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It depends on whether you’re working on your first unpublished manuscript or are further along in your writing career with one or more books published.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 prejudices
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, either.
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 www.joe-moore.com