t great, and when a person is a super-fan, they have a hard time pointing those places out. (Which is why I don’t beta read for a certain author-friend of mine. Flat out told her, I’m too big a fan to be useful to you.)

Hope this clears up some of the questions people have about beta readers. (If it doesn’t, I obviously should have run it past my betas first.)


Bets Davies said…
Wow, I've been a beta reader and Alpha Beta and had them for years, but I never knew there was a word for it!

My first--and still--alpha betas have been with me since I first started writing. One is my mom (not like that. She has an MFA and is a published author) and my dad (again, not like that. He is a rabid reader and storyteller). The other is my childhood friend who I first started writing with. She knows me inside out and is anthropology graduate student to boot so she is awesome at telling me if my world building has worked.

We actually--my Alphas and I, though these days more my mom than my friend since she has to fit me in between writing a disseration--use the scheharazad method (and I know I just tortured that spelling). I developed in with my friend initially because we couldn't read each other's handwriting back before I typed everything.

The basic idea is at the end of every day, I call one or both of them up. Hopefully see them face to face, but that doesn't always happen. I read aloud my work from the day. I get to hear the laughs, hear the gasps, everything. Then they give me immediate feedback. They also tell me how I must absolutely write more before tomorrow night because of all the things they need to find out about.

Now I'm not just noodling around writing for myself and by myself. I already have an audience I'm trying to keep up with. After all, if it hits nightfall and I don't have anything for them, they might chop my head off.
Sharon said…
I am a beta for about 5 authors (some big box published, some self-pub) and I *love it! It is kind of a calling I think. I have a knack for for picking up inconsistencies in everything (watching a movie with me is hell!), but I have discovered I am a damn fine beta reader . I think the most helpful thing I do for my authors is giving the running dialogue in my head while reading. I get a pdf copy I can insert (in red) what I am thinking at that moment. This lets the author know how the reader is reacting to a particular scene. It sucks if you are going for angst and I am snickering at the dialogue.
Not only should a beta point out what is wrong, they should point out what it right too. I often insert comments like (this made me lol, great visual here, OH NO HE DIDN'T! )
A beta is part cheerleader part critic. I love it :)
Betas do this for free, if we got paid we would be called Editors and my punctuation skills suck way to much for me to do that ;)

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