To Beta or Not to Beta
by Joe Moore
A lot of writers, including myself,
rely on beta readers to scrub our WIP (work in progress) to help
find plotting holes and potential stumbles. With this article I will
answer: What is a beta reader? Do you need one? How do you find and
qualify them? How do they differ from a critique group? How should
you react and make use of their feedback?
Beta is the name of the second letter
of the Greek alphabet and in contemporary terms is often considered
the second stage of a project. A number of years ago, the word
caught on with software and hardware designers, who use the terms
alpha and beta for different stages of computer program development.
Alpha is the rawest stage—incomplete and untested—and beta is
usually a limited release of a product or program with the goal of
finding and fixing bugs before the final release. During beta-stage
program development, a small number of copies are normally released
for testing. In novel writing, the beta version is usually the first
completed version of the manuscript where the author has made at
least one pass through to edit and tweak.
What is a beta reader?
It’s someone whose opinion you value,
who’ll read your manuscript in a timely manner, and who’ll give you
an honest assessment of your work. For starters, I would mark off
your list of potential beta readers anyone who is related to you,
works with you, or lives in your immediate neighborhood.
Do you need a beta reader(s)?
It depends on whether you’re working
on your first unpublished manuscript or are further along in your
writing career with one or more books published. In general, most
beginning authors need assistance and feedback during the
first-draft stage of manuscript development. This usually proves
more helpful from a local critique or reading group where the new
writer can interact with other authors while learning how to give
and receive criticism.
Most established authors, however,
already know the value of honest, constructive feedback from
readers. For them, betas are a reliable tool toward revising and
polishing their manuscript.
Beta readers differ from members of a
critique group in that they measure the WIP as a whole, whereas
critique groups usually get a story piecemeal and focus on one
chapter or section at a time. Most critique groups also deal with
line editing, which is helpful during the first-draft stage. I
suggest keeping your critique group and betas separate. I would
avoid asking anyone in your group to also serve as a beta reader.
They are already familiar with your story and have preconceived
notions and opinions. What you want is a fresh set of eyes with no
How do you find a beta reader?
In recruiting betas, try to line up at
least three to four people who enjoy reading, read often, and are
willing to take the time to not
only read your work but give you
constructive feedback. It’s also good to mix male and female
readers. Try to find age-appropriate betas that are familiar with
your genre. A female teen may not give you the feedback you’re
looking for if your manuscript is male-oriented action/adventure. If
you write YA, a retired senior citizen might not be the best choice,
Try to choose beta readers who are not
acquainted with one another. Beta readers do not have to be your
best friends. In fact, casual acquaintances could work better since
they might worry less about hurting your feelings if they don’t like
what you’ve written. There’s also a good chance they’ll take the
whole process more seriously than a relative or close friend.
Tell Them What You Want
Don’t ask your beta readers to line
edit your manuscript. It’s time consuming and not critical at this
stage. Tell them to ignore the typos and grammar issues. What you’re
interested in is the big stuff: Does the story work? Does it hold
together? Are the characters believable? Can the reader relate to
the characters? Is the dialog natural and flowing? Is the plot
confusing? Are there plot contradictions and errors? Are there any
blatant technical and content errors—potential mistakes that could
stop readers cold and bump them out of the story. An example:
putting a silencer on a revolver.
Once you round up your bevy of beta
readers and send them your WIP, then what? Start by really listening
to their feedback. If your beta reader has a problem or issue,
chances are others will, too. Most importantly, when numerous betas
raise the same issue—pay attention. This is a red flag that there’s
a major problem to address.
Other tips: Don’t be defensive. Sure,
we all love our words—after all, they’re hard to come by and even
harder to delete. But comments from your beta readers are meant to
be helpful and constructive. Don’t take offense. Instead, take what
they say to heart. Try not to react immediately. Ponder their
suggestions overnight or for a few days. While you’re thinking of
other things, your subconscious will be analyzing their suggestions
and should deliver a final judgment if you give it time. Always
assume that your betas have a valid point and are not just trying to
tear down your writing.
Finally, remember that their feedback
is not personal. If it is, you chose the wrong beta reader. Regard
the feedback as if you were giving input to a fellow writer. The
goal is to produce a better story. And with that in mind, make sure
you always offer to return the favor.
Last thought: In the end, it’s your
story. Take all the comments and suggestions to heart, then write it
from the heart.
Joe Moore is the co-author of
the international bestselling Cotten Stone thrillers including THE
GRAIL CONSPIRACY, THE LAST SECRET, THE HADES PROJECT, and THE 731
LEGACY. His latest is THE PHOENIX APOSTLES (Midnight Ink, June,
2011). Joe’s thrillers have been translated into 24 languages. In
additional to writing full-time, Joe serves on the International
Thriller Writers board of directors as president. Visit http://www.joe-moore.com